When I was young, I could keep track of several things at once. I could read a book while listening to the news on TV, a hockey game on the radio, or a family conversation.
Now, at 53, I’ve lost some of the multi-tasking facility. When two members of my family are asking me something at the same time, or when one member is raising two separate matters, I object.
“One thing at a time,” I say.
I said this once in the presence of my father, now in his 80s.
“That was one of Dad’s favorite sayings,” he told me, “one thing at a time.”
The recollection brought me up short. It was news to me. And to the extent it linked me in temperament or behavior to my grandfather, Robert R. Troyer, well, that was sort of a mixed bag.
My late grandfather was intelligent, productive, and well-respected. He was a longtime county judge in Omaha, Nebraska. But he could also be grumpy and severe, as is suggested by our family nickname for him — Granddaddy Judge — a term which combined the familiar and formal.
As fate would have it, Granddaddy Judge was the only grandparent I ever met. The other three were all dead by the time I was born in 1968. And I don’t think I ever saw Granddaddy Judge more than a few times. He lived in Nebraska, we lived in Maryland. He died when I was 5.
But in the little time I spent with him, he made an impression. He smelled of pipe tobacco, an exotic, earthy smell which I liked. His presence seemed to put my mother on edge, which was interesting. And he once gave me a silver dollar, a gift which thrilled me. The coin seemed old, mysterious, possibly even magic. It felt surprisingly heavy in my hand. I hid it away and kept it for years as a treasured possession.
In 1972, when my grandfather retired from the bench, he was replaced by two judges, not one. Such had been the workload he and his clerks plowed through each day. His short temper probably helped in this regard. People were a little scared of him.
Many years later, I met a man who had appeared in my grandfather’s courtroom as a young attorney. I asked the man — now old himself — his impressions of the long-ago judge. I said I had heard my grandfather could be cantankerous.
The man disagreed, but then made a comment which tended to confirm it. Judge Troyer was equable and business-like, the man said, as long as the lawyers in front of him were fully prepared and got to their point reasonably quickly.
So basically yeah, Granddaddy Judge had a temper.
There was evidence of his severity in my mother’s recollections, too. She recounted a long day of child-rearing and homemaking which was made even more stressful and tiring by the fact that my father was still at work and my grandfather was visiting from Nebraska.
Once the kids were finally asleep and the dishes were done, my weary mother set about picking up toys from the living room floor. She said something to the effect of, “Kids are a lot of work.”
Without offering to help, without looking up from his newspaper, Granddaddy Judge said, “Not if you’d raised ’em right.”
I have long associated some of Granddaddy Judge’s severity with our Swiss Mennonite heritage. It’s just one branch in our family tree, but it’s the one which gives us the last name Troyer.
The first Troyers arrived in America in the mid-18th century. Quakers and Mennonites were settling in Pennsylvania with hopes of practicing their faith openly and without punishment.
Mennonites were a certain type of Protestant, somewhat rigid on matters of doctrine and belief. Among the objections of their early Anabaptist forebears was the rejection of infant baptism under the theory that newborns were unaware of good and evil, incapable of the free will required to repent and accept Christ as their savior.
It may sound like a dry doctrinal question now. But during the Reformation, accepting a second baptism could be punished by death. Indeed one early Troyer was killed for it. In 1529, the cabinetmaker Hans Troyer (then spelled Dreier) was executed by drowning in a lake in Bern, Switzerland.
I feel bad for my martyred ancestor. For my own part, 500 years later, I highly doubt I would risk death on a point of principle. Then again I’m not religious. And I tend to be more of a ‘go along, get along’ type.
In truth, I already knew that a certain type of scolding and judging ran in my family. When I was growing up, if a parent or sibling was suddenly impatient or snippy, another of us would observe philosophically from the sidelines, “There’s a little bit of Granddaddy Judge in all of us.”
Which was true both literally — we shared his genes — and figuratively — we could get persnickety.
Small wonder perhaps that my father wound up as a lawyer, as did my middle brother and I. We three latter-day Troyers had moved on from rules about infant baptism, but were still drawn to rules as a topic of study and discourse.
There was also a cynical, political element to my grandfather’s personality. His judgeship was an elected position. When my dad was young, he watched Granddaddy Judge go out of his way to chat up farmers or merchants he encountered around Omaha.
My grandfather would speak warmly and volubly. He would ask after the man’s family as if the two were old friends.
One time my young father asked, “Dad, who was that?”
“A voter,” said my grandfather.
To this day I wonder about his tone of voice as he gave that answer. Was it a wry response delivered with a barely detectable grin as he looked down at his son? Or was it terse and businesslike?
Either way, my father was already a shrewd observer of his dad, even at the young age of 9. During WWII, my father said he assumed that Granddaddy Judge was lying when he told others that our family was of Swiss origin. My father guessed that our background was probably in fact German and that Granddaddy Judge was trying to conceal the fact.
My father turned out to be wrong on that point. But perhaps he was correct in a larger sense. He was already attuned to his father’s concern for image and electability.
In later years, when my grandmother Dorothy developed early and severe Alzheimers disease, Granddaddy Judge was not particularly kind or understanding. His wife had been very intelligent, an excellent bridge player. And then suddenly she wasn’t. These changes in her cognition were confusing and irritating to him. His impatience with her one day caused the only heated argument my dad can recall ever having with his father.
As peremptory as Granddaddy Judge could be at home or on the bench, he was not always so. Though he was a big deal in Omaha, he seemed intimidated and ill at ease when he traveled east to attend my father’s graduation at Harvard in 1955. In that unfamiliar setting, meeting people who were more sophisticated, intellectual, and widely traveled than he was, he struck my father as diffident and out of place.
He had good qualities, too, of course. He was fair to litigants. He worked hard. He had considerable common sense and a deep knowledge of his community. He was proud of my father, whose legal accomplishments wound up outstripping my grandfather’s. And if he were still alive today, he would be equally proud of my brother, also named Robert, who served as the U.S. Attorney for Colorado.
Maybe I’m just touchy on the topic of brain disease. It too appears to be a family inheritance, running down through my grandmother’s side maybe. My doctor tells me I have the APOE e4/4 genotype which predisposes one to Alzheimers. So as I grow older, not only do I note the changes in brain function — getting worse at multi-tasking! — but I admire the qualities of mercy and kindness, even if I don’t always practice them myself. The world will always need judges, but it also needs nurses, caregivers, loyal companions.
By the time I met Granddaddy Judge in the early 1970s and accepted his gift of a silver dollar, he had mellowed. I wasn’t scared of him at all. I was fascinated by the smell of his tobacco, his old-fashioned hat, the appearance of his aging skin, his puffy hands, his white hair, just the overall experience of an old person up close, one who was related to me. He was to my father as my father was to me. The idea seemed incredible to me. I had never met a grandparent before.