A companion text to Coming Up Short.
Every year on my birthday, which most years happened to be the official first day of summer, my grandfather measured me and my brothers.
The ceremony took place in the white clapboard garage of the summer home that he and his brother Leonard had bought in a small Victorian hill town overlooking the Bay of New York. I remember the garage as a cavernous space, with a crown of soaring rafters and joists in which all sorts of things were set or hung, a rack of rakes and spare tires for our bicycles and the parts of a wading pool. But it couldn’t have been all that big, judging from how snugly my Uncle Leonard’s old but impeccably maintained black Chrysler would fit into the space.
My grandfather didn’t drive. Whether from birth or by injury—it never occurred to me to ask which—one leg was considerably shorter than the other, so much shorter that he had to have his shoes made by hand. They were always the same kind of shoe: simple black leather bluchers with a very thick sole on the shoe for the short leg. But even with the platform, my grandfather wobbled as he walked.
Our heights were taken and recorded on the jambs for the garage doors. My brothers were both winter babies, which meant they were measured four or five months after the time my height had been measured when I was their age. Their lines were always somewhat higher than mine.
“It’s not fair,” I once complained to my grandfather. “They always have a head start. You should measure them on their birthdays.”
“This really isn’t a race, you know,” my grandfather said. “Everything evens out in the end, you’ll see.”
“So why are you measuring us then?” I asked. Growing taller seemed to me to be just like baseball and just as frustrating—there wasn’t anything you could read or study to do it better or faster. You either could do it or you couldn’t.
“It’s just for the record,” he said. He pointed to the first set of markings at the base of my post, “You see, if you don’t keep track of things, you sometimes forget where you’ve been. And then you don’t know how far you’ve come along.”
As the eldest I was first to be measured. I would stand against the post in my bare feet as erect as I could, without straining. He’d check my feet and make sure I was looking straight ahead. Once he caught me lifting my heels a bit off the ground. “If you cheat now” he said, “you’ll have to keep cheating every year afterwards just to keep up.”
He laid the try square on my head flush against the jamb and with his pencil made a tick, which, motioning me to step away, he extended into a perfectly straight line across the post. He then measured the distance with a fold-out wooden yardstick, and wrote the number, along with the date, on the post above the line he had drawn. I didn’t need to see the number. All that mattered to me was the thickness of the band between this line and the one from the previous year, my hormonal report card for the year.
My grandfather, on the other hand, made a great show of his astonishment and praised us fully. His enthusiasm, genuine I am sure, may have stemmed from an unacknowledged sense of relief that his grandchildren were growing up healthy and straight, and not bent and lopsided like him.
Or maybe it was just because he liked to grow things. He had a row of tomato plants in the narrow strip of earth between the back of the garage and the hedge that marked the end of our property. I know he would have liked to have had a proper vegetable garden, but his brother, who had come up in the world and was proud to work for the Saturday Evening Post, was leery of anything that could point to their roots in the Italian peasantry. Growing peppers and eggplants instead of a lawn was just such a pointer. And so just as Uncle Leonard had chopped off the Italian ending to our name, he scratched his brother’s idea for a garden, but family being family, consented to the strip of tomatoes behind the garage. Perhaps precisely because this strip was all the garden he had, my grandfather tended these plants with great devotion and pride, and the first beefsteaks were a cause for celebration in the house, served at lunch on its own with a dribble of olive oil.
We moved out of the city when I was 12, and we stopped spending vacation at the summer house, right before my final spurts of growth. But by then the marks on the garage posts meant little if anything to me.
I was still one of the shorter guys at high school but I was fairly at ease with my height. I remember seeing ads for elevator shoes in the back pages of comic books or later in the body-building magazines I’d sometimes buy, but the ads always made me think of my grandfather’s platform shoe. Maybe I had just gotten used to being short. I had long realized I was too uncoordinated for basketball or football, and when I got to high school I found out there were weight classes in wrestling, which evened the playing field immensely. I knew that girls tended to like the taller guys, but that never mattered much either, because I wasn’t interested in girls anyway.
Naturally it wasn’t my height that set me apart so much at school. I was never picked on for being short. It was the other thing. The not-being-interested-in-girls thing. And all that that might mean. I couldn’t imagine how anyone else would have known—I mean, it wasn’t something like my height, which anyone could see, or at least I thought so at the time. But a few did see it, including one warped bully who chose me as one of his victims for the two years I spent in a small-town junior high school before Uncle Leonard volunteered to pay my tuition at a private boys school miles away in the north of the county.
I came out in university but by then my grandfather had already died of leukemia. I wish I could have told him about my sexuality, because it was real and good and part of the person I grew up to be, even though I don’t think he would have been happy. Maybe the thought would have crossed his mind that there was something a little bit crooked about me after all, but he would have dismissed it. He would have seen a decent man, and that, in the end, would have been enough for him.