I remember staring into the mirror in my first apartment at age 20, and I remember my exact thoughts. Was this the face of a winner or a loser? A lawyer or a physicist? Which mountains would this man be able to scale? Which might he fall off of? Would he disappoint everyone or open them up to new ideas, worlds, undreamed-of vistas?
I will soon take a trip to Hutchinson, Kansas, to research my great-grandfather Charles S. Groves, who was disappointed by his sons.
It started off with hope. Charles had three sons, Earl, John, and Roy. Family lore says that he hoped they would help him with and take over his life’s dream, the farm. But a lonely life toiling in the fields didn’t appeal to any of the sons, and they all fled Kansas by 1930. It was heartbreaking.
My own grandfather Roy moved to Los Angeles and spent his life working in a paper mill. A disappointment.
His big brother Earl moved to Oklahoma City. Anything but Kansas. Another disappointment.
His little brother John did what youngest children so often do: He was irresponsible. He became a full-time gambler and card sharp. As a child, I heard that he had been kicked out of Las Vegas for cheating at cards. A big disappointment.
But it was a good thing the sons didn’t stay behind. The Dust Bowl hit Kansas in The Dirty Thirties, as they were called, and 100 million acres were laid to waste. The land became dry, desolate, and useless. Hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their farms and move to places that were even worse off, such as California, where field hands were badly exploited (see The Grapes of Wrath).
After their sons left home, Charles and Dora were left all alone. He was in his sixties, and public records say he spent his last 20 years as a carpenter.
I sometimes ponder the issue of disappointment. If I’m staring at the ceiling at midnight thinking about it, I know I won’t sleep. I go downstairs and try to write or surf. I’m quiet so as not to disturb Claire. I try my best not to think about the subject of disappointing people.
My own father Don disappointed his father Roy in 1951, who had in turn disappointed his father Charles in 1928. Perhaps Charles disappointed somebody, I don’t know.
My grandfather Roy disappointed his father by leaving Kansas and not taking over the farm.
My father Don disappointed Roy by marrying a Mexican woman. When I was a child, I heard my grandfather Roy make disparaging remarks about “dirty Mexicans.” But my mother fought back.
“Are you going to cook him some oochiladas?” he would say.
And I disappointed my own father, too.
“You mean I paid four years of tuition to UCLA so that he could be a damned writer?!” Dad once told my mother in private.
I heard about it only decades later. He didn’t think I could make a good living at writing. He was right, more or less. The writing profession has shrunken considerably even since I joined it in 1981, and it was in bad shape back then. Today, there are talented journalists all over the country who can’t get a job. Dad had high hopes for me. He had wanted me to be a dentist. Now that would’ve been a good choice. A high school friend of mine became a dentist, and owns a house in Dana Point. He sends his three kids to a private school that costs $30,000 annually per child. But I was blessed with a talent for arranging words, and cursed with huge ambitions.
As for my great-grandfather, Charles S. Groves, I don’t know the hardship he went through when the storms hit, like the black blizzards of April 14, 1935, which reduced visibility on The Great Plains to a few feet or less. I don’t know whether he lost the farm, or if he even had a farm, whether the farm was just a dream. I don’t know how he died. That’s why I’m going back there, to look through the dusty files in the historical society, to visit his old homes on 9th Avenue, 5th Avenue, and Avenue A, to find out.