SECRETS ARE FUNNY things. All families have them. Skeletons in the closet. Things you don’t talk about in polite company. Usually, they involve sex.
I suppose I was fooled when I was young by the virtual openness in our family. My father hated secrets, I think, because of the secrets he felt all around him as a child. And so he taught his children to be open and honest by trying to be transparent himself. The problem is — no one can.
MY GRANDPA DENLINGER loved taking care of his car. He always drove a sleek Buick, waxed beautifully, and when he came to visit us in Ohio, he loved to wash that car. He would wash it, and then wash it again, and then wipe it down with soft chamois.
He taught me that the absolute, best way to wash the windows on your car was with Windex glass cleaner — but even more important, I should polish dry the windows with crumpled-up newspapers. You’d think that the ink on the paper would make the windows dirty, but no. It doesn’t work that way. Even today, I use crumpled-up newspapers to clean and dry my car windows.
If I chose to help him, he would tell me stories as I worked, each one a virtual ice-cream sundae of words. Since he lived and worked in the streets and buildings surrounding the White House in Washington D.C., I knew his stories were true. I knew that even President Nixon had a close personal relationship with Grandpa.
It wasn’t that my grandfather ever told me that or even implied such a thing. It’s just that I knew he was the biggest man in my world, and I couldn’t imagine why a President of the United States wouldn’t desire his advice or want to hear one of his stories.
My grandfather also knew how to dress. His love for style showed in everything he did – from the way he used his hands to help tell stories, to the gold watch he wore, right down to his perfectly shined shoes.
He always wore the finest suits — he once told me that he never wore jeans because when he was young, he had to work on the farm and had to wear overalls, and he would never do that again. I took note of his comment and found that he spoke the truth — you never saw my grandfather not wearing a suit. In fact, he even washed his car wearing a suit, and at his funeral, his neighbors in Chevy Chase told our family that he was the only man on the block who mowed his lawn in a suit and tie.
Grandpa and Grandma were married at the ages of 22 and 23. Paul was about four months younger than his bride. They both passed at the age of 96, my grandmother about four months earlier than her beloved husband.
GRANDPA HAD A memory problem that emerged during his marriage. You’d think a salesman who could rivet any audience with detailed stories wouldn’t have had this problem, but there it is.
The real challenge in his marriage emerged shortly after Lois, his fifth child, was born to my grandmother. Frustrated by her many pregnancies, she informed her husband that they could no longer share a bed. For a while, they used different rooms, my grandpa sharing space with his only son, and my grandmother bunking with her oldest daughter. Times were tough in those days, and there wasn’t a lot of room.
Shortly thereafter, my grandfather received a job offer to move to Washington, D.C. and jumped for it. Thus, he became a paper salesman in the nation’s capital.
And that’s when his memory problems began to emerge.
The fact that he moved in with an ex-nun whose name was Florence was so insignificant to him that he forgot to mention it to his Mennonite family back in Lancaster. It continued to slip his mind, even when Florence had three daughters, which he helped her raise.
Fortunately, some 30 years after he took up cohabitation with Florence, so I’ve been told, my grandfather remembered. To make sure he recalled what he was going to tell his family, he took all three of Florence’s children with him to Lancaster in his car. Unfortunately, he forgot to tell them where they were going.
When he arrived at the home of his Mennonite family, Grandpa introduced his daughters to each other (I think my father had moved to Connecticut by then), and suddenly remembered that he needed a roll of Tums down at the drugstore. So he left, leaving the children to get acquainted on their own.
Fortunately, one of his Mennonite daughters remembered who everyone was, since she had learned years ago about her father’s bad memory. And she asked her half-sisters a question: “How does it feel to be illegitimate?”
Not having the same memory problems as he did, my grandfather’s “illegitimate daughters” never forgot that question.
THUS, IN REALITY, my grandfather’s legal marriage only lasted for less than a decade. But he never got divorced. And my grandmother never quit loving my grandfather to her dying day.
As a child, I loved him too, deciding I wanted to be like him. Since I was the oldest grandson who bore his surname, I suppose this flattered him.
When I was six, he brought me a bicycle all the way from Pennsylvania in his latest Buick. I learned to ride it, crashing and skinning all the exposed parts of my body.
My grandfather also took the time to teach me how to paint. Throughout my childhood, he spent his summer vacations in Ohio with us, bringing a white finish to our patched-up cracker box of a house. I suppose his goal was to help his only son in the best way he could. Or maybe he just liked to paint.
On each grandchild’s birthday and at Christmas, Grandpa sent an envelope with spending money. I suspect now that he couldn’t afford much more than the $1 he gave each of us. But that was okay. It seemed generous to me at the time.
