Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Fanfare for the Common Grampa
Today, my Grampa would be 100 years old.
He was my Mom's father; a tall, spindly man with lanky arms and legs, and practically no body fat. A manual laborer all his life, he rarely kept more than an ounce of fat on his skin and bones.
That is one trait I definitely did not inherit from him!
He died in 1980, in Maine, the same state in which he was born, and where he lived most of his life, with the exception of stints in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. When I was growing up in Upstate New York, he and my grandmother would drive west from Maine to visit us, and I believe that was about the furthest he wanted to get from the Pine Tree State.
Like many native Mainers, he was born into poverty, worked most of his life just to keep his family fed, and never acquired much in the way of material possessions. He and my grandmother, whom we called "Grammie," didn't get a television until long after we'd gotten ours - and we got ours after I came home from Kindergarten asking my parents who Mr. Rogers was! My Grammie never learned how to drive - a lot of married women didn't back then in rural Maine - so it was just Grampa who drove their one car. And those cars were always used; as in, several previous owners. The first car of theirs that I remember was an old beige-colored Ford Falcon two-door, and then a newer taupe-colored Falcon, and then a four-door Dodge. The Dodge was fairly big, bright blue with a black hardtop, and it was almost too fancy for Grammie, even though it didn't have power anything.
That's how many native Maine folks used to be. Simple. Reserved. Quiet. Hard-working. Nothing flashy. All the expensive cars on the roadways of Maine, especially along the coast, where my grandparents lived, belonged to vacationing summer people "from away."
The closest Mom's parents got to fancy was on Sundays. He may have been a manual laborer, but Grampa would dress up for church every week. He had an elegant gray suit, and socks with little diamond patterns on them. He'd polish up his black Sunday-best shoes - long, narrow, heavy things those were. Tie up his tie, slip on his tie clip, stick a crisply-folded white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit, and I'd never have pegged him as a guy who dug ditches or drove snowplows.
Almost all of my memories of him have him wearing a broad smile. His cheeks would be a ruddy red, along with the tip of his nose, because most of my memories of him were made when we visited them in frozen Maine on Thanksgivings. Even when Grampa and Grammie would come to Upstate New York, however, he'd work outside with Dad around our century-old farmhouse, fixing things or cutting firewood. He always smelled of sawdust, or soot, or sand, or whatever that stuff was that he put on his hair to try and keep it neat. Usually, however, his hair was the neatest at the breakfast table, right after he'd combed it. After that, there was work to be done, and depending on the job at hand, the appropriate hat to be worn.
A few years before his death, somebody had sold him on the cheap an old, rusted-out International Harvester pickup truck with only wood boards where the pickup bed used to be. It was a faded green color, with worn-out seats and battered chrome, but it was a work truck, so Grampa didn't care what it looked like. Oddly enough, though, he never parked it in the driveway near the house, next to his blue Dodge sedan with the black vinyl hardtop. Their property extended to a gravel drive on the other side of a brook that ran past their house, and he'd always park that truck over there, up under some overhanging limbs. "To keep it out of the way," I think is how he explained to me.
All of his hard work eventually combined with some health problems that stemmed from his poor diet while he was growing up, um, poor. His heart began to fail him, and he had bypass surgery that prolonged his life for only a few years, but back in the late 1970's, that was considered progress. In his last winter alive, he was so weak, he couldn't chop wood for their stove, so the community up there in rural coastal Maine got together and cut several cords of wood to keep their stove going throughout the frigid season. They cut so much wood, in fact, it made headlines in the local newspaper. Over the years, my Grampa had done so much for so many other people on their sparsely-populated peninsula, cutting some wood for him was the least they could do in return.
A lot of people may take an hour out of their day to attend a funeral. But how many will spend all Saturday chopping wood for you?
He died the next summer, on a splendid June day; the type of day I've come to say is one of those perfect summer days in Maine. And a perfect summer day in Maine is truly a perfect day. Not too hot, but with sunshine so buttery and abundant, it seems to be oozing out of the sun itself. Clear air, more sparkling than glass. Just the hint of a breeze, and the wind in the breeze is just the right temperature. The grass on the lawns and the leaves in the trees become almost a translucent green, and the blue sky appears to go on forever through space. My grandparents had a lovely patch of lawn to the eastern side of their little house, opposite the kitchen, and the view from that yard went across the road, under some magnificent tall trees, down a steep meadow, to a body of salt water called a "reach," which is a stretch of the ocean between the mainland and an island.
Unless you die in your sleep, a person can't ask for a better setting to be ushered from Earth into Eternity. And my tired, thin, aging grandfather was lovingly blessed by our Heavenly Father with just such a transition. It was after lunch, and Grampa was settling down in one of the two hand-made, wood Adirondack chairs that he'd painted a baby blue, perched over on the grassy lawn beyond the kitchen window. Grammie was inside at the kitchen sink, washing up the lunch dishes, getting ready to join her husband and relax in the calm afternoon. Briefly, she looked away while handling some plates. When her gaze returned to the window, and to my Grampa, she saw that his head had slumped down. His eyes closed. Sitting in one of the baby blue Adirondack chairs, facing the water. Under the deep sky, beyond which, angels were welcoming him into Glory.
Grammie didn't rush out to Grampa in a panic. She knew instantly what had happened.
She dried her hands, went out to the Adirondack chairs, and softly bid him goodbye.
Does anybody have a pet name for you? We don't know where he got it, but Grampa would call my brother and me "Sproggin." As in, "how are my Sproggins today?" Have you ever heard of that word?
He had some quirks, but he was also one of the millions of ordinary people who never were elected to public office, never held a high-paying job, never commanded troops in battle, never moved mountains... and never was upset that he hadn't. Although, eventually, he did became a trustee in his village's historic little church. I still have his well-worn Bible in a box in my closet; too fragile and delicate practically to look at, let alone use. Sunday mornings, he'd be dressed in that gray suit, sitting at his little wood desk, reading that Bible to himself before the rest of us were done with breakfast. I remember how he'd carefully turn its thin pages, his long, skinny fingers smoothing back the paper in a subconscious caress, up and down the crease in the binding, and clearing his throat repeatedly when he'd read aloud from it in that hardy Maine accent of his.
Grampa and Grammie are both buried in a humble little cemetery nestled up against a forest of pine trees, set apart from the road by blueberry fields and a white picket fence. The church they used to attend is now closed, never used, like untold numbers of other formerly robust churches across New England. The house where they last lived is currently owned by people from New York State and has been modernized beyond what my grandparents would probably neither recognize nor consider prudent. Meanwhile, the two baby blue Adirondack chairs are here in Texas, in the garage, wrapped in plastic, on a shelf over my car. A gold Honda Accord.
Too flashy, you think?
I'm not sure what Grampa would say about me owning a gold-colored Japanese car. Or about his Adirondack chairs sitting on a shelf in a garage in Texas. We don't know which is the one he died in, but it doesn't really matter. Both of those chairs are a link to Grampa, just like his old Bible is. A link not only to him, but to those perfect summer days in Maine. And the even greater Perfection to which Grampa was called on one of those perfect days.
Some people get a lot of money from their grandparents when they die. And that's all well and good. Some grandparents leave both an abundance of money and wonderful memories, which probably is better still. But some memories you just can't buy. And you shouldn't want to.
Happy 100th birthday, Grampa - from one of your Sproggins.