The Writer’s Desk: My grandfather’s legacy

The recent Utah execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner via firing squad became national news, and led to inevitable editorializing pro and con the death penalty.  Because Utah is the only state that allows for firing squad executions, Utah is presented, by those who oppose the death penalty, as a particularly benighted state, and the discredited doctrine of blood atonement usually gets attention.  Blood atonement is, as Scott Card once put it, “a doctrine never taught in the Church, especially by Jedediah M. Grant.”  But Gardner’s execution had, for me, a personal historical context unrelated to blood atonement.  Only three Utahns have been executed via firing squad in the last 70 years.  Gardner’s one; Gary Gilmore (of Executioner’s Song fame) was another.  The third was a man named Donald Condit, who was executed in 1940 for murdering my grandfather.

Harold Arthur Thorne. My mother’s father. A traveling salesman, raising his family in Salt Lake.  He had five children–four girls and one boy.  My mother was the third in age–she was five when he was killed.  Grandpa Harold was selling in Parowan Utah when he met Condit, who posed as a fellow salesman whose car had broken down.  He gave Condit a ride back to Salt Lake; on the way, Condit pulled a gun on him, told him to pull the car over, to get out, shot him, beat  his head in with a rock, stole the car, and headed north.  In Salt Lake, he ran a red light, was pulled over by a cop, who wondered why Condit was driving a car registered to a Harold Thorne.  Two days later, Condit confessed. We have some evidence suggesting that his confession was beaten out of him by Salt Lake cops.  But he did it, we don’t doubt that, he led cops straight to the body. My mother’s earliest memories are of Condit’s trial.  The prosecutors wanted the jury to see five small children whose Daddy had been killed, and so she and her siblings went to the trial every day.  Condit was convicted of murder, and executed, as I said, by firing squad.

My grandmother, Lucile Thorne, was faced with the subsequent challenge of raising five small children by herself.  She moved in with her mother, Mary Markham, known in the family as Grandma Mary, who took care of the children.  I knew Grandma Mary a little.  She died at 96, in 1970, when I was fourteen.  She baked the best apple pie I’ve ever tasted, and she finished her last quilt a few weeks before her death.

As for Grandma Lucile, she went to work.  She had taught school before getting married, and she went back to the classroom.  Nights, she finished a master’s degree in library science, and later, a Ph. D., and she eventually was hired at BYU, where she taught for over twenty years.  For fun, she acted in films and commercials and plays.  She had a bit part in Mr. Krueger’s Christmas–she played the housekeeper, and got to have lunch one day with Jimmy Stewart.  She was also in Take Down, a Kieth Merrill wrestling movie–she plays a batty old music teacher.  She won Utah Mother of the Year one year.  She was a remarkable woman.

I loved Grandma Lucile, loved her dearly.  When I was a BYU student, I’d stop by her office, where she’d share with me from her contraband stash of Diet Coke.  She loved BYU basketball, and got two season tickets, one for me and one for her.  I’d drive, and help her with the stairs, and then she’d cheer herself hoarse.  She hated it when people in front of her stood during games, and would whack offenders with her umbrella.  “Sit the hell down,” she’d say: she believed the good Lord had put ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ in the English language for a reason, and used both words with style and imagination. She read everything I wrote, and marked ‘em up with her red pencil.  Some grandmothers just say “oh, that’s lovely dear.”  Not mine: with her, it was more “that’s a dangling participle, fix it.”  She drank tea every morning of her life, and she was a temple worker for forty years.  She’d go into the temple recommend interview, and the bishop would ask if she obeyed the Word of Wisdom.  She’d say “all except for my morning tea.”  And he’d sigh, and sign her recommend again.  She was an awful cook: she’d invite me over for dinner, and she’d brown some hamburger, and dump in a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti, and that was dinner.  And once, while teaching at BYU, she discovered that her assistant made more money than she did. She asked the Dean about it, and he told her that her assistant made more because he was a man, supporting a family.  She pointed out that she was a widow, with five children.  He smiled and said something like ‘there you go, women’s libber.’  She came across the table, grabbed him by his tie, and shook her fist in his face, and told him she was getting a raise that afternoon or she’d sue BYU. She got her raise. I didn’t hear this story from Grandma Lucile.  I got to know one of her colleagues, who told me about it.  It was very much in character.

She was completely and utterly heroic, totally fearless, totally faithful, smart and kind and astonishingly perceptive.  Every girl I dated, I took to see Granda Lucile.  One dinner, and then she’d call me. She’d say “she’s a lovely girl, darling.  I’m not sure she’s quite right for you, but she’s very sweet.”  Then she met Annette, and this time it was, “I’m so glad you’ve finally found the right girl.”  She knew way before I did.

