I’d be lying if I said that ‘knew’ Lloyd Parsons, my grandfather who recent passed away, in the sense that ‘to know’ is typically identified. I don’t know the date that he was born, though I could get the information rapidly. I don’t know about all of his travels, or his adventures, or the trials and tribulations that he went though, though I could get that information if I so desired. I don’t know the people that he knows (by and large), nor do I know the relationships that he formed and had disintegrate around him. Given time, effort, and dedication I think I could find out a considerable amount of information on these subjects. In short, I don’t know many of the facts of his life – I lack a comprehensive (or even loosely rigorous) awareness of his life.
What I do ‘know’, or remember, is his smile, laugh, and the twinkle in his eyes. I remember the characteristics that, as a grandson, I saw. I don’t know what attitude or personage that he conveyed to his business partners. I recall the kindness that he displayed towards grandma, and the frank love that he expressed through his advice and reminiscing with his children. I remember elements of grandpa’s character, not the empirical facts that surrounded that character.
It’s as I think of what it means to identify who grandpa was, in tandem with some recent readings in memory and identity as well as work in family narrative theory, that I wonder who’s role he was filling in in the drama that is the Parsons family, and who will later assume that role. Who has been told throughout their life that they are like grandpa? Who manifests his attributes? While we’re typically inclined to thinking of the next of kin (i.e. which of the sons is most like grandpa), systemic family theorists would argue that we need to look at least one generation away from the grandparents – we need to turn to the grandchildren or great grandchildren, and consider who amongst them have been/are being groomed for the role that grandpa held. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that male grandchild X will become an engineer, but that there are traits that have been impressed into the narrative role held by grandpa – who will adopt them? Who will facilitate (and create) the network of relationships born from key characters of his personality?
Systems theorists often point to cases where parents say ‘you’re just like X’ (with X representing grandpa in this case) or ‘why do you have to be like X’ to their children. This parental process of informing a child of who their identity belong to has core formative effects. It creates a space within which the child is permitted to act out (even is the acting out is negative) because it is predicated on already existing habits and behaviours – the actions and characters of the child already have a ‘customary’ place in the family narrative. In asserting that a child is like a particular other family member, that isn’t to say that the child will assume the entirety of that previous role (they will have their own particularities and empirical experiences) but that they take on the characteristics the deceased family member was ‘responsible’ for ‘holding’. What is most important, in all of this, is to look beyond the surface characteristics – who holds a similar job, who has a similar physique – and consider what made that person who they really were.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to get to know the facts of grandpa’s life. I do know the character of how he presented himself to me and, perhaps selfishly, am comforted by the fact that there is a good chance that I’ll get to see those core characteristics, enmeshed in a unique body with a unique set of particularities, sometime in the future. While Lloyd Parsons will never be born again, we will see core facets of what it was to be Lloyd Parsons again, and that kind of circularity brings me a strange kind of comfort.