Today is my grandfather's birthday. He is honestly one of the people I can say has made the most impact on my life. He passed away in 2014, and I wrote this post. I was thinking about him a lot today, and wanted to share it.
My grandfather passed away this past week.
I’ve done a lot of thinking, about how I remember him, and the thing I feel the most sadness about is that no one else will get to know just how incredible he was.
Grandpa George was the last surviving sibling from his family, outliving his eleven brothers and sisters. Mom asked him how he managed to be the last one, halfway joking, and he talked at length about his life, and man was it hard.
He caught polio as a toddler and had to learn to walk again. He was allowed to have his cot downstairs by the woodstove, because he was so very sick. It then became his job to start the woodstove every morning. He got so good at it that he got a job at the one-room schoolhouse lighting the woodstove every day for a whopping $4 per month, which he then had to give to his parents.
At eight, he broke his arm while rebuilding a Ford Model A engine with his brother Charlie. He was winding the front crank, and the thing surged forward and snapped his arm. It was set by a doctor (one he implied was the town drunk) by feel. The next year, he was working in a field and the combine kicked back and broke his arm in the same place. The doctor (a different one) told him it hadn’t healed the first time and was amazed he had been able to work with it the way it was.
The following year, he was playing with a .22 rifle in the attic with his brother Charlie (this is America in the 20s, remember) and they swore up and down that it was unloaded until George shot himself in the foot. His mother set to patching him up and his dad came in the room to yell at him. Grandpa’s mother told her husband to “shut the fuck up and get out.” It was the only time he could remember her ever raising her voice or using that kind of language.
When he was sixteen, he was once again with Charlie, who sounds more and more like a bad influence, and they were running late to a date with a pair of sisters in town. Charlie was speeding and flipped the car end to end a couple of times, rolling it right off the road. Charlie had to be hospitalized for several days, but Grandpa walked away without a scratch. The worst thing that happened, he said, was that he swallowed his cigarette.
He dropped out of school to join the army, just like all of his friends. During the time he served in the South Pacific, he was shot twice. While not being shot at, he and his buddies played poker on the ship, and he won enough to purchase a farm when the war was over. Grandpa was some good at cards. I could never beat him.
GI Bill money? Used it to pay for flying lessons. I like to think I got the flying bug from him, and he was so excited when I became a pilot.
As some of you may know, I lived with him for the entirety of the past summer. It’s a strange thing to become so close to someone who knows their life is ending just as it feels yours is starting. It was like becoming friends with an alien. The two-plus generational gap was nearly impossible to miss. His priorities were so different from mine.
There are a lot of things I’ll remember about my grandfather. His fastidious cleanliness and order in his house. He didn’t own anything unnecessary and everything had a place. He had his cleaning down to a routine that he did not deviate from under any circumstances.
Things were simple for Grandpa, to the point that it drove me up the wall. He had a computer that still ran Windows 95 that was a hand-me-down from my dad, but he never learned how to turn it on. He didn’t see the need to. He had a tiny 13-inch television that must have been older than me, but no cable. He only got three channels, news, news, and PBS. Do you really need more than that? He was also a voracious reader. My dad loves to read and that is where I got my love of books from. I am certain that he got it from his dad. If Grandpa wasn’t doing something else, he was reading. He had shelves full of books, and not a single day went by that he didn’t have time for a few hours of solid reading.
We had a farm when I was young, and one day when I was about six, I let our three pigs escape into the yard. Grandpa was babysitting, puttering around on the farm the way he did, and it was entirely my fault that they got out. It took hours to find them and put them back away. He didn’t raise his voice then, or ever. He also didn’t tell my parents. The worst thing that happened was he said “Please don’t do that again.” He didn’t let on when he was upset or bored. Instead, he rolled through life ignoring the crappy parts.
I hung out a lot with Grandpa when I was in elementary school. We had a farm, and Mom and Dad were both working city jobs, so he would often be the one who was at my house when I got home, tinkering away the way he did. On Fridays he would pick me up from school and take me to DJs Quiktrip down the road and buy me ice cream. On one of these trips, I met his long-term girlfriend. He had been married twice, but Grandpa was never lonely for long. He was a charmer, and back in the day, pretty good looking.
Grandpa was far more social than anyone I know, including my university friends. He was in tons of clubs societies. Every week he went out dancing with his girlfriend. He played cards of various kinds with his buddies, sometimes winning, sometimes not. Every week was a parade of breakfasts at the church, lunches at the senior center or the Moose Club, and dinners out with friends or family. He never sat still for long, even as he got older.
I can hope that I age as well as he did. As of this past week, he was still living by himself and still driving his own car. When we went out of town, someone else would drive, but in the city, he was completely self sufficient. He needed someone to check up on him, but he was doing really great for someone of his age.
Grandpa made me who I am today. There won’t be a single day that I don’t use some of the things that he taught me, directly or indirectly. He is perhaps my greatest personal hero, and undoubtedly will be for many years to come. I think about him often.
The last thing he said to me, the night before I flew back to Halifax in August, was “I’m sure going to miss you.”
I’m sure going to miss him too.