And I can’t write about her.

I desperately want to. I’ve tried, many times.  I’ve written two full-length plays and a short story, and I’ve started a novel. They don’t work.  They’re not right.  I can’t find it.  I know her voice as well as I know my wife’s, and I can’t put it on paper.

None of us can.  My Aunt Sally is a wonderful writer, a beautiful poet.  Some of you probably know her: Sally Taylor.  She’s never been able to write about her mother. Another aunt, Aunt Janice, is trained as a playwright, and had a terrific career as a Salt Lake playwright for years. Janice Dixon–some of you may remember her as well.  She wrote a book on how to write one’s personal history, and it included some stuff about her mother, but that’s all she’s been able to do with it.  The consensus best writer in our family is my mother’s only brother, Uncle Jim.  Jim Thorne.  He writes with a simple eloquence and beauty I wish I could someday even approach, but mostly in family letters; he hasn’t published much.

What’s interesting is the legacy of the murder, the legacy of Grandpa Harold’s death.  My mother and her sisters all come from a generation of women who were taught that women shouldn’t work outside the home.  But they all earned advanced degrees, and they all worked.  My Mom’s pretty upfront about why.  She says that women were told that they didn’t have to work, that their husbands would provide for them, and she and her sisters knew that that wasn’t always true.  Anything could happen–you had to be prepared.  The strangest legacy is Uncle Jim’s.  His son, my cousin David, is an alcoholic, and one day twenty years ago, he was driving drunk, and lost control of his car and killed a family.  He’s still in prison for it.  My uncle, my wonderful, kind, brilliant, talented Uncle Jim, is the son of a murder victim, and father to a convicted murderer.  He’s written about his son–he still can’t quite write about his father.

I never met Grandpa Harold, obviously.  I have a distance and perspective on the event that other writers in our family don’t have.  I should be able to write this.  I can’t.  I don’t know why.

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10 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: My grandfather’s legacy

  1. Angela H. says:

    What a lovely piece of writing, Eric.

    Even if the AML blog isn’t the most commented-upon blog you might find, there’s sure some excellent writing going on here. I’m so glad. Thanks for this.

  2. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Wow, Eric. If this is not writing about your grandmother, I’m really looking forward to when you figure out how to write about her.

    Wonderful post. Thank you for not writing about Grandma Lucile.

  3. Scott Parkin says:

    Thank you.

    I’ve struggled to write about certain people as well, so I can feel somewhat for the sense of frustration at not finding a way to get it done.

    I think this is a fine start. Don’t try to encapsulate the entirety of of these people (this is nearly as much about Grandpa Harold as it is about Grandma Lucile) and the complex foundation of stories and feelings and direct experiences you have. A light touch, a simple vignette to illustrate a different focus, a simple paraphrase of voice that indirectly references and honors can do a lot. It’s not necessary to write the eulogy or the comprehensive story; simple acts of reverence spread over time create a new relationship that can help one find a new voice for telling those stories.

    For me those roadblocks tend to coalesce into three general categories–honor, respect, and respect.

    I have sufficient honor for some people that I literally can’t think of anything worthwhile to say that wouldn’t diminish the power of the real people and events. The only way I can tell stories of them is to tell somewhat less noble stories of my interactions with them–revealing somewhat of their impact on me as illustration of their value as people.

    It sounds very narcissistic, but I don’t think it needs to be. By speaking in your own voice as journalist of your own experience, you get the ability to both limit your scope of coverage and add a context of personal value. You end up speaking of personal impact, with the richness of personal observation turned outward so that others can also begin to experience that person through your (subjective by definition) eyes.

    Oddly, that general technique of breaking down a life into almost marginal vignettes is the only way I can even begin to imagine such a thing. Speak of the living person, not the dead memory. Re-experience a moment with the active person rather than trying to encapsulate the totality of that person.

    Realize and recognize rather than eulogize. Open the book rather than closing it. It isn’t a grand gesture, but over time it can become one.

    And who knows, perhaps some enterprising soul will abridge the records of his fathers to create a single collected work of far greater power than any of the individual writers alone could have produced, finding themes and meanings only visible in the aggregate.

    [[I apologize for the following digression. It's a poor addendum to your elegant and powerful observations, but it's the only way *I* know how to approach some of the ideas that your essay raised in my mind.]]

    Speaking of narcissism, that’s the only way I found of writing something like my own personal history. It seems presumptuous in the extreme to write a biography of one’s self, especially when one hasn’t done anything of particular note.

