Tales from My Fathers

May 22, 2009 | 14 comments
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My paternal grandfather, Marc Ricks, is 98 years old. He was born in September 1910, just a few months after President Hinckley. He grew up in Idaho and California, served a mission to French-speaking Europe (France, Switzerland, and Belgium) in the early days of the Depression, earned an MD from the University of San Francisco, and spent 35 years working as a family doctor in the Bay Area. My grandmother passed away at the end of 2005, and since September of last year he has been living with my parents in Utah. Since I moved back to Utah at nearly the same time, I’ve been able to interact with him more frequently this past year than at any point in the past decade.

Physically, my grandfather is still hale, as he has been his entire life. We take it as a good sign that his eating patterns haven’t changed in more than half a century: ice cream at least twice a day, with cookies liberally available for snacks; other foods optional. His hearing is not good, but with his hearing aids he is able to participate in dinnertime conversation. His memory began to fail him a few years ago, however; its decline has been inexorable. When I visit, he gives a warm smile of recognition but is unable to recall my name. I think he understands that I am his grandson (I call him “Grandpa,” after all), but he gives no sign of knowing any details about my life. His short-term memory is particularly poor, and conversations with Grandpa inevitably loop back every few minutes to whatever topic or story is on his mind—not quite like a broken record, but rather like a persistent motif that keeps popping up in a concerto.

Grandpa rarely leaves the house anymore, except to go to church, which he emphatically refuses to miss. Instead, he spends his days sitting in my parents’ front room reading. In itself, this is probably unremarkable for someone of his age and situation. What he chooses to read is, I imagine, rather less typical: day after day he turns the pages of his own autobiography, a substantial tome which he self-published 15 or so years ago. He reads, I believe, to ward off amnesia, to remember the elements that have defined his life.

My grandfather’s life has little of the spectacular; what it does have is equal portions of the everyday heroic, the quietly tragic, and the exuberantly humorous. If you examined his autobiography, you would find it is made up mostly of short anecdotes from his family and professional life—simple stories told in straightforward, unaffected style. There’s the story about the choice he made after his mission to go back to school instead of staying in a job that was promising him a promotion. (Moral: get as much education as you can.) Another favorite is the time on his mission when he was so hungry that he ate soup even after a fly had landed in it. (This story has greater dramatic effect for those familiar with my grandparents’ famously fastidious table etiquette.)

He has so many stories from his years of medical practice that he published a separate book for those he couldn’t fit in the autobiography. Many of them are cautionary tales about human frailty or pride. He enjoys telling about the time a patient waited nearly too long to have “stomach” pain examined; an emergency appendectomy probably saved his life. Or the man who pretended not to have any sensation in his legs so that he could stay overnight in the hospital. When poked and prodded, he insisted that he couldn’t feel a thing. My grandfather uncovered the ruse by hiding a needle in a cotton ball. When we visit for dinner, one or another of these stories will come up and we’ll know what Grandpa has been reading that day.

Grandpa is no longer adding pages to his life story. At this point, he is merely reflecting on the past and enduring to the end. His ability to impact lives (at least my life), however, has not ceased. For one thing, I can hardly imagine a more ardent evangelist for journal writing. Without fail, each time I visit Grandpa will ask me if I’m writing my own history. And inevitably, the question will make me uncomfortable—I’m a sporadic journal writer at best. “You need to do it,” he says, holding my hands firmly and smiling. “It will remind you what a great person you are.” Grandpa still hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

This post is an homage to a man whose dignity and goodness I have come to admire even more as he has advanced into his second childhood, but also an appreciation of something I love about Mormonism: the way in which we emphatically affirm the power of narratives to move us, persuade us, shape us, and redeem us. Our compulsion to record and preserve stories—particularly family stories—is one of our most marvelous traditions. My grandfather uses his autobiography quite literally as an antidote to amnesia; and for all kinds of individual believers, myself included, the web of tales, both the supernatural and the ordinary, into which our lives play out, is one of our most precious possessions, a safeguard against forgetting what is most essential and true.

Sometimes I think of Grandpa’s autobiography as being like the stories of 1001 Nights. Each day, Sheherezade must add a new length to her skein of tales if she is to avoid an untimely end. And sometimes, though I know it isn’t true, I believe that as long as Grandpa has one more story to read from his book, he can hold on forever. After all, if there was anything Sheherezade knew—and that we believe—it was that stories can save lives, and the really good ones can last forever.

14 Responses to Tales from My Fathers

  1. Marc Bohn on May 22, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Beautiful Robert. I think I might just shock the wife and write in my journal tonight.

  2. Nathaniel Hancock on May 22, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful post, Robert. I look forward to more from you in the future.

  3. Lora on May 22, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Roberto,
    Well said! I like Nance’s picture, too.

  4. Amanda on May 22, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Brilliant and touching post.

    This inspires me to not only write more, but try to live my life more worthy of a story, seeing more lessons in the mundane. Who knows what small detail might save someone’s life?

    Really lovely post. And good picture.

  5. Gerald on May 22, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Wonderful! He was our family Dr. in the Pleasant Hill ward. I have a copy of his autobiog inscribed by him The last time I visited Marc and Jane was in 2004. Thank you for the update.

  6. Trent on May 22, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Thank you for sharing that Robert. I was deeply touched. This post may be just what nudges me to return to regular journal writing.

  7. Ardis E. Parshall on May 23, 2009 at 5:39 am

    This is a post I wish I could have written. Thank you, Robert. More!

  8. JES on May 24, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I have the autobiography of my great-great-grandmother, who was a 2nd wife during the days of polygamy. A relative also compiled a history of sorts of her husband. In it, the compiler mentions that just b/c we have so much info on the 2nd wife doesn’t mean that the first wife was a slacker or unimportant (I’m paraphrasing, of course). The fact is, the 2nd wife was a prolific writer and thus will be remembered in more detail for longer.

    Makes me want to make sure I get to tell my story my way, rather than letting it disappear or letting someone else interpret the details.

  9. Susan Ricks Baker on May 24, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    I appreciate the sweetness that went into describing my father. I hope he can keep on reading and relating those stories so he can live forever.

    Thanks Robert.

  10. Amy S on May 24, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    I really enjoyed this. Basically the only reason I write in a journal is because a) I look at faces of my ancestor’s in their portraits of a hundred years ago and wish wish wish I knew what they were like. What they hoped and dreamed about, their strengths and weaknesses and b) so my descendents don’t romanticize my life and know it’s okay to have tough days as a mother and daughter of God.

  11. Chris Crowe on May 26, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Thanks, Robert, for this wonderful essay about your grandfather Ricks and his journal habit. He really is a terrific example of many good qualities. I’m glad he’s in our ward.

  12. Anita on May 26, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Wow, look at that family resemblance! Lovely post–I like the thought of writing for ourselves and not just future unknown posterity.

  13. Jayme B. on May 27, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Great thoughts, Robert.

  14. Steve Fischer on May 27, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Come xe’, collega??? Long time!

    Gramps sounds like a pretty solid individual.