“I wish I could call Grandpa-Great,” Sonny said the other day. I wish so, too. Especially today, which would have been his 100th birthday.
I thought of him the other day while reading an article on minimalism. (He probably would have been bemused that this philosophy—which, for most of history, was just the way all people lived—is now considered a) the latest trend and b) something that takes work to achieve.) In any case, minimalists would approve of the handful of belongings he chose to keep toward the end of his life. Of course, when you are a nonagenarian and live in an assisted living facility you don’t need a car or specialty cleaners or an extra pair of boots or plates or half a can of spray paint that, who knows, you might use for something someday. You don’t bother with shelves of books, and any extraneous furniture is just in the way. When you’re 97 you’re satisfied with one TV; it doesn’t occur to you to acquire the army of devices that rule the rest of us.
Still, even for a 97-year-old, he traveled lightly. Almost everything that was packed up after his death harbored significance.
His chair. Grandpa often expressed concern that the kids would be bored while visiting him, as he didn’t have any toys. But no worries; who could be bored in a room that featured not only Grandpa-Great but a remote-control lift recliner, which he freely allowed young boys to operate as they chatted?
“We flew a kite yesterday. It was striped and shaped like a bird. Did you ever fly a kite when you were a boy?” (Up went the chair.)
“What was it shaped like?”
“Like something that didn’t want to fly. We made our own kites, and they didn’t work very well. But we made them anyway.” (Down went the chair.)
“Did your mom let you watch PBS Kids while she took a shower?”
“No. We didn’t have TVs.”
“What did you do instead?”
“We fixed our kites.”
He would point to his collage of photographs, many of them over half a century old, and tell of the people they featured. “That was your Papa and his horse. He loved that horse . . .” And stories poured forth from the comfort—and entertainment—of the chair.
A framed print of a bird in flight. This piece of mass-produced art seemed inconsequential until my dad and uncle took it down to box up. Discovered taped to the back of the print: a sheet of notebook paper on which Grandpa had hand-copied the poem “To a Waterfowl” by William Cullen Bryant.
Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way? . . .
. . . He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.
It can’t be a stretch to presume that that he words he had copied on notebook paper (and likely in his memory also—“We used to memorize things,” he said once, and proved it by reciting a few lines of Shakespeare) gave him assurance. The print must have served as a ready reminder of this comfort.
A desk. Its contents were the usual: Pens. A letter opener, its handle engraved with the name of bank, both the engraving and blade dulled by decades of letter opening. Paper clips, because every desk houses paper clips even though most people seldom use them. (Do they?) But also, tucked farther back:
A small toy horse, one leg broken off. The horse had been a gift from his parents upon their return from Mayo Clinic around 1923, when Grandpa was seven. The memories of receiving the toy horse in a time when gifts were rare (“We used to get one thing for Christmas, and we were happy” he mentioned once) must have been inextricable from those of the devastating diagnosis that his father also brought back from Rochester. How often did Grandpa hold that horse during his father’s last months and in the first months without him? In any case, he kept it for over 90 years, remembering.
A Camels pack, still holding a few cigarettes, circa early 1950s and deliberately crushed. Although Grandpa was frugal and seldom wasted anything, he’d apparently quit mid-pack and saved the evidence for over 60 years. I wonder why he kept them. To recall a battle he’d won? To remind himself to avoid destructive habits?
A treasure trove of treats. Fun-sized candy bars, mints, jelly beans or candy corn or miniature candy canes (depending on which holiday was in the vicinity) squirreled away for his great-grandkids. Although he couldn’t remember our names at the end, he never forgot the candy. “Make sure the boys get some candy before they leave,” he said. “Did they get some candy? They can have more than one.”
And, of course, he left behind memories, too many to mention. But one that stands out is one that he deliberately planted. When we were kids, he and Grandma would ask visiting grandchildren to read aloud from the Bible after supper. The reader was free to choose the passage. (This did involve risks; just ask the hapless grandchild who, as a young teenager, let the Bible fall open randomly and started reading before realizing too late that the passage was one of those embarrassing ones about lust. Oops. If you ever wanted to hear Grandpa laugh, you could just ask him to tell of how his grandkid, blushing and stammering, read aloud about harlots in front of the familly.)
But one evening during a visit, instead of asking my sisters or me to read, he chose the passage himself and asked us to listen closely. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’ . . .”
He unpacked each metaphor for us—“when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim . . .” But upon concluding (“ . . . and the spirit returns to God who gave it”) he did not expound further. He was confident that we understood his message, which was subtle but clear.
As were the other messages he left us, woven into his few remaining belongings.
So his spirit has returned to God who gave it, and although I can’t help wishing he could have held out to celebrate today, I am glad to have so much time with him, and I am glad that Sonny and Ace knew him and remember him. I am thankful for him—what he gave when he was here and what he’s left behind.
Happy birthday, Grandpa.