I’m thrilled to take part in Maud Newton’s wonderful ancestry project: The Begats. I wrote about a photo of my grandfather and some lines he wrote, a gift from my Mom, and a thing I treasure…
I’m excited about scottcheshire's High as the Horses’ Bridles, a novel about about inheritance, religious and otherwise, which centers on a lapsed child prophet and preacher and his reckoning, later in life, with his sick father. The title comes from the Book of Revelation, which, Cheshire says, “looms large for me, always has since childhood.” (I can relate.) Victor LaValle calls the novel “tender and enlightening, riveting and raw.”
In advance of the book’s publication tomorrow, Cheshire writes below about his own remarkable grandfather, Thomas Kirkwood, pictured above in Hoboken, in 1928.
My grandfather, in front of a merchant vessel, leans against a pier railing, looking like he owns the place, cooler and more assured (it seems) in this frozen moment than I have appeared in all my forty-one years. By the time this photo is taken he’d already sailed as a U.S. Merchant Marine for sixty-five merchant lines, on seventy-five ships. He’d seen the world and brought home keepsakes from Egypt, and India, from countless countries throughout Europe and Africa. He’d stowed away, and evaded ship police, from Copenhagen all the way to Hamburg—and wrote about it. He’d survived malaria, German ocean mine explosions during World War I, and spent three months marooned on an empty island after his ship was torn in half by a typhoon.
I never did meet him, though. I know all this because my mother found his sea journal, after it’d been hid in a box for seventy-five years. The pages are faded, all in pencil, and mostly in Spanish (he was Chilean born), except for poems and song lyrics like this one, seen here, typed in an affably shaggy English, his second language. My mother made this totem for me: nine unashamedly simple and lovely typewritten lines on a note card—“When you wake up in the morn/ be a little optimistic”—along with a handsome photo of him at the time. She knew I would appreciate knowing this sort of thing was in my blood, a love for adventure, and the impulse to make art.
There is something to that, the romantic idea that something besides DNA lives on in the blood. And maybe it does. From him, I certainly got my height, my coloring, and my hair. I got other things from my dad’s dad, and from my dad, surely. Not to mention from my mother, and my grandmothers, plus all who came before them.
Anyway, I keep these nine typed lines and this picture in my writing bag, flat between the pages of a book. Always. And when I write, I take it out and set it on the desk beside me, a sort of ritual, I guess, or nod of respect, to hopefully invoke his spirit.
I have not traveled the globe. Not yet, anyway. I have not been to war. But I do write stories. I write to figure out my place in the world. I even wrote a novel, a book all about family legacy, what invisible longings we pass on in the blood, about understanding where you come from is exactly who you are. Plus there happens to be an old photo in the book, the sepia ghost of another long gone grandfather. My small way to honor his memory, and whatever part my grandfather played in the making of the novel. Not to mention, his advice is good. Whenever I find myself stuck, with nothing but my A.M. coffee and the whiteness of the page, I read: “So just follow this advise/ When you wake up in the morn/ be a little optimistic.”
Simple? Yeah, sure. But where on earth did he write this? In the belly of a rocking ship, and deathly sick with fever? Amidst enemy shelling at sea? Or maybe he composed these lines in his head, while shipwrecked, and skirting sharks, subsisting on found coffee grounds and sugar. No matter what, I’ll take his word for it. I’ll take him everywhere I go. I’ll take him everywhere the white page takes me. — scottcheshire