Aug/Sep 1998 The Salon

American Memory and the Dead Man's Underwear

by Stanley Jenkins

Oh go through the walls; if you must, walk on the ledges
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light;
Use menace, use prayer.....
My sleepers will flee toward another America.
Jean Genet


When my grandfather died, my grandmother—a product of the Depression era—sent me most of his clothes, including his underwear and socks. I didn't know him very well, having met him only a handful of times—and then suddenly I owned his most intimate apparel. I began to wonder what it would be like to wear a dead man's underwear. I experimented.


All I can tell you from my experience is that the memory of a man is not altogether physical— it does not remain in his clothes, or at least, in the feel of them against the skin. Who my grandfather was, what he knew and what he had to tell me about family and the continuity of generations and identity, I suppose will have to be found forever elsewhere—if at all. In any case, it won't come from anything as simple as wearing his plain, cotton drawers.

It's a strange lesson to learn. What's left over from the past touches us only in hidden ways.


I grew up in a series of subdivisions in the midwest. "Bedroom communities", we called them. The houses were new. The neighbors transient. I remember thinking, even when I was fairly young, that the land was lonely. I thought to myself: There are no ghosts here. I don't know what I meant by that—but I expect that it had something to do with the beginnings of my life-long sense that a place without memory is a lonely place—an impossible place. In such places I was afraid to go around the block on my training-wheeled-bike. I had no confidence that a series of simple right turns would bring me back to where I started.

Once an older boy with whom I was trick-or-treating lead me across the highway to the identical subdivision on the other side. He told me that we were no longer in Illinois but had crossed over into Indiana. I began to cry. I'm struck now, many years later, by my willingness to believe him. I have never been particularly gullible. But the land was missing something. Though the subdivision was identical to my own, I might as well have been in Indiana for all it's familiarity.

This seems important to me—maybe even to us, those of us who wonder what it means to be American.

It has been many generations since anyone on either side of my American family has lived in the town in which their grandparents were buried.


In the time-honored tradition of generalizations from one's own experience— I half-suspect that that last bit expresses a deep truth about American identity—or at least one possible identity among Americans—we who are all the children of immigrants (not least of whom are Native Americans, who themselves seem to have crossed over onto the continent on fortuitous bridges of ice). Poor wayfaring strangers.

In our subdivisions. In our belligerently new houses. In our forever flight from some point of origin—we seem to be a people without ghosts. Or more to the point, we have organized our collective lives around the principle of the refusal of ghosts, of memory, of roots—of limits.

We turn our past into theme parks. The possible genuine nobility of character of our George Washingtons is incessantly replaced by cartoon images of that damned cherry tree. And when Richard Nixon died, even he, himself, perhaps would not have been able to recognize himself in the nationally televised eulogies.

(And worst of all, it was only the particularly shrill sounding protests of the few journalists who refused to play that sounded inappropriate and petty. I myself, unaccountably but indubitably longed to believe that he was a great statesman, that he was one in a long line of great leaders, that he did not betray the great dream that was even now embracing him, swallowing him, taking him home down the waters of Lethe as Mr. Faulkner and I lay dying. O Snopes!)

American identity seems to revolve around the denial of ghosts—and that at any cost. We do not have a past—we have a mythology. A birthright for a bowl of pottage.



My grandfather died about ten years ago— and to this day I know very little about him. But to this day I have his underwear and his socks. Despite all the denial—there is a strange undercurrent.

He originally came from Missouri and rode the rails out to Idaho where he herded sheep, went to college, became a Home County Agent and eventually bought a Ford dealership with a future Governor and Senator. When I was little we would go visit. I remember him as a thin man who said little and seemed to take a whole lot of coffee breaks during business hours. With his passing a whole other America went with him. I'm not certain if that is important.

My father left Idaho as soon as he could and came east.

He has had very little to say about his own father. You know, we all got to die our own death.

His reticence is not so surprising. When my sister and I, after talking to our Catholic friends, children of immigrations of not so distant memory, would ask our father what we were—he would look impatient and say, "American."

But whatever he says, I know my father is haunted. I have come to respect his silence.


In a couple of months I'm going to be thirty-five.

Not so old—but old enough to have a past. Two of my very close friends who have happened to have been adopted have not-so long ago made contact with their birth mothers. One was a happy event—with the then strange need to not only keep living after having found the grail but also the need to somehow negotiate the inevitable but always unwelcome insight that...well....you know, even mothers are ultimately within the realm of the quotidian.

And the other, was a quite tragic event—with a noble ending. My friend C., who will always be a hero of mine, found herself quite unexpectedly giving her newly-found mother—(who she found quite by accident and unintentionally due to a social worker's indiscretion)—and who turned out to be a diagnosed schizophrenic, who had lived her life in and out of institutions and who, a white woman herself, had claimed that C.'s birth had been the result of a gang rape by a group of black men in the early sixties—found herself giving permission to her mother to die after finding out she was terminal.

"You did the right thing in giving me away, Mama. I have lived a good life. Thank you," she told me she had said to the woman who had so sorely wounded her and thrown her own sense of identity and noble heritage to the full force gale. (And I was so proud of my friend—her kindness, her benediction.)

And she is most intimate of ghosts.

I'm going to be thirty five in a couple of months—and you know what? I've learned a lot from my friends. I still wear my grandfather's underwear from time to time. And some of his socks have holes in them that weren't there when I got them.

I don't know any more about his life—about who he needed me, his grandson, to be—but when I visit my father I can't help but notice that we lean against the kitchen sink, our arms folded, in almost the exact same way. And I hear his laugh in my own. And people say we look a whole lot alike.

And I'm still running in my America just like my father did before me and just like his Daddy did before him—but sometimes I hear a voice in my own head and it says "If you're going to dance all night, you gotta pay the fiddler"—and I know that that voice is my grandfather's from many years ago—and then suddenly I smile and I know that I am haunted—so subversively so—and not so very lonely—and strange to say, I am suddenly so very proud to be American.

That's the other side of our national identity—the courage from time to time to die and be forgotten without comment—to haunt—and in haunting to endure. It's a truly democratic principle. We are patient in our legacy.

So the point of all of this is that the past touches us in only hidden ways—and though it is gone, you know, I still hear the sounds of the boxcars—and I delight to songs that are not of my time—and if I ever have a son—and if he ever has a son—I will fully expect my widow to send my grandchild my underwear—my most intimate non-depression-era-apparel—and eventually, I will expect him to learn to ride around the block, confident that he will return to from where he started.

It's not in the touch of artifacts against cool living skin—it is in the ineffable. No matter how much we attempt to escape, we are haunted in America. And no matter how much we deny it—our ghosts still ride with Jesse James within us.

And that is perhaps a blessing.


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