EVEN AS THE OLDEST grandson, I took a particularly long time figuring out the lay of the land, so to speak. But I did, eventually. I remember the day I first realized that my grandfather was an “adulterer.”
It happened on a Saturday. In order to keep us engaged in our daily, family devotions, my father often had one of his children, sometimes the smallest, read the Bible and make comments afterward.
That morning I was given the opportunity to choose any Scripture passage of my choosing. Since Grandpa Denlinger had decided to stop painting and join us, I was especially excited. So I chose to read John’s story of the Woman at the Well.
I will give my grandfather credit. He sat there and took it like a man. But because I was so completely focused on my recital of the 42-verse story about the random meeting between Christ and the outcast Samaritan, I failed to sense the growing awkwardness in the room. As I arrived at the moment of Christ’s startling revelation — “Thou hast had five husbands,” says Jesus, “and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband” — my father decided enough was enough. He cut into my dramatic performance, suggesting that there was an even better passage that dealt with the water of life in wells somewhere else in the Bible. Clearing his throat, he said, “Let’s turn to —”
I was bewildered. How could my father take away my chance to star during devotions? After a short passage and an exceptionally abrupt prayer, he disappeared from the room, having work to do down in his auto body shop. My grandfather watched his son go. Then he got up as well, patting me gently on the shoulder. He left the room, picking up his paint bucket and brush at the door. I watched all of this in astonishment. Two of my sisters then pulled me aside for a quiet chat.
“You don’t know?” they said as if I should have learned the darkest family secret by osmosis. I looked at them, confused.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
As I listened to them give me the family dirt, my mind sped back over my grandparents’ visits and it suddenly made sense: why grandpa stayed at our house while Grandma and Aunt Betty went down to the Harleigh Inn in North Canton, what overheard conversations meant, and why there was such an odd formality between my grandparents. And now my father’s comments made sense when he occasionally defended himself by telling me that at least he didn’t — and then gave examples of what he didn’t do.
TODAY, I PULLED out a formal photo of my grandfather, taken at the age of 80. In it, Paul Milton Denlinger looks like he is 60. Amazing, considering the fact that he had his first heart attack when he was in his 40s.
I guess you can’t blame him when you consider that he was trying to support and keep apart two families in two different states, neither of whom was supposed to be aware of the other.
When Paul visited his people in Lancaster, he was known as the mostly absent Mennonite father of four daughters — Betty, Martha, Edna, and Lois — and one son: Earl. When Paul lived in Washington D.C., he was known as the Mennonite father of three beautiful daughters: Cathy, Paulette, and Janet.
How does a man guard a secret that gaping and vast? More to the point, what would cause him to create a life like that? One of my aunts once called my grandfather a pathological liar. I don’t know about that, but I suspect he was very good at it.
THE OTHER HALF of my grandfather’s secret life ripped open when he had a heart attack in his early 40s. My grandmother discovered the real truth when she called the hospital to find out how he was doing. The desk nurse grew confused.
“Mr. Denlinger’s wife is already here,” she said.
My grandmother put down the phone. She must have been devastated, but she knew that she had to hold her family together in a world where women had few options outside of marriage. And she did love him. So she made a crucial decision about what she should do, and then she informed her oldest daughter about what had happened.
I’m sure it was difficult for my aunt Betty to keep that awful secret – especially since there’s little that remains confidential in my family — or know how to respond to her father after that, but my grandmother didn’t give her oldest daughter a choice.
“We shall continue to treat Papa respectfully,” she said. “Always.”
COMING FROM A BROKEN home in the 1940s was quite different than it is today, and my father must have felt the pain acutely. Add to this the family’s extreme poverty. When I attended our family reunion this past October, I finally realized where the song came from that my sisters used to sing when I was a child.
We were poor folks a-living in a rich man’s world
Sure was a hungry bunch
If the wolf would ever come to our front door
He’d have to bring a picnic lunch.
Thus, my father never had a childhood. From the beginning, he had to help support his mother, guided by her will of iron. He even had to discipline his younger sisters. And telling anyone outside the family about what they were going through was not an option. My grandmother expected and received absolute loyalty from her children.
So when Papa came home, he was treated like a king, no matter how much pain he was causing them. No disrespect to Grandmother, but one has to wonder what kind of lesson that policy taught the children.
I know my female cousins won’t tolerate this philosophy anymore. More than one has announced to me that in our family, the men got away with everything, and it’s not fair.
“Men can’t help themselves,” my aunt once explained to a cousin who was frustrated by a man in the family. “You’ve just got to forgive them.”
MY GRANDFATHER’S second family took care of him during the latter years of his life. One of Florence’s children took it upon herself, as children do in those circumstances, to move her father into a nursing home.
