This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
My grandfather’s car smells like something died in it so we take my grandmother’s. It’s white body careens faithfully up their street, deep into the mountainside and past an abandoned sanatorium turned correctional facility. Before I left, my mother told me I’d have to drive my grandparents home at night, that they couldn’t see in the dark anymore. Feeling the wheels drift slowly to the left, I wonder if I should have insisted now as well.
We’re on our way to Mount McGregor, specifically: Grant Cottage. A Victorian, butter yellow mansion with dark green shutters and burgundy trim where President Ulysseus S. Grant died. My grandfather was once a history teacher, long before he entered a life of localized politics that had him rubbing shoulders with Bill Clinton in his heyday.
“When Grant died, they closed the doors, here. Locked them up and walked away,” my grandfather tells us. “Everything you see was there the day he died.”
I don’t know much about Grant, and until a few years ago, I didn’t know much about my grandfather, step-grandfather. Each called to mind a formidable man of agency and power, someone who often thought they were doing right by the people around them. Men whose histories and legacies were tainted or misconstrued in unique ways—one globally, and one familially.
My grandfather insists we walk up the short hill from the visitor’s center to the cottage. When Jonny and I arrived yesterday, my grandmother pulled me aside and torpedoed through a barrage of information about her husband’s health. How, for the past year, they’ve oscillated between hospital visits for his chest, pains that felt like mini heart attacks that caught his breath in his throat. They’re a frustrating couple, careening towards their nineties but unable to admit to their mortality. They push themselves past reasonable measure, traveling to Africa even as my grandfather desperately gasped with each step.
Apparently, it was his eye drops. Apparently, he’s better now.
But by the time we reach the porch, he’s breathing heavy and wheezy. I ask if he’s okay, but he waves me aside. He would never tell me anyway.
Inside, we’re instructed to stay on the gray runner carpets. The first room is small with glass displays holding original copies of Grant’s memoirs and an unusually forest green suit jacket stood up with a mannequin. Brass candle holders occupy every nook and cranny. “They had electricity,” our docent tells us. “But it was loud and expensive. So by six at night, they’d go back to kerosene lamps and candlestick.”
The next room holds porcelain spittoons, “To hold the blood he’d cough up.” Grant wrote incessantly until he passed. If I remember correctly, he finished the final memoir three days before his death; writing desperately to ensure something was left for his family. Even his death bed, around the corner, transformed into a desk.
My grandfather stirs from behind me and I whisk my head around at the noise. He’s wearing a bright pink shirt, khaki shorts, and blue sports shoes with a thick sole. His hands rest in his pockets. I wonder what he thinks of in a room like this. He’s been to the cottage twenty-four times, whenever someone new visits. Our docent activates the lights in a much smaller room behind us. The funeral flowers come to life by visibility, their grayscale and brittle leaves frozen in time. Photos alight around us, the nine of our group documenting this moment.
Again, my grandfather stays to the fringes. He coughs. I keep imaging him falling forward, unable to breathe. What would happen if I was caught with him having a heart attack? Who would I call? How would my grandmother handle it? Where would she go?
Our next stop is the outlook. Grant’s family and friends would push him down the path to look out across the Hudson Valley. Even now, there’s a fenced-in stone that marks where he sat.
“Are you sure you want to go down? Jonny and I could by ourselves. You’ve seen it already,” I try to say. What’s the line between infantilizing and caring? Why, after everything he’s done, is it my job to care?
We make our way down the path. My eyes are steered towards the ground, watching for fallen acorns that could trip him or I. It’s not long until we reach the benches. Fog clouds the Catskill mountains across our eyeline; we can just make out their forms.
My step-grandfather, the man admiring the hills and reminding us that Grant’s reputation was purposefully destroyed whether I have enough individual knowledge to support this or not, was best friends with my late-grandfather. He even stayed at their house after his divorce. He even married his wife.
Befoe I knew their messy, entwined history, I loved both my grandparents. But now I know the one still with me wasn’t a good father, a good husband, a good friend. Jonny and I agree, though: He’s a good grandfather.
He senses I’m watching him and turns to meet my gaze. “Ready?” He asks. I nod.
When we walked into Grant’s cottage, I saw their stories fitting into each other not exactly like puzzle pieces but something fluid, bulbous. A connection I couldn’t quite formulate words around yet, let alone something real and tangible. Writing has been escaping me like that, recently. As if I’m always racing after a bead of thought that finds joy in chasing me about. But maybe, like I’ve said before, that’s what writing nonfiction relies on: the moments you obsess and sit instead of immediately putting pen to paper. I’m not sure this is the exact way I see my grandfather and Grant’s stories fitting together yet, but it’s a start. And a reminder that writing is a companion to us until the very end. That to essay is to try. That we have more time than we know, even when we don’t.