    For me it started as an iTunes playlist put together as a birthday present for a friend. He’s a musical omnivore who came from an alternative/college radio foundation very different from my own heavy metal/aggressive-experimental foundations. It was supposed to be a primer of sorts on where heavy metal came from.

    I realized that to contextualize my current approach to heavy metal music I needed to go back and add some of the pre-metal pieces that led me down that path, so the playlist grew from a couple of dozen songs to a nearly a hundred. While listing out early influences I began to note the huge number of songs I had to leave out of the list even though they were part of the richness of my experience. And of course there were the ordinary pop songs that I listened to alongside the metal that helped clarify why that song appealed when so many others didn’t.

    Of course when I sat down to write the small accompanying essay that put those songs in context–the liner notes to my playlist, as it were–I ended up going into a little more personal detail than I originally intended. But since I was writing it for my closest friend I didn’t feel any particular need to hold back on any of the personal details. He knows me better than anyone but my wife (and significantly better than my parents), so it was easy to skip the prevaricating and just get to the core thoughts, feelings, and underlying doubts.

    It shouldn’t have been a surprise that my little 3-5 page essay began to expand. Once I added personal context and detail, I remembered even more songs that were meaningful to me. With each meaningful song came a little mini-essay on why the song was meaningful, and with that context of meaning came personal stories and details to explicate the context.

    And so the project grew.

    Upshot: the playlist now has more than 140 songs covering five decades of music (and my life). The accompanying essay is currently at 92 pages, and contains some of the most personal and intimate explorations of my own life and foundation experiences that I have ever written. Without ever intending it, I am now well into a truly *personal* history containing details I would never have imagined writing down.

    Why? Because that essay has only one audience–my close friend of more than 20 years. He’s already seen the results of those experiences in my warped personality and approach to life, so giving the details was easy, and only seemed fair. I trust that he will keep those details to himself, so all my filters fell away. The narrator didn’t have to earn trust for that reader, so he (I) could just get straight to the (interpreted) point.

    The problem is that many of those micro-essays dealt with difficult times and poor interactions with others (most of whom are still alive). Many dealt with doubts and frustrations and rage against things I didn’t understand then, and only thought to interpret later because of the essay itself.

    But the key was that in writing the stories once in a safe context, I found a way to write about their details, impacts, and meanings in other contexts.

    I’m not recommending a playlist with essay, but writing the detail to a trusted person for whom posturing is irrelevant can open your own ability to then reformulate those same stories for more general audiences where you do need to posture just a tiny bit.

    ===

    So…honor, respect, and respect.

    I think the only way *I* can effectively honor someone is with a mass of reference across many, many pieces. I can’t and won’t write encapsulations of a life, but I will write encapsulations of experience–and often write multiple and self-contradictory encapsulations of the same experience. Honor by a thousand paper-cuts.

    Respect for the talents of others to more effectively write some stories has been a challenge for me. Some stories are not mine to tell–or at least are not mine alone to tell. So it only seems right, fair, and respectful to allow those others to write the definitive work while I respectfully defer.

    I’m lucky in that pretty much no one I know of in my family writes, so (unlike your problem, Eric) I already know that if I don’t write it, it most likely won’t be written–which is a different kind of pressure, and one that I’m not particularly well-suited to. I hate to be pushed, and will tend to resist that press on principle.

    Still, deference is a declining luxury that allows primary sources to fade or vanish and ultimately pays less respect than diving in. Better something than nothing, and perhaps my work can be the seed that forces the more worthy chroniclers to correct my errors in respectful response.

    Perhaps the most challenging for me is exactly this idea of respect to the memory of the living. Deference to others to tell a story is quite different than respecting the rights of some people to keep their parts in other peoples’ stories to themselves.

    I’ve written quite a few stories where names were changed to protect not only the innocent, but the guilty as well. I’ve changed locations, decades, and details so I could tell a story in fiction that I could not (in good conscience) tell in fact. I’ve written and published essay and memoir under pseudonyms to create at least plausible deniability for other people also mentioned in my telling of my own experience.

    Part of that is respect for their rights to tell (or not tell) their own stories, but part of it is respect to not accuse or injure those who have already suffered enough from their own history, such that they don’t deserve to be harrowed up again by mine. Some hurts remain untended, but the moment seems to have passed to address them constructively one-on-one.

    I hate leaving things unresolved. But perhaps respect requires that I do so.

