“What’re ya doin’?” he asked.
The boy said “I’m saving this half blanket so’s I can give it to you when you’re old.”
The man went and got his old father and brought him into the house. He made room for the old man to live.
That story, which I’ve told in a sorta Southern hillbilly voice, is actually Chinese and somewhat ancient. The basic idea – the ungrateful son who realizes that his own son will treat him as he treats his father – can be found in various forms all over the world. There may be versions in which the characters are female, but I don’t know of any and it’s probably more likely not. Traditionally, in almost all cultures, women became members of their husbands’ families when they married and therefore had no, or less, obligations to their parents. It is the duty of the sons to care for the parents.
Filial piety, the respect one has or is expected to have for one’s family members, especially the older ones, is part of every culture. I was thinking about the “Half Blanket” story this morning while painting my grandparents’ kitchen. I paint. That’s one of my jobs. My grandparents wanted their kitchen painted. I could hardly say no. I haven’t always been a very good grandson and I’ve never been the hunting, fishing, go to church every Sunday and then fall asleep on the sofa watching Nascar grandson they wanted and expected. For the past dozen years or so, I’ve showed up pretty regularly and participated in family get-togethers so I’m not a total loss. Of course, I have provided them with the most intelligent, vivacious and utterly adorable great-grandchild they’re ever gonna get, so that’s a point in my favor.
When Gramma started talking about painting the kitchen, it was obvious she meant me. It was equally obvious I would take the job. They’re paying me, of course. Gramma threw out a figure, a third less than what I normally get paid to paint, and I said “That’ll be fine”. I would do it for free, but she wants to pay me so I’m not going to get into a stupid and awkward argument and insist on not getting paid.
It’s a simple job. One coat on the ceiling, two on the walls. The trouble is, and I should’ve seen it coming, my Grandad.
Grandad was born way back in some dark holler in West-By-God-Virginia. He learned to hunt as a means of putting food on the table. He was an electrician on a Destroyer in World War II. He had a truck, a ’78 Ranger-Explorer, that didn’t have factory cruise control so he jerry-rigged a ball-chain necklace to a valve on the carburetor, ran it through a hole under the dash and held it in place with a clothespin: cruise control. He has always fixed, maintained and modified things. He was probably a better painter than me once upon a time, but that time is over. Grandad is eighty-eight or so. He spaces out frequently, falls asleep at random times. When he starts talking at the dinner table, it might be about something he read in National Geographic, something that happened on shore leave in Hawaii, the neighbors’ cats or anything other than what everybody else is talking about. Nothing wrong with that. If I’m not senile at eighty-eight, I’ll pretend I am.
The trouble is, he can’t fucking paint. I started rolling the ceiling this morning and the next thing I knew, Grandad was standing on a stool, cutting in, slopping paint on the walls, which wasn’t a problem since I was doing the walls too, but then he got a brush and started cutting in around the kitchen counters and saying shit like “I keep messing up over here”, “The more I paint, the worse it looks”, while I was rolling the walls and hearing “Half Blanket” on repeat in my head. I knew why that story was in there and I got the moral right off the bat. There was simply no way I could do anything about the situation. There is no kind way of saying “Grandad, you suck at painting because you’re old. Go away.”
You know how old people fuck, right? Slow and sloppy? That’s how my grandfather paints. It sucks. It’s an awful thing to say, but it’s true.
When I got clean and sober and started living a spiritual life, I had to evaluate my beliefs. I had to ask myself what I believed as opposed to what I had been taught to believe by other people – the society I live in, the church I grew up in, the schools I went to &c. I whole heartedly believe in living a life based on beliefs as long as they’re truly felt, not imposed by outside influences and accepted without evaluation of their worth. Of course, I agree with most people that murder, rape and theft are bad, with some possible exceptions in the case of theft. Honesty strikes me as a better policy than dishonesty. Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s seems like a reasonable way of doing things. There are many social and religious tenets that I don’t agree with, but I really do believe in family. The people I’m related to are my kin, whether I like then or not, whether I share their interests or not, whether I find it easier to just not mention the vast majority of what goes on in my life because a) I don’t feel like explaining what the difference between “noisy” and “Noise” is or that one can do anything with a banjo other than play songs made popular by Granpa Jones, and b) they’re all too busy yapping at each other about who wore what to church and who has cancer to hear anything I have to say anyway, or not. I appreciate and value my blood-kin simply because they are my blood-kin. The fact that I have nothing in common with them other than DNA and an affinity for pie is irrelevant.
Of course, now that I’m a father myself, family is even more important. I want the Spotted Opossum to know where she comes from, what her roots are, who her people are. I want her to remember playing with cousins in the yard, sneaking candy from the dish on her great-grammaw’s side table, sitting on her great-grandaddy’s lap. I’m sure families are the same all over, but I’m from the South, so that all seems Southern to me, like picking squash out of the garden, which we did last Sunday. The Spotted Opossum really enjoyed picking squash, though she swears she’ll never eat it.
“Half Blanket” uses self-interest to make its point. The father in the story is motivated to treat his father better when he realizes that he is setting the example his son will follow. He doesn’t want to end up in the barn with a half a blanket. Self-interest is fine as far as it goes. The point is well made. I believe it is possible to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. That’s a little harder to convey in a short story, but it’s worth striving for. Always.
So tomorrow I’ll do the second coat on the walls and try to fix all the shit my Grandad fucked up. It actually shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe he’ll fall asleep.