How I Became My Grandfather

SEEDLINGS, acrylic on canvas, 18×24

AS A CHILD, I had no concept of age. There was no future or past. Only the present mattered.

Kittens and puppies I could understand; they were younger than I, more fragile. 

But older? My grandfather was simply a steadying presence, a kind old man of regular habits who lived with my grandmother next door. 

I couldn’t imagine him as a boy or teenager.

I didn’t know how or when he fell in love.

I never saw him jump or run, though he played football in college.

The apple orchard he owned closed the year I was born, and most of the trees torn out. I couldn’t appreciate the 40 years he spent growing tree fruit in his prime on the land where I grew up.

I couldn’t picture him raising four boys — my father and uncles — in our sprawling farmhouse before it was divided to make my grandparents’ modest, ground-floor apartment. 

I never knew the pain of his barely visible gold teeth, or what it meant to lose a two-year-old daughter. To me, she was a name only, a faceless ghost from a distant past.

I didn’t need to know anything about his long life, only his subtle strength and kindness. He has been gone more than half a century now, but they still reverberate.

*          *          *

PEEPERS, acrylic on canvas, 20×16

NOW I AM BECOMING that person to my grandchildren.

A living presence, shorn of antecedents, full of incalculable influence.

Grampy was always busy, even when he no longer had to be. Mornings he scraped the finish off old furniture in my father’s upholstery shop.

Summers he methodically chopped, split, and stacked firewood from a tree he felled every spring, creating an inexhaustible supply for our occasional fireplace.

He used a scythe to cut the tall grass above the grape arbor, a slow, steady, athlete’s swing.

He meticulously cleaned tools before returning them to their hooks in the shed.

He took showers outdoors summers under a trickle of water briefly warmed by the sun, emerging cold, wrapped in a towel, bald and white. 

Once a year behind the shower stall, he wrung the necks of chickens beyond our sight, and plucked their feathers over a soapstone sink.

There was always plenty of corn mash in the large wooden bin outside the chicken coop where the hens laid their eggs.

*          *          *

TOOLSHED, acrylic on canvas, 11×14

HE TAUGHT ME how to make a straight line in the vegetable garden, running a hoe along a string moored between two stakes. Planting beans and peas, one by one. Corn and squash seeds mounded, six to a hill.

He put up a birdhouse when I asked him (annoying my father, who wanted me to wait).

He produced a rubber ball from behind his back and handed it to me through the rear of our station wagon before leaving on vacation, already homesick.

He filled a basket with walnuts from the tree at the top of the hill and stored it in the shed, the pungent smell of the dirt floor comingling with the nuts inside their pulpy husks. Bored, we cracked them open with anvil and hammer.

He wore a leather jacket that comingled with his smell years after he was gone.

*          *          *

BOARDWALK, acrylic on canvas, 24×18

IN SOME WAYS, he and I were and are not that much alike.

He was a man of few words. I don’t remember anything he said to me.

He was not a hugger, although he accepted mine.

He was always pleasant or happy, yet I never saw him grin or laugh out loud.

No longer as concerned as he with straight lines, I draw my garden rows by hand.

My shovels and rakes are nowhere near as clean.

Yet, as I fill a wheelbarrow with soil again and again, pulling each heavy load up a hill then dumping it, I am my grandfather chopping wood.

The work is neither necessary nor practical. It is the doing that matters.

Knowing the world through the repetition of simple tasks. Knowing the world through the body.

I am as blank a slate to my grandchildren as my grandfather was to me, likely to influence them whether I like it or not, in subtle ways I cannot quantify or fully understand.

For their young lives, I exist in the moment, solely for who I am, not what I was.

All that matters to them is my how I now live my life.

4 Replies to “How I Became My Grandfather”

  1. Thank you for this reminiscence of your grandfather, Russell. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Unlike you, I have no memories of a grandfather. My mom’s father had long since died and he was not her natural father anyway, since she had been adopted. My dad’s father had left his mom and I never knew him. I learned later that he and my dad’s mom died about the same time, coincidentally, I suppose. So your memories of your grandfather are particularly poignant for me. Like you, though, I am now a grandfather too and keenly aware of being a grandfather “figure” for my two grandchildren, with all that that position entails. I consciously think about the memories I make with my grandchildren and I wonder what they will remember and cherish as they grow older and after I die. I take great comfort and pleasure in knowing that I am giving them the experience of a grandfather, an experience I never had, though they have not one, but two other grandfathers providing their own grandfather experiences. Part of the poignancy of your story is knowing that you have two grandchildren who have been denied the experience of your grandfathering. It makes me deeply sad whenever I think of it. How unfair and cruel the vagaries of life can be. All the more reason to treasure and celebrate the grandchildren you now have, especially the newest of them. Much love to you and Bar.

    1. Thanks for this, Larry. I always felt that what made me a good running coach was the fact that I didn’t have one when I was young–I knew its importance through its absence. From all I know you are a wonderful grandfather, and your influence will run deep and enduring, even if there is no way to measure it. I am grateful for the opportunities I have, and I look forward to the day when I will be able to welcome the other two back into my life, for my sake as much as theirs.

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