    Sometimes the indirect and oblique can be our friends, giving us ability to address our own questions without attacking those who deserve to be left alone. Sometimes we overestimate the reach of our published words to reach beyond our local contexts, and fear fallouts that will never happen.

    How do we find voice for stories we believe must be told, but for which we cannot find a handle that works? All I can suggest is to keep looking, because the stories need to be told, and they need to be told by us.

    ===

    None of which directly responds to anything you wrote, Eric. But because you wrote ever so briefly of honored people and experience and your challenges with respect to your desire and ability to express that honor, you have given me an opportunity to reflect and consider questions and conditions with respect to my own contexts.

    As a matter of honor, respect, and respect I can only say thank you for showing us these small glimpses of people worth knowing and experiences worth exploring. I hope to learn more about Grandma Lucile and Grandpa Harold–and about their grandson Eric–in ways both small and large over the coming years.

    Most particularly, I look forward to hearing those details from my friend Eric, who has earned my trust, admiration, and fandom for both words already published, and for those words yet to be written. Even if you haven’t yet found the method(s), approach(es), form(s), or voice(s) for telling those stories I believe that you will, and I very much look forward to reading them when you do find the handle, because even the small hints offered here are very much worth reading.

    Thank you, Eric, Lucile, Harold, and the rest.

  4. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    And thank you, Scott, for an incisive and illuminating exploration of your own approaches to honoring and respecting your heritage.

    I particularly loved the idea of adding context to such things as playlists, and suspect that this could be expanded to other things and used as a way to encourage personal histories from those who might otherwise not even attempt them.

    Without appearing facetious, I hope, it occurs to me that one person might be able create a personal history from making a list of shoes they have worn, and another from making a list of books they have read, and yet another from making a list of pets they’ve had, and so on.

    The possibilities are exciting to me, as someone who has tried to figure out ways to encourage personal histories from those who believe they can not write at all. So I thank you for your post, but most especially for sharing that idea.

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    Kathleen, I absolutely agree. For me it was shared interest in music that created a vehicle for that personal history; the detail flowed naturally from my interest in the topic. The soundtrack to my life.

    It could just as easily be cars you drove, movies or plays, books, pets, places you’ve lived, or any other activity you’ve participated in over the course of your life. Ultimately the mechanism is just a foil for digressions into the personal and interpretive.

    Shoes are a fantastic one. I have vivid memories about the time I constructed 8" platform shoes out of old slip-ons with pieces of 2×4 nailed to the bottom. They looked terrible, so I wrapped the rough wood in duct tape, spray-painted the platforms black, then sprinkled silver glitter all over them. I’d tried to make separate heels which kept trying to buckle, so I screwed metal plates on to keep them straight, stiff, and physically separated from the soles.

    My original intent was to make a Kiss costume (I wanted to be Gene Simmons), but I ended up using them as part of my costume for the ward roadshow where I played Captain Zero (who stole the "O" out of Love). A nice lady in our ward who worked in the duplication room (back in the blue mimeograph days) saw me wearing those shoes one night at rehearsal and was afraid I’d gone over to the dark side (this was 1978, so it was not entirely impossible) and she pulled me aside to warn me of the dangers of drugs inherent in the culture that wore shoes like that as part of their uniform (along with personal details of her own experience with the drug culture).

    The opportunity to explore personal detail that leads to historical and cultural context is extraordinary.

    I won’t even mention the time my dear mother wore one brown and one black shoe to church and I laughed out loud at her ditziness until I looked down (standing in front of the sacrament table after the meeting) and saw that I was not only wearing one black and one brown shoe, but that the black one had a 2" disco heel and the other was an ordinary oxford with a 1/2" heel; they weren’t even close. I was twelve at the time and realized my mom and I weren’t all that different after all (that black shoe was also one of the pair that became Captain Zero’s costume two years later).

    Recipes, family vacations, houses you’ve lived in–all fantastic anchor points to both spur memory and tie a narrative together. Ultimately, any thing will do. For me the key is that you can either write it long-form, or write it as separate vignettes with a loose narrative tie–whatever works for you.

    Fun stuff.

  6. Ed Snow says:

    Great. Writing.

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I now know and love your grandparents, particularly your grandmother. Thank you for sharing this corner of her–and your life–with us.

  8. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Thanks to all of you who responded to this. Scott, some wonderful, and wonderfully helpful thoughts. For the rest of you, well, just thanks! I just re-read this and found two grammatical errors. Grandma Lucile would never have permitted such sloppiness!

  9. Mark Brown says:

    Would your grandmother be played by Elaine Stritch?

  10. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Elaine Stritch! Awesome!

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