When I was a kid I had the pleasure of saying my grandpa was Johnny Carson
. It was the kind of things that kids delight in throwing around to widen the eyes of their peers and inspire a chorus of nuh-uh
s, only to announce that it was, in fact, technically true. Of course, he was only John on paper and nobody called him Johnny; they called him Ted, actually, which is a story for another time
It wasn't such a stretch to compare the two anyway. My grandfather was likely who Johnny Carson would have been if he'd stayed on the farm. They looked alike (at least to my rather subjective memory).
And they were both gentlemen, in the sense of the word that emerges when you break it apart: a mix of heartland reserve and courtesy belied by a consistent twinkling, smile-wrinkled irreverence. You knew, if you got into a jam, he'd get in his pickup truck and get you out of it, and take you out for a slice of pie afterwards. (To this day, he is the reason I never turn down the offer of pie.)
And of course, I did not think my grandfather would ever die, anymore than I believed Johnny Carson would really retire or that I wouldn't be coming home to the family farm on holiday weekends. But he did die -- not long, in fact, after everybody else's John Carson said goodbye to the public. I'd be the first to argue the dangers of clinging to the notion of an idealized past. But understand that I grew up believing we -- or at least the vast numbers of Americans -- all came from the same place. It was a world in which everybody read the paper in the morning and toiled the fields until sundown and watched Carson before bedtime -- because, let's face it, my parents weren't farmers, and I'm not one now -- even if it wasn't your reality, it was capital-R Reality. It was The Way It Was Done.
You know what? I've been wandering in the wilderness ever since, which is not to say I'm unhappy here. I just don't know where I am.
Last week one of the sugar plants that processed my grandfather's beets shut its doors. Several French Fry plants run by the company that for so many year bought his potatoes, too, have closed in the last year. And goddamn but it's hard to find a good slice of truck stop pie these days.
All of this is to say that Sunday I felt like I lost my grandfather all over again. I'm no closer to believing in a literal afterlife than I was 10 years ago -- in fact, I'm probably a great deal further.
But between you and me, I don't mind indulging a goofy, private vision of two John Carsons in heaven, getting robes and wings mixed up in some impossibly hokey old-school comedy routine -- and then wandering down to Denny's (because they have Denny's everywhere) for a slice of lemon pie. I don't mind that at all.