My grandfather will be turning 85 in a few days, and I want him to know what he’s meant to me all these years.
When I was very young, he made me believe that he had been a swashbuckling pirate and a Mongolian warrior. It wasn’t difficult; to me, he’s always seeemed to have a certain immortality, a supernatural strength. It took a few years before I figured out that he probably wasn’t old enough to have been a pirate, but I still enjoy imagining it.
He took me to my first — and only — baseball game. He took me aboard an aircraft carrier when I was small enough that everything seemed big and aircraft carriers were impossibly big.
He dared me to poke him in the ribs and, without fail, he would catch my hands in a vise grip long before I had any hope of hitting my target. I never quite got over just how quick or strong he seemed.
He took me fishing, carried me across deep currents that I couldn’t swim, and he gave me the deep love of the outdoors that to this day still is my sanctuary when civilized life gets to be a little bit too intolerable. He told me how much he loved the desert, and although I was a young man before I got out there alone, I found I loved it too, for my own reasons.
He taught me how to play chess at the age when most kids were still figuring out tic-tac-toe, and I don’t think he ever let me win, even though I was the sorest of the sore losers. I remember how happy he was when I finally started winning, and the ensuing competition that we had for a few years.
He taught me about gardening, and we grew pumpkins one year in his yard. Gardening is fancy business now but he’s a firm believer in steer manure, the stinkier the better.
He taught me about poetry. He introduced me to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Thanatopsis, and other important works of literature like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Decameron. I never got very good at poetry, but it gave me an appreciation for wordsmithing that I’ve never altogether lost.
He did his best to introduce me to girls when I was young, and elbow me in the ribs occasionally or gesture over somewhere and suggest I should go talk to a cute young girl. It wasn’t quite enough to make up for my shyness, but the older I get, the more I appreciate a simple, “Hi.”
He taught me about storytelling, giving me true stories of his youth and sometimes, maybe, somewhat slightly embellished stories — not that many of his stories really needed any seasoning. Every once in a while I get the mood and opportunity to tell a story, and it’s his voice and expressions that always naturally come to life.
No man lives without some regret and in that regard he’s no different from anyone else. None of us is born knowing the right thing to do in every situation, or how to tame our inner demons.
Still, he stood up to racism at a time and place when few other people did, he worked hard, he didn’t let many things scare him all that much, and he raised a family with his wife. He rarely let other people get the best of him because he was always willing to do what he thought was right, even if it was going to set him down a hard road. I learned a lot about right and wrong and the sort of man I wanted to be from him and his stories.
He came up with names for pets and fictional characters that would have made Lewis Carroll proud. It might seem like a minor thing, but I don’t recall ever meeting another person who could survey a road, clear property, manage a garden, build a shed, and still have that rare spark of creativity that can make people laugh at an absurd name.
It fits nicely with his sense of humor. He has an impish humor, a fondness for stirring up a bit of light trouble, and more often than not getting himself into it. He’s expressive and he laughs as much as anyone else in the room, despite a bad cough he’s had for years now.
Some of his life has been cruel and unfair, and through it all he has tried to be a fair, decent man, where other men would have become bitter at the world.
He has given more than his fair share to the people around him, to sustain them through their difficulties, to give them opportunities that he rarely was given. And, despite numerous family squabbles, he’s never given up the idea that family is more important than anything else in life — because he knows what it’s like to grow up without one.
I have a copy of every book he’s written and published, his poetry, his stories, some of his paintings, and pictures of family trips and moments we’ve had together, but what I’m most grateful for is his influence. It gave me the courage to strike out on my own shortly after 18, to make mistakes and face the consequences; an appreciation of natural and creative beauty; and an inner voice that reminds me not to be afraid, to do what’s right even if it’s difficult, to try new things all the time, to live well and fully.