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What’s Passed On

I knew my son would watch the way I approach women and food and the lawn and language. I worried about what he might learn.

by Jeremy Jones

Last year, amid what passes for bustle in the slow South, I stepped into a coffee shop in Charleston, SC. Before I could get the words “large coffee” off my tongue, the barista looked me up and down and said, “Oh, my friend would love you.”

I hesitated, not sure if I should feel flattered or worried. I’m not ugly enough to make babies cry but not good looking enough to turn any heads, so I tried to fit a casual smile to my face: “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. She loves chest hair.” She nodded toward my shirt, the top two buttons undone to contend with the lowland heat. A scraggle sneaking out.

“She should visit Greece,” I joked, but the barista didn’t get it and I took my coffee to go.

It’s true. I’m hairy. But it’s not surprising: The Scots-Irish and Welsh people who fill my family tree settled in the southern Appalachian mountains in the 18th century, and we haven’t left. Those Maxwells and Joneses and Prestwoods and Harrells passed along genes helping each next begotten son better survive falling snow and rising elevation.

Those first men—most of them settling the land I was raised on just after the Cherokee were forced out by treaty upon treaty—were rough. They chose to stake their lives in a place that was then labeled only as “The Wilderness” on many maps.

The first of them, Abraham, pushed into the Blue Ridge Mountains at the age of 75. His wife died, he re-married a 30-something named Bathsheba (you can’t make this stuff up), and they lit out. In the midst of thick, lawless forest, with roaming bands of bushwhackers and renegade Indians ghosting through the woods, he pulled down trees and raised up new life.

In the hair sprouting on my chest, I have stories of my ancestor, Hiram, fighting off the men who’d come to take his sons away to fight for the Confederacy; Jim chasing down a car thief around switchbacks in the Smoky Mountains; Ray somehow missing the mountain lion that leapt after his horse. Men’s men—shooting guns, taming land, growing big families.

Unfortunately, the body hair they’ve given me is not in style. Had I been born 30 years earlier, coming into adulthood as Burt Reynolds spread his chest hair across the pages of Cosmopolitan, then flaunt it I would. But this is the age of hairless, six-packed (nay, eight!) Ryan Goslings and Channing Tatums. Today, men ought to be bulky boys, smooth-skinned like dolphins, as if they’ve been bred not to shed on the carpet.

Still, I’ve never been tempted to shave or laser or wax or meditate away my manmade sweater. This is mostly because I’m lazy. But it’s also because I like my hair. I know I’ve inherited it; something in its absolute attachment to me also attaches me to the men who’ve come before me.

 

When my son was born, my wife and I were schooled by the nurses about the benefits of “skin to skin,” letting our newborn lie upon our naked chests. It seemed magical. Upon contact, he’d calm, nuzzle in, close his eyes. He would also grab. Like an angry crab, he’d latch onto tufts of my chest hair with no sign of ever letting loose. This was the primitive grasping reflex, the nurse later explained: the evolutionary echo of an ape infant clinging to his mother’s fur as she charged through the jungle. In his first hours, it was this chest hair that my son first knew of me, our first (painful) connection. I couldn’t provide him with milk, but I could give him this—something to hold onto.

I then began to wonder what else I would or could give him. Questions of inheritance become immediate and daunting when one becomes a father. As soon as my son came crying into this world, I supposedly shifted into a model of manhood. I knew he would watch the way I approach women and food and the lawn and language. I worried about what I’d pass on.

Yet no matter what else he received from me, I reckoned the odds pretty good that he’d eventually wear the chest hair of the men before us. Surveying those men, no matter the far-off stories of fighting and rowdiness, I find hardy but gentle men. Men I’d happily push in front of my boy to say, look here. 

 

My mother’s father woke up dizzy and numb a couple of weeks ago. This came out of nowhere. He’s 83 but as active as a 33-year-old (which is to say, more active than I am). A few days prior, I’d driven by his house to see him on a ladder installing a new floodlight, my grandmother holding the instructions down below. The day before, waking up out of sorts, he’d mown the grass.

It took a full day of inconclusive tests and head scratching before the doctors realized his aorta had torn, blood pooling instead of pumping. They rushed him to a bigger hospital to open him up in the middle of the night. Before the surgery, the nurses shaved his chest.

Upon hearing he’d been whisked away for emergency surgery, I felt sure he was going to die. I’d seen him pale and faded earlier in the day at the hospital. While my wife ushered our son, now two years old, up the stairs for his bath, I slipped into the bedroom and wept. Hunkered in the corner, I cried most out of the fear that my son, splashing and playing above me, wouldn’t come to know this man as I did.

My son takes his middle name from my grandfather: Ray. And my son, Abraham Ray, is taken with him. Most days, he asks to go to Papaw’s house (to my grandmother’s bemusement, it is always Papaw’s house, not Granny and Papaw’s—always Papaw’s food, Papaw’s couch). He gets a ride on the tractor or the chance to roll down the steep hill. What tugged most at my chest that night was the inevitable conversation when my son next asked to see Papaw.

I also felt I had to take an accounting of what he could learn from Papaw but might not learn from me. Ray grew up in the Cataloochee Valley, the youngest of two handfuls of kids, and was a reckless boy. He’d wrecked 13 cars by the time he turned 18, including the teacher’s car that he backed into with the stolen school bus. But after he returned from his deployment during the Korean War and settled down with Grace, he took a job at the plant and shaped a simple, comfortable life.

For the 33 years that I’ve known him, he’s been quiet, calm, and funny, his language steeped in these mountains—full of thars and yuns and aint’s—and his manner always even. I’d only seen hints of his revelrous youth—his picking up a pool cue and running the table at an uncle’s house. From every other angle I could see, he was a man who could fix anything broken, deliver a witty turn of phrase in the midst of small talk, and do whatever his family needed: working the night shift, driving long delivery routes, doing the dishes after every meal.

I worried I couldn’t properly teach my son to use a ratchet or to change his oil. I worried he’d not know a man as wholly content to be still as my grandfather, a man always at ease to sit and watch and listen. Sobbing on the floor in the dark, I could only hope I’d inherited and embodied some of the man my grandfather had become. If not for my sake, for my son’s.

 

Miraculously, my grandfather survived the surgery. Most miraculously, his body reacted like a young man’s; the hospital staff couldn’t help but release him merely six days after removing and replacing his heart. Grandma took him home, a long scar running the length of his now-shaven chest. I wondered how strange his chest felt to him, the smoothness of his skin like a boy’s but with a fault line now bisecting him. A reminder of life and death.

We couldn’t hold our son off for long. A few days after Papaw returned home, we took Abe over. I wished I could know what he saw in the Papaw before him, leaning on a walker, slowed and tired.

“Hey, little feller,” Papaw said.

In my arms, Abe absent-mindedly slid his hand into my shirt—an occasional nervous habit—brushing his small fingers along my hair. He smiled at Papaw, and I hoped that what he saw standing in that house was a man we both hoped we might become, a man like so many of the men who shape us: those tough, dogged, soft souls covered up in hair.