If you’re a regular reader, you already know why my grandfather was so important to me, and you ought to know that he spent time in Casablanca working on planes as a mechanic during World War II. It’s just a little thing that gave me a strong sense of purpose in coming to this country, and so, I reference it quite often. At the end of that August blog, I wrote this: “I look back at his generation, and I see a people who were mobilized to make a difference, and I want badly for my generation to be as eager and as willing to do that as our ancestors. I want us to look on that people who’ve been called “the Greatest Generation,” and live into that calling, to be great and to do something that genuinely is helpful and good in this world. I don’t know what kind of dent I can really make in teaching Moroccan youth to write English or even in just loving people the way I’ve always believed we should. The last thing I want is to come away from this experience and be arrogant about the fact that I gave two years of my life to help people. I don’t want this to become some yuppy white boy experience to add to my resume. I just want to love people and love my grandfather and do something for once that’s not all about me.”
That’s how long he lived in Morocco.
And now that I’m moving into my nineteenth month of living in this country, I’m a little beside myself. 19 months is a long time. This has been – or felt like – a huge, important chunk of my life. It was, I know, a huge chunk of his. He was still talking about it on his death-bed. But now that I’ve been here the same amount of time as him, I need to rethink some of those words about living a legacy.
Coincidentally, my grandfather was roughly the same age as me when he set foot on Moroccan soil, so in a way, I imagine we were both in the same place mentally and emotionally (not physically; I’m sure he was healthier than I am). Of course, we’re talking about seventy years ago, so I would imagine that’s not entirely true, but it’s something I relate with deeply. It makes me feel connected to him in a way I’m not sure I could have connected to him while he was alive. It’s a funny thing how that works. Sometimes, we get closer to people once they’ve died than we could’ve gotten to them in life. It’s the ways we live out those we’ve lost that makes them immortal.
And yet, my life is worlds different from his. My attempt to “help” Moroccan youth teaching them English or bringing them glasses isn’t remotely comparable to fighting a war against a common enemy in Nazism. I work in a youth center; he worked on aircraft on an airfield that is now Mohammed V International Airport. I travel all across Morocco, meeting and befriending multiple Moroccans in their common language; he was, as best I can tell, confined to the greater-Casablanca area, knew very little Arabic or French, and interacted with very few Moroccans beyond “the shoe-shine boy” he sometimes talked about.
And yet, those differences don’t stop me from thinking frequently about what his life was like here. Before I came here, saying that my grandfather lived in Morocco wasn’t really something I could make sense of, as it was this distant world I knew nothing about, and to say he was here for nineteen months meant virtually nothing to me. It was just a meaningless block of time, but living it made it tangible. When I’ve had great days, I could stop, sit back, and think, “There may have been a war on and all, but I bet he laughed and enjoyed conversation with friends or playing cards or whatever. I bet he had days when he genuinely enjoyed being here, no matter how awful the circumstances were that brought him this way.” When I’ve had bad days, I think also, “This wasn’t just some empty block of time in my grandfather’s life, but there were days when he, I’m sure, yearned to be home, to see Kitty [his wife to-be, my grandmother], when sending a letter just wasn’t good enough. Days when planes wouldn’t fly right, and he just couldn’t seem to fix anything, despite being a mechanic.”
And then there are places here that do the same thing, places that seem to call him up from the grave like a kind ghost sitting nearby with that slight smile of his, an old soul not easily forgotten looking out at some pasture wondering how Moroccan farming differed from the techniques of Americans. I cannot go to Casablanca without thinking that. The train ride to the airport cuts south of the Anfa district and runs through stretches of green, grassy fields. Surrounding the train tracks are slums, mere cardboard boxes of houses with Moroccan youth running and kicking a sorry excuse for a soccer ball about making the best of what you and I would think was the worst. It’s those fields where I see him the most, standing near some crooked, old olive tree staring at a donkey that’s pulling a makeshift tiller across a field as the Moroccan sun sets toward the Atlantic. It’s things like that I’m most excited for my pledge brother and his wife, Patrick and Lindsay Drake, to see. It’s what I’ll be excited to point out to Hope Montgomery on our ride from Casablanca to Rabat when she arrives.
All that aside, and I’ve had to be really careful not to let those ghosts haunt me to the point that I feel like what I’m doing isn’t good enough. Or that what I’m doing pales in comparison. I didn’t come here to save the world. Which is especially funny, because even though my generation may think that of his (that they were “saving the world”), I bet my grandfather probably thought at times, as he was repairing planes, “I didn’t come here to save the world.” I can just hear him saying that now.
But that’s not what Peace Corps is to me. I don’t think of it as a mission-oriented organization. It’s about cultural exchange, and I’ve been doing everything in my power, despite my efforts to bring glasses into this country, to avoid becoming a “do-gooder.” I don’t know why that bothers me so much. I just fear the notion of ever assuming that I have something better to offer these people than what they already have. It’s not that I think I’m not helping people (or that I don’t want to help people); it’s that I don’t think I should define my service in those terms without recognizing that this experience, at the end of the day, will do (has done) more for me and who I am than I could ever hope to offer another human being. This experience is as much about me and my love for my grandfather as it ever was about Morocco or Moroccans.
So, I hold those two things in constant tension: on the one hand, always questioning whether what I’m doing is “good enough” and, on the other, trying to avoid becoming a “do-gooder.” It’s like walking a tight-rope, and part of living the legacy of my grandfather is learning how to just balance myself in my own way, where my steps don’t have to be the same ones he took, but as long as I’m taking the steps that are right for me, I’m still living into his calling, as I see it.
So no matter how much I wished and yearned to follow in those footsteps before, I have my own story to tell, too, and I can only follow him so far and in so many ways. Being a legacy isn’t about becoming someone or even following in their footsteps so much as it’s about just remembering who you are in light of who they were. I‘m not Jewell Francis Jones. I just love him. And that’s good enough.