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John Palen

I didn't know who he was, but he looked mean, with a deep-set stare, a ragged beard, and a sheaf of coarse, greasy black hair combed across his forehead. Why would people hold a day in his honor, the "Col. Joseph Jackson Gravely Day?" I had found the round souvenir button with his picture on it while rummaging through drawers in my great-Aunt Lutie Mitchell's sitting room. With it was an oval photograph in gray cardboard matting, the same image but larger and uncropped, so that more uniform could be seen. I took them to Aunt Lute, who sat as she always did in a wingback chair in the lace-curtained bow window. Peering at my discoveries through thick glasses, she said, "That's your great-grandfather. He was a Civil War hero and the lieutenant governor of Missouri."

She didn't tell me he was also her father.

I filed those scraps away, unsorted, with other impressions from the years we lived in Bolivar. I waded in the Pomme de Terre River while my father swam in a deep pool above the riffles. I watched our next-door neighbor, the father of my best friend Tish, inject insulin into his leg with a metal syringe. I sat in an apple tree in our orchard, devouring a lunch my mother calmly packed when I announced that I was running away. "Well, let me fix you something to take," she said, with an odd smile.

Then we moved to Lamar, another small Missouri town, and I had to learn a new neighborhood, make new friends, negotiate first and second grade. I forgot all about Joseph Jackson Gravely.

The summer I was eight, my parents made the familiar seventy-mile journey to Bolivar and left me for a week with my maternal grandmother. Her name was Bessie Gravely, and she lived in the same big stucco house as Aunt Lute, but at opposite ends, and with separate entrances. They were sisters-in-law. Grandma was eighty, a widow, wore her silver hair in a net, and suffered painful "milk leg." She was a round, soft woman with an angular personality—a high-pitched laugh, eyes that sparked behind rimless glasses. "No flies on you, Johnny," she would tell me, as if she knew plenty of people on whom flies did rest.

Every day that week she fed me in her small kitchen, gave me free rein of the big, shady yard, and sent me to visit Aunt Lute while she napped after lunch. Then she and I walked to the square for ice cream, four steep blocks that she took a step at a time. She asked me about Lamar and school and what I liked to do, and she talked to me about politics. She thought Democrats generally did not take care of personal hygiene. She hated Harry Truman. One day she talked about Joseph Jackson Gravely, her husband's father.

"He was a nasty man," she spat out. "Drank brandy like water. That's what killed him, you know. And I'll never forgive him the way he beat my Joe." We stopped in the summer heat while she dabbed sweat from her forehead with an iris-patterned handkerchief. Then we resumed our slow, uphill walk to the ice cream shop.

Joe W. Gravely, my grandfather, was by all accounts a kind, patient, gentle, somewhat saddened man—this last a trait attributed to the early death of his first wife. My mother remembered practicing piano for hours while he listened in a slowly darkening room. In a scrapbook I found a mock newspaper he produced while his family was away. Among stories about neighbors and their pets, he reported that the coal man had filled the bin; that Bolivar Free Press Publisher Joe W. Gravely was managing with difficulty to fix his own meals; and that Mother, Ralph, Ruthie, Jean Allen and Marshall were sorely missed. Carefully hand-drawn and lettered, the newspaper had taken him hours.

Over the years my curiosity about my great-grandfather sputtered along, a pilot light on a back burner. I examined the Missouri Blue Book and verified that he was indeed a lieutenant governor, in 1871 and '72, dying in office. If I was anywhere near a book on the Civil War, I recalled that Aunt Lute had described him as a hero, and I checked the indexes. I poked around in accounts of Pea Ridge, Wilson's Creek and other engagements along the Missouri-Arkansas border, but found no mention. In my early twenties I wrote about him in a sentimental poem, faux-Faulkner of the worst kind. Then I forgot him again, for a long time.

When my mother, by then a widow, neared her eighties, she sold the house in Lamar and moved to a Methodist retirement home in Marionville, Missouri. As I visited there one day, the talk turned in a general way to the impacts on children of alcoholism and violence. I brought Joseph Jackson Gravely into the discussion. "Of course some people aren't damaged too much," I said. "Your grandfather Gravely was an alcoholic and mistreated your dad pretty badly, you know, but your dad turned out to be a wonderful man."

I had assumed my mother knew the story. I was wrong. "What do you mean?" she asked, truly startled. "Who told you that?"

"Grandma did," I answered. "The year that I was eight and stayed with her in Bolivar. She told me all about him."

"My mother told you that?" she said. "She never told me that!"

She never knew her grandfather, but I assumed her silence about him stemmed from in-born reticence and a preference for the positive. I'd like to say that we had a good, long heart-to-heart about this new insight into the past, or at least that I handled the situation with some skill. Actually my wife deftly changed the subject, and Joseph Jackson Gravely faded from our lives once more. As far as I know the story never caused my mother further distress, or even aroused her curiosity. Perhaps she thought I was mistaken. Perhaps by that time it weighed little in the scale of her life. It had all happened a long time ago.

Years after my mother's death, I browsed the bookshop at a Civil War battlefield in southern Missouri. From habit, I turned to the Gs in the index of a regional history — and there he was at last: Col. Joseph Jackson Gravely. Turning to the page I found only a brief mention. He held command not in a regular Army unit, but in a Missouri militia regiment. His troops were poorly disciplined and poorly led, and were primarily engaged in marauding for provisions in the countryside between Springfield and Rolla. In short, he raided farms for pigs, chickens, and, helped by being on the winning side, apparently hyped his record to gain public office. Then he drank himself to death at age 44.

I thought of the old photographs. I heard a last piece click into place. I thought how complicated justice is: that my grandfather overcame a violent, chaotic childhood to become a kind and gentle man; that my mother grew up secure and loved; that her mother kept an angry spark alive and passed it on to me, a small boy, to keep the painful other side of truth alive within someone whom it would not injure.

John Palen's Open Communion: New and Selected Poems was published by Mayapple Press in Since then he has had chapbooks published by March Street Press and Pudding House, and poetry and fiction in Sleet, Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Stream, Citron Review, Lingerpost and other publications. His first collection of short fiction, Small Economies, came out from Mayapple in January A retired journalist and journalism educator, he lives in Central Illinois.

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