Five More Minutes: A Meditation on Sexist Grandfathers and Revisionist Histories

Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

Sarah Gates / 1.21.20

My understanding of my paternal grandfather is constructed from only a few objects: a black-and-white photo of him pushing my dad on a swing; pearls he gave to my grandmother; and a photo book called Asi es Caracas that my grandfather “purchased in Caracas from a Hungarian refugee.”

These objects tell me some things, but they don’t tell me much. For most of my life, I have associated this grandfather and this side of my family with little more than mystery and loss. I imagine that I’ve probably even cultivated something of a grudge against this grandfather because of the absence he represented in my own father’s life. This grandfather, who, for all I know gave my dad nothing more than a middle name, who died when my dad was in high school after having earlier been divorced and living apart from my grandmother. I knew the former before I knew the latter and cried about both. One day at the end of recess, staring up at the sky nearly straight into the sun, I willfully meditated on this injustice and cried again.

Later, when my dad died to suicide, I learned more about the mystery surrounding his dad’s death, the speculation that he, “Reg.,” had died to suicide as well. The worst part was the speculation that, more than likely, my dad hadn’t even known, believing that his father had died from something “pancreatic.” This information felt partly like a missing piece of a puzzle, partly like a good reason to self-sterilize. Mostly, it made me very angry that no one knew the truth about something so important.

For all of these reasons, this photo book, Asi es Caracas, felt important and mundane in its detailed attention to (very) still life: studentless dormitories, colonial museums; vegetable carts. This standstill backdrop made it easy to miss the occasional pinpricks of starlight: flower-sellers, baseball games, a wavy-haired man leaning in to possibly kiss a chicken.

Finally, a few weeks ago, anxiously organizing our new German apartment, I come across it again and decide to digest some of it. I notice the bits my grandfather has translated from Spanish, the little commentaries he’s written, the loving attention he’s paid to some frankly pretty boring stuff. I think to myself, wow, how cool, he got this from a Hungarian refugee bookstore owner, maybe he was this cool progressive bohemian guy, and wow, how cool, the care he’s taken with these notes and this translation! I like translation too! These thoughts pool and bubble around me, as I practically bask, cross-legged on our study floor, in the sunlight that floods the room, until I turned the page and they burst. Underneath a picture of a young female dentist, he’s written: “Venezuela has quite a few women doctors and dentists. Could that be why so many Americans get sick here?”

I laugh, startled, and put the book back on the shelf. I text a few friends. But mostly, I just feel disappointed.


This summer, I got to see Six, a musical/pop concert in which “the SIX wives of Henry VIII take the mic to reclaim their identities out of the shadow of their infamous spouse” (!!). In the finale, the queens, who self-identify as “divorced, beheaded, [and] died,” perform a “histo-ree-mix” (!!!) of rewritten stories. Catharine of Aragon moves into a “nu-nu-nunnery” and “joins a gospel choir”; Anne Boleyn gains fame through putting “Greensleeves” “on a sick beat”; Jane Seymour leads a huge family band called the “Royal-ing Stones” (!!!!!!!); Anne of Cleves shows Holbein’s “super arty” mates how to party; and Katherine Howard teaches herself music and makes a career as a vocalist. Having “heard all about these rockin’ chicks,” Catherine Parr brings it all together; as the song goes, she “went out and found them and [they] laid down an album,” and now all they need is each other, and WHAT IS THIS FEMINIST REVISIONIST HISTORY HEAVEN AND HOW DO I GET TO THERE??? Suffice it to say that I was at once overjoyed and obsessed. These women who suffered and were forgotten have re-centered themselves and recast their dismissal in a violent, male-dominated story.

In the finale, the women sing-announce that although we’ve arrived at the end of the show, we’re going to party for “five more minutes.” I think of the way children prolong bedtime: five more minutes! Or the way lovers prolong an embrace, or the way I prolong sleep.

I leave the show with the energy of a mom in a dish soap commercial, feeling as though “five more minutes” could last forever. This ecstasy, this notion of a different kind of future and past, carries me for the next few days through anxious workouts, plane rides, and commutes. I play the soundtrack on repeat and sing along. But over time, as I see ads for movies about kings and kings and kings—but few women and wives—my joy dims. I remember that the women of Six married to survive, and literally most of them didn’t. They never knew each other and commiserated; also, they probably didn’t self-identify as feminists and wear very cool outfits.

If this is true—that the world hasn’t been remade by one or even six stories—then I guess it makes sense that my paternal grandfather, “this grandfather,” who we might as well now call “that grandfather,” had historically typical views about “women doctors” and wasn’t some cool progressive bohemian guy who passed on to my dad a love for E. M. Forster and Miles Davis, so much more than a middle name. He was just a guy with an interest in architecture and an obsessive attention to detail who worked for the oil company.

Revisionist histories grapple with sins but don’t fully overcome them; the stories I tell myself about this or that grandfather cause no one to rise from the dead.

When Dad died, I thought a lot about the William Faulkner line about the past, how it’s “never dead, not even past.” This has never felt real, but at the same time, it has always seemed about right. The way dad’s death felt way too early, or unjust, just the way his dad’s death had always felt too early. At times, I’ve tricked myself into believing a hyper-literal version of this line, imagining my extremely dead dad showing up to visit me in Kenya or at my job at the bookstore, thinking, “Oh cool, dad’s coming by today.” These imaginations weaken as anniversaries accumulate. The past seems more forgotten than not yet past.

But then I remember the objects that can’t talk—the pearls and the photo of Dad on a swing—and imagine that I’m wrong, that maybe there was something better, something more, something redemptive. Maybe we don’t get this grandfather or that one, but instead a probable human who gave my dad at least a moment of joy by pushing him on a swing: a five-minute moment which gave rise to more five-minute moments by becoming a photo my dad could tuck in his Bible and periodically look at and one day casually show his daughter for her own moment-making and contemplation.

Maybe we don’t get miracles, but we do get flower-sellers, baseball games, a wavy-haired man leaning in to possibly kiss a chicken. Maybe we don’t get heaven (at least not yet), but we do get starlight.