My grandfather was one of those larger than life people, common enough perhaps for immigrant pater and mater familias at the turn of the 20th Century. He emigrated from Poland at 16 to avoid military service, worked any number of jobs including steelworker, owned a dairy farm and cheese factory. He and my grandmother had 4 sons in Syracuse, NY. After he had died, my cousin research the family genealogy and discovered he had an entirely different family in Wisconsin as well.
He owned 90 acres of woods “Up north”, just east of Lake Ontario. Here, with no power tools, he built a small cabin and dammed a creek to create a pond. He found here, by his telling, the cure for every ailment.
His sons didn’t believe a word of it. In fact their whole relationships with him started with the absolute certainty that everything he said, other than the obviously true, was if not an outright lie, at least a tall tale.
So in 1982, when it was my parents turn to host Easter Dinner. when the whiskey glasses were filled and drained a few times over, the arguments had become loud and my grandfather told everyone that, in his woods was a plant that cured cancer, his sons responded with variations on “You’re full of shit Pa!.”
I had pretty much grown up in the woods around my house, and as an adult had taken some interest in learning about the plants and animals living in this part of the country. Listening to my grandfather describe this plant, I realized it was Mayapple, and that some where along the line I had it read that it was indeed a subject of cancer research.
A brief lull in the yelling. “Actually,” I said, “the plant Grandpa is describing is being researched to treat cancer.”
Silence. Everyone at the table was looking at me thunderstruck. I had created profound doubt. If he wasn’t telling a tall tale here, what else could he have been telling the truth about?
Then the moment was over, and conversation resumed at a briefly lower volume.
When it was time for coffee and dessert, relative quiet again. My grandfather turned to me and said, “You have to understand about mushrooms.” I think this may have been the only complete sentence he ever said just to me as an individual, his grandson, not just one of the grandchildren, one of the cousins.
I felt he had passed me some kind of torch, but I still don’t know what it means.