The Grandfather I Never Met By Janet McCann

I finish William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience

as my grandfather did one hundred years ago.

The book was new, he had to cut the pages .

He must have hurried, some pages are ill-cut,

some carry a slash of the facing page.


It says April 1917 in his round hand.

My grandmother would have been pregnant

with my father, would have birthed him

when the leaves turned. As he read, he would have

called her in to read short passages


which he marked with one, two, or three checks

depending on importance. She was pretty

and vague, she would have nodded,

setting forth plates, thinking about the baby

inside her, worrying about money.


He would have read James every night until

he’d finished, underlining, writing comments:

Read this. True. This is very human.

He’d almost drowned in a swamp when he was ten,

I have the article. When he was fifty-one


he killed himself, using both gun and rope.

His father was an alcoholic butcher,

my father was an alcoholic chemist

and this man, in the middle, a nondrinking

Methodist, and the three failed one another.


In the wedding photo grandfather‘s young face

is beautiful,  gentled by innocence

and faith. My grandmother beside him

luminous too, the chaste pearls

beneath the lush corona of her hair.


I never met him but I knew her well;

she lived forty more years in poverty

and bitterness, dodging a child’s questions

as she uncoiled the golden braid each night

and set her pearls—she kept them!–on this book.


Journals publishing Janet McCann’s work include KANSAS QUARTERLY, PARNASSUS, NIMROD, SOU’WESTER, AMERICA,  CHRISTIAN CENTURY, CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE, NEW YORK QUARTERLY, TENDRIL, and others. A 1989 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship winner, she taught at Texas A & M University from 1969-2016, is now Professor Emerita. She has co-edited anthologies with David Craig, ODD ANGLES OF HEAVEN (Shaw, 1994), PLACE OF PASSAGE (Story Line, 2000), and POEMS OF FRANCIS AND CLARE (St. Anthony Messenger, 2004). Most recent poetry collection: THE CRONE AT THE CASINO (Lamar University Press,  2014).