My grandfather died last month.
He was sick for a long time, being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the late 90s. Two years ago I walked into his room at his veteran’s hospital/care facility, and I was a stranger to him. He remembered my mom, but to him I was still the little girl with the curly blond hair and the big blue eyes.
Not me now, with the glasses, the dark hair, and the wrinkles.
Not with the heaviness of life dragging my step.
He remembered me young. Perhaps not carefree (I don’t think I have ever been carefree), but definitely with an innocence and a peace that no longer exists. He recalled the little girl that used to walk around in his too-big wellies, following his every step through the garden.
I am glad that is how he remembered me.
It is in those days that I hold some of my most precious memories as well.
This particular blog post is a tribute to my grandfather. I loved him hugely, completely… sort of like the bear hugs he was always bestowing. I have not talked about his passing, or written about it. I am not good with grief. I hoped the choking feeling would sort of go away. The sadness would fade without me having to do anything in particular.
So this is my tribute. This is my grandfather.
He was a quiet man. He had watery, light-blue eyes with bushy eyebrows and a beard the same color of rain-cloud gray. He always had a belly. A great lover of sweets and food in general, my grandmother was always getting after him about what he ate. He largely ignored her, sneaking in the sweets when he could, and that second helping too.
The way I remember my grandpa most is with a belly, gray beard and bushy eyebrows, a twinkle in his eyes that he always bestowed upon me, and kindness, a warmth and love that always shined down on me.
My mom was 16 when she had me, so for the first couple of years of life, I lived with my grandparents. I have impressions of those times. He was the quiet man who didn’t say much but was always watching. He made me a doll house for my Barbies in his wood shop and created with his strong and calloused fingers the table and chairs that now sits in my son’s room more than 30 years later.
He never said much. His love was in the showing. The giving.
In being aware of what would make the people he loved smile.
Partially deaf from his time in Korea, he could always hear helicopters before everyone else. Looking back, I think he knew that I got a kick out of it, because he would never fail to come find me and tell me a helicopter was going to fly overhead. The deafness meant that he would watch the nightly news with an earphone, the long cord connecting the television to his ear. I would crawl into his lap, secure, loved, always knowing that I had a place there, that I was accepted there, that for him, I mattered.
When I got too big to sit on his lap, I would sit on the floor in front of his chair, leaning up against the side of his leg. Every once in awhile he would place his palm on the top of my head.
He would stand up for me. The only time I heard him yell was when my sister (two years younger) took my toys in the way she did all the time, and though most people told me to share with my little sister, he told my little sister to give those toys back to me.
He was always on my side.
I stayed at my grandparents a lot. Even as I got older, I would stay there for periods of time in the summer. It was and still is one of my most precious of places. My grandfather never really slept, existing on five or six hours asleep. It might have been from his days in the Navy, or perhaps it was just a natural inclination; whatever the case, every morning before he would go to work, driving the 45 minutes to his job as county examiner, he would whip together batter for pancakes. Nothing, ever, has tasted as good as my grandpa’s pancakes first thing in the morning.
He also made the best popcorn.
I love popcorn, perhaps because of him. At night after dinner, every once in awhile he would get a hankering for popcorn. The smell of oil, the smell of popped corn, and the nightly news.
He introduced me to musicals. He taped “Oklahoma!,” “Show Boat,” and “South Pacific” to watch together. He knew I loved Anne of Green Gables. When the series came on PBS, he recorded the entirety of it.
There were rows of VHS tapes containing shows that he knew my sister and I would like. Christmas specials. Movies. The first time I saw E.T. was from a television special he recorded for me. He constantly showed how much he cared by these little gestures of thought. He never said “I love you.”
He never had to.
The meaning of work, and working well, is also one of his legacies.
I spent one summer moving wood from the pile next to the barn, to the shed in the back. Listening to Smashing Pumpkins on my Walkman, I would load the yellow wheel barrow up with wood, hands encased in too-big garden gloves. I would then wheel it to the back and stack the wood in precise lines, making a wall in the shed. My grandpa would come home from work, NPR blaring as he drove down the dirt road, announcing his arrival, and I would wait for him to inspect what I had done.
He would, never saying anything other to make a suggestion or two.
Then he would hand over some cash and tell me “good job.”
It was my first taste of being recognized for a job well done.
The last time I really got to see my grandfather was immediately following graduation from college. He had sent me money in congratulations and I used it to fly to Alaska where he was living at the time with my aunt and uncle. It was many years after his initial diagnosis. Much more slender, the belly all but gone, his hands shook noticeably and his movements were limited.
His smile, though, it was the same. As was the bushy eyebrows and the beard, and when I sat next to him on the porch, leaning my head up against his knee as he sat in his chair, the feeling of his palm on the top of my head was just as I remembered.
As if I mattered.
I loved my grandfather with all my being. I still love him, and as I sit here and write this I am crying for the first time since his passing. He was the quiet giant in my life. The constant in a world that has very few of those. I never had to, but I always knew on some level, that if needed he would fight to the death for me.
I miss you grandpa. I hope your somewhere awesome, eating your triple caramel brownies, eating your popcorn, and watching “South Pacific.” Maybe one day we can watch it together again.
Save me some popcorn.