A few days ago my parents announced to my brother that John Walton had died. I tried to think who that was, but we didn't know anyone by that name. Then it hit me that they were telling my brother instead of me and it came to me.
John Walton, father of the TV Waltons. Ralph Waite, the actor, had died.
My family has a history with television families. The Waltons came to us during dinners. We carried food from the kitchen into the den, set plates and glasses on TV trays, and watched an hour of repeats. For a few years, the hour was filled with the Waltons’ stories and we sat quietly eating dinner while that family talked through their dinners, went to church, ran a sawmill, and grew up.
The Waltons was, for my parents, more my brother's show than mine and this is another family tradition, assigning ownership to things. I was there, as were my parents, but it was my brother’s show and he was supposed to be most impacted by it. He was John Boy (both of them went to the University of Virginia), but as he grew, my parents have also imagined him as John, the man whose faith was outside of church, who ran his business, and took care of things without anyone ever really knowing the interior of the man. John Walton was a model, he was one of my brother's teachers. This is how I imagine my folks interpreting things.
That character died years and years ago, but now the actor is gone too, a period at the end of that particular sentence. His death marked some significance to note and remember. Thus the announcement to my brother.
Or maybe I'm reading too much into this. I may be the one attaching importance to it, as is my habit. My parents may have just been letting my brother know a bit of trivia, starting a conversation, making a small link to our past. I read these things and then write the stories of them and of my family as I understand it. I keep writing because I still haven't figured out my character, my place in the plot. Lord knows I don't understand the themes fully.
I'm still thinking about why we ate dinner in the den. It bothered me though I never said anything. It felt like a fracture, a mistake we were blundering into. Dinners at the kitchen table hadn't been so special or wondrous that I was longing for them. Still, moving to eat in front of the television felt wrong but I didn't believe that I could say anything until I had thought it through and come to some cogent argument. I never got there and feelings weren’t enough to act on.
When my parents told my brother that John Walton is dead, I thought of dinner. My wife, kids, and I sit at the kitchen table most every night and talk. It’s nothing momentous, and I have nothing against The Waltons or my parents and brother, but I won't go back to TV trays.
John Walton is dead. The ghost of his large family sits around a table passing dishes, listening to the grandfather. Another ghost family watches the television, eating off TV trays. I’m playing back reruns of both families, trying to tease out some understanding from this feeling. Though I still haven’t thought it all through, the feeling is becoming enough for me to say something. Or at least it’s enough to have me write on.