Then she proceeded to clean up the house that her father had shared with her mother. As she went through his papers, she discovered that she also needed to put her father’s financial records in order. She found that my grandfather’s affluent lifestyle was a house of cards — credit cards, that is. All loaded to the max. She was forced to pay them off.
Both sides of the family struggled to know how to respond to my grandfather in his final years. At my grandmother’s funeral, for example, Anna’s children would not permit Grandpa to sit too close to their mother’s casket, even at the graveside service. They guarded her in death far better than she allowed them to care for her in life.
I REMEMBER MY grandfather’s funeral service vividly. Both Anna and Florence had preceded him into the afterworld. And in the months before he died, Grandfather attempted to mend his life by returning to the Mennonite church. Guided by his pastor, he had met with all of his children in an attempt to find reconciliation.
At the memorial, his siblings, his children, and his grandchildren were encouraged to tell stories about the impact our sire had made upon us. The only thing I could remember was the time my grandfather saved my life.
That moment occurred in August 1988 at the Washington-Dulles Airport in the midst of my departure from the States. I was traveling to London, England for my final year of undergraduate work, serving as a Rotary Foundation Scholar at Richmond College.
And I was going against the wishes of my immediate family and the church community.
WHEN I HAD APPLIED for a Rotary Scholarship the previous year, I had included a photo of myself in a Plain Coat.
I looked Amish. I won the scholarship.
Conservative Mennonite men don’t wear ties, which are considered worldly, extra, unneeded, fancy — not Plain. Thus, I grew up having never worn one.
Conservative Mennonites find affirmation in God’s call to become his chosen people, a New Israel. They believe the New Testament calls for a physical manifestation of a Christian’s separation from the World. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate,” says the Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 6:17.
If you poke through Scripture, it’s easy to determine how women should dress. Fortunately, the Bible is loaded with all kinds of helpful passages. It’s not that the New Testament is slanted against women, you understand. It’s just that a woman, the Weaker Vessel, is much more prone towards sin. Women are also more worried about how they look. They like wearing jewelry, and their clothes can be so much more immodest, and thus they just need stricter rules. I know this because our community’s ministers preached this to us on a regular basis.
It’s easy to find your way to Heaven when you take a literal path through the Bible to its logical extreme.
But the church needed to have some way of distinguishing the men from the rest of the world as well — thus, the Plain Coat. It resembles the Nehru Jacket (this was troubling to our ministers when the Beatles made the Plain Coat briefly stylish), but Amish and Mennonite men were wearing the Plain Coat long before John Lennon and his ilk made it fashionable, and I suspect they’ll be wearing it centuries from now when the Beatles are only a digital memory.
The Plain Coat is a reconfigured suit, created with a ripper, scissors, some thread, and a sewing machine. The Nehru Jacket, on the other hand, was created by the fashion industry.
I actually bought a Nehru Jacket during a summer of study in 1996 at Oxford University. It was my second trip to the British Isles — this time for my master’s degree.
One afternoon, I was browsing through a consignment shop in Oxford, and there it was: a dark green jacket that resembled the Plain Coat of my youth. But somehow, it had more pizzazz.
Like the Nehru Jacket, there are no lapels on the Plain Coat. Its large buttons close up the front like an undecorated military jacket, lodging tight against the throat. Colors are black, blue, brown and green – anything dark that can blend in. The whole point is to be plain, not to stick out. There is no room for a necktie. Even conservative Mennonites who choose to wear a regular suit will often skip the tie — as unnecessary.
WAS THE ROTARY selection committee in 1987 curious to know what would happen if they unleashed an Amish boy into the streets of London?
Please understand. I was not an Amish boy. The selection committee made a false assumption if they thought so. I was a conservative Mennonite, a very distinct subculture of Mennonites and Amish that draws upon many elements of Amish culture. Get it?
“How will he change?” I can imagine they said to each other. “He certainly looks innocent now. A year abroad will make him worldly.” Did they not understand the connotations associated with that word?
When I won the scholarship, my plan was to continue wearing my Plain Coat in England. But when I first called my hosts, Richard and Joan Cook, and tried to explain our Plain Coat tradition, Richard didn’t understand.
Today, I’m sure that what he heard me explain was the logic of a slacker who intended to slum about in dirty jeans and ripped tee shirts, bringing the worst of Yankee youth culture across the pond to their faithful Rotary Club. So Mr. Cook encouraged me to wear a coat and tie.
As I listened to him, I realized that this was an opportunity. I had lived all of my life within the conservative Mennonite community. Every suit I owned had been reconstituted as a Plain Coat. Thus, at the age of 25, I had never tied a necktie around my throat.
For the first time, I had a genuine reason to buy my first suit and tie. So I went shopping at Sears.
