Fear no more the heat of the sun

Grant (October 22, 1919- April 14, 2012)

Here's what I need you to know about my grandfather. Pay close attention: it's a romantic story.

Chapter 1

Potent playgrounds
He was, to the great consternation of ninety years of passport control officials and dermatologists, an American born in Egypt, towheaded and blue-eyed and casually fluent in Arabic.  His father, Frank, was a part of the Presbyterian mission in Egypt (unsurprising given our Scottish family - one of the earliest pictures of my grandfather shows him being dandled, newborn, by a uniformed Scottish soldier who has crowned the baby with his tartan cap).  Frank, a former college track star, was a doctor at the mission hospital, and a man famous for his gregariousness and kindness.  You can see his warmth emanating from the photographs, in which he seriously examines patients, performs complex surgery in his early twentieth-century facilities in Assiut, or stands proudly next to a Hadja (a woman who has undertaken the Hadj) and her luxuriant sheep.

Grant's was a childhood of sun and sand and books.  It was an era in which children could clamor over ancient statuary like it was some patient, long-suffering family pet - a Great Dane with cosmic concerns and small, rambunctious friends. 

Helen, sowing the seeds of bibliophilia
(or possibly bibliomania)
Grant's mother, Helen, had trained to be a teacher, and she was a voracious reader, one who carried a Bible and a volume of Shakespeare's Complete Works with her wherever she traveled and read devotionally from each every day.   You can see that I come by my bibliomania honestly.  There's a clear genealogy from this picture of Helen reading to her sons in Assiut to my library in Nova Scotia. At Farfara I have a tiny table and an Egyptian rug of undyed wools that Frank and Helen packed in the single steamer trunk they brought back from a lifetime of service in Assiut.  God, how I wish I had that gorgeous bookcase.  Years later, after Grant had had his own children, he was posted to the NATO Defense College, and had to leave my adolescent mother with friends in London to finish out the school year while the rest of the family moved to a luxurious apartment in Paris.  When he dropped her off, and before he said his goodbyes, Grant handed my mother a two-foot-tall stack of new Penguin paperbacks, in their distinctive orange covers, a bibliophile solace for the absence of family.  In this stack was I, Claudius, which was, he told her, one of his mother's favorite books.  It wasn't until I read it for the first time, opening that same orange-covered copy as a teenager, that I realized how bold a choice - filled with sex and murder and intrigue - it was for a missionary doctor's wife in the 30s.  I came to know my great-grandmother in all her complexity through the books she loved. 

Scowling against the sun
So, childhood was a bit of an idyll, despite the loss of a younger sister named Jennie when she was very young.  Grant's family rarely made it back to the States, but on vacations they sought out contrasts, making their way to chalets in snowy Switzerland.  

Outside the clinic in Assiut
One day in Egypt, a traveling peddler came by Helen and Frank's house.  He offered, among other things, a small satchel of ancient bronze coins.  Fascinated, Grant bought them with his pocket money.  It was the birth of a numismatist. (There are few enough opportunities in life to use that word; you've got to seize them when they come.)  He was entranced by ancient history, fascinated by the ruins and hieroglyphs that surrounded him.  He wanted to become an Egyptologist.

When Grant had just turned three, Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, stood together outside the newly opened tomb of the ancient pharaoh Tutankhamun and looked on burial treasures no one had seen in over 3000 years - treasures that certainly no one was meant to have seen ever again.  When Lord Carnarvon fell terribly ill in the months that followed, so the family story goes, doctors were called in from all over Egypt, among them my great-grandfather Frank.  

This is why, my grandfather often told me with a serious mouth and a glint in his eye, our family is doomed to death by the mummy's curse.  The wrath of Tutankhamun finds us all; sometimes it just takes nine decades to do it.
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust.

Sunday, April 15, 2012
Washington, DC

4 Responses so far.

  1. Rohan says:

    This is a wonderful tribute to your grandfather; thank you for sharing it.

  2. Thanks, Rohan. It's the first in what I hope will be several chapters in a history in pictures. He went on to become a handsome sailor and a diplomat in some of the most fascinating parts of the world, before retiring at a relatively young age to Tuscany, London, and Washington. Also, he was hilarious....

  3. Thanks for sharing! He truly was an amazing man

  4. Carol Kowarski says:

    What an idyllic childhood and charming life - we'll all miss him. Carol K.

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