When I arrived in London, and my hosts saw what a proper lad I was, Richard encouraged me to go ahead and wear my Plain Coat. But what fun would that be? I had already committed to the broad path. Crackle, crackle.
I REMEMBER THE LONG face of my mother, the sadness with which she considered me as I prepared to depart. I’m sure she imagined that I might start drinking or smoking while I was in England.
Half-a-year later, I concluded one of my letters home in January 1989 with the poem “Spilled Wine.” I intended it to be metaphorical of my exit from my community, of my entrance into the world outside:
Leaving, I stagger drunkenly up the wasted street.
Dead leaves kick from my hunched figure, swirl in stream-like eddies, skip over gaping manholes, dance with gusts of wind that murmur wild, tuneless, love songs.
My mother was no literary analyst, but she could accurately judge this purple bit of poetry for what it was, a coming-of-age declaration. This piece was to her a literal confession of my nocturnal activities, irrefutable proof that her firstborn son had become an alcoholic wandering the streets of London, a castaway from the faith.
About this time, my sister-in-law wrote me a gentle letter suggesting that I write and set my mother’s mind at ease. I don’t remember if I attempted to help my mother understand my writing or not. But I do remember that after that poem, my mother’s letters peppered with Bible verses stopped. She told me in a phone conversation several weeks later when I called that she could no longer write to me. It was too much.
WHEN I THINK BACK to that time in my life, I think of my grandfather, Paul Milton Denlinger. His parting gift of grace to me has become the lens through which I now view my year abroad.
When I planned my flight from Cleveland to London, I realized that there would be a long layover at the Washington-Dulles airport. So several weeks before I left Ohio, wrote to my grandfather, telling him that I would be coming through, and would he please meet me? He agreed to do so, and he did.
Of all my family, Grandpa was the most unequivocal in his support for my education. He somehow knew my destiny — he understood the path his grandson would take in life. Maybe he identified with my need for freedom. Perhaps he saw himself in me. Who knows?
He also knew that a first-rate education would provide me with options. Perhaps his own lack of schooling haunted him — although he appeared to be a polished, suave gentleman, he knew that at his core he was just a boy from Lancaster who couldn’t be kept down on the farm.
Whatever his reasoning, and I never asked him for it, he made it a point to express his pride in me for what I had done — again, and again, and again. Of all the members of my family, probably because of his knowledge of Rotary, my grandfather understood the honor and opportunity that I had been given.
So when my grandfather greeted me at the airport, he treated me like a star. Although 83 at the time, he was still in full control of his mental facilities and his Buick, and he insisted on carrying one of my bags. He had reserved a table at the nicest restaurant in the airport. He helped me order dinner. He told me what to expect in the coming year.
While we ate, he also told me stories. I don’t remember any of them, and it doesn’t matter. I merely clung to this last remnant of familiarity within that massive structure called an airport. I knew that in a few hours, I would pass through customs and onto the plane, completely on my own, bound for a life that would transform me in ways I couldn’t yet imagine.
Sometime across the course of that meal, my grandfather discovered that not only had I never worn a necktie but that I also didn’t have a clue about how to tie one. This was unacceptable to Grandpa. His favorite grandson, he told me, would not enter the world of Rotary unprepared. He told me to follow him, and we went to the men’s restroom, still carrying my bags.
TODAY, I THINK BACK to that moment with wonder. I stood there at the mirror, my grandfather behind me with his arms around me and his hands over mine as he showed me how to tie a necktie. I breathed in his Old Spice perfume. His hands moved silently about my neck.
I was supposed to be a full-grown man, and admitting my fear to anyone was not permitted. Though my community had promised to pray for me, I knew instinctively that their offer was a long-honed strategy intended to keep me in line. They were letting me know that I’d better behave or God would punish me, probably by having my plane crash somewhere in the Atlantic.
My family had effectively cut me off, as clearly as if they had said, “We cannot accept the changes you have made, we cannot accept what you are doing, we cannot accept you for who you are because no person doing what you are doing will make it to heaven. We know this.”
I stood there frozen, my grandfather’s arms around me. I stood there, feeling that room of mirror, porcelain, and tile — aware of Grandpa’s breath flavored by too many Tums as he gently, carefully guided my hands in tying my first necktie.
And I felt my grandfather’s understanding, which must have come from years of isolation, from a lifetime of depending solely on the power of words to get along. I realized that somehow he must have known that I was frightened to death of my future, sure that the world would eventually figure out my fraud and throw me back. In the silence of that moment, my grandfather said more to me than he had ever said through any story that he had ever told me.
And then we were walking to the boarding gate, and then I was looking back at him as I went through security, and then I was alone in the empty hallway leading down to the plane, my boots echoing in the stillness.