The thing no one really explains to you when you’re young is that things only exist the way you perceive them. Grown ups spend so much time trying to convince children that things aren’re real, but when you’re a child, real is one of the most basic truths: If you think something exists or is true, it is. This includes the obvious and ubiquitous list of things like monsters, ghosts, unicorns and Santa Claus (and okay, maybe even a tall tale about a legendary northern in your hometown lake).
The thing with childhood though, is that it ends. For all of us. Even for those of us that fight it kicking and screaming, there comes a time when we are forced headlong into LIFE. If we’re lucky, the transition is an easy one, and we let go of our adolescent ideologies easily. They fade into the background as we get older and we trade Santa Claus and the tooth fairy for MVP’s, rockstars, or God. Adolescence lends itself to the formation of idols and development of heroes. Some we let go of later in life – the basketball star, the pro-snowboarder, the cone-bra clad rockstar. But some of them we hold onto for the whole of our lives. They become rooted within us so deeply that they become hardwired into our very DNA – imprinted into the genetic makeup of our personalities. Some of them stay with us forever – woven like an impenetrable thread in the fabric of our lives. I had heroes when I was a kid – but I wasn’t a typical kid (shocking, right?). As such I didn’t have the most typical heroes. Sure, I worshipped Madonna and Paula Abdul, but the people I looked up to most were closer. More tangible. More…real. And the one man that wove himself most profoundly into the fabric of who I am – the person who helped me become who I was always meant to be -was one of the people I knew the least. He is – he was – my grandfather.
I don’t remember much from my childhood – or at least I don’t recall much vividly – I can’t close my eyes and see clearly something that happened two or three decades ago. What my memory lacks in visual acuity however, it more than makes up for in sentiment. I can’t see most of my memories – but I can feel them; extremely loud and incredibly close – and the memories of my grandfather resonate with the greatest vibrato and most perfect pitch of them all.
Though he was a farmer most of his life – I never knew him as such. He was a remarkable cultivator of tall tales and laughter, but the only thing I ever saw him grow was my grandma Helen’s temper (which, as most husbands do for their wives, he did remarkably well!). He spent the whole of my childhood working for Thompson Machine, and when he’d come home in the evenings smelling of sawdust and grease, I’d rush to greet him and he’d swoop me up in his arms and bestow upon me the greatest hug this side of ever. Then we’d go downstairs to his workshop and he’d tell me the stories that matched the scars I pointed out on his hands (sometimes he even demonstrated with the old metal fan that sat atop his workbench).
(Let’s just say I learned the trick about the removable thumb at a very early age.)
Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s boat, and, if I’m being honest, on various lakeshores throughout Polk County. Grandpa taught me how to fish – how to bait a hook, cast a line, tire out a fiesty (and half-my-size) northern pike, and clean my catch – and he taught me how to be silent (I know, I know. A lesson I’ve obviously forgotten). He taught me how to be patient and that sometimes, goddamit Athena Helen, you just have to sit and wait. He taught me that life is a series of preparation meeting opportunity, just like fishing. And in that boat I learned that sometimes you find the best life has to offer in the most unassuming of places. But most of all, summer after summer, year after year, he taught me that he really didn’t like it when he didn’t catch the biggest fish.
As I got older I spent less and less time in Grandpa’s boat. Eventually he moved from the house he shared with my grandmother to one of his very own in the next town over. Trips to North Twin Lake were replaced by walks along the rocks of the upper St Croix and time spent cleaning fish was exchanged for talks about baseball and the weather. We had less and less in common; I was growing up -and he was content to watch me become my own person – even if it meant watching from an ever growing distance.
He eventually sold the boat (which carried with it a startling surprise and a heartbreaking realization for me), and the time he spent on the water became time spent behind the wheel of his car. He spent hours every day driving around Polk County delivering warm smiles, conversation, and often a gift or two to those he’d known most of his adult life. Always a woodworker, he turned the woodshop in his home into an art studio and spent hours burning drawings into sanded pine, only to give them away to anyone who hinted they had wall space to spare or a love of flora or fauna. I spent what time I could with him as I got older, but as I set off to college and began my life, our visits grew fewer and farther between, and my knowledge of his life diminished with great speed.
The years slipped passed as Grandpa endured the loss of my grandmother, his youngest son, and some of his dearest friends. He watched as his oldest grand-daughter was married, and nervously walked me down the aisle on my wedding day. His hands were shaking with the tremors of age as he placed my hand in DRL’s and gave me away. As his grandchildren graduated high school and college, and started careers and families of their own, he slowly fell victim to the hands of time and grew old, and then older still. He began counting seasons instead of days; his routine marked by the coming of the jays to the feeder and the roar of the baseball crowd on the television set. The rhythmic squeak of his rocking chair kept time melodically, as one year slipped quietly into the next.
When my mother asked me if I would write a eulogy for my grandfather, my reponse was simply that I couldn’t. “I didn’t know him,” I replied. Because I didn’t. I don’t. I don’t know the name of his favorite book, or his first car, or the name of the first girl he ever kissed. I don’t know how many nights he dreamt he was dancing with my grandmother after she died, and I don’t know if he really hated that I always caught the biggest fish, or if it was just another one of the many ways he teased me. But yesterday, something changed. I realized all I ever needed to know about Leonard- about my Grandfather – I already did.
I know that he gave the best hugs this side of ever. That he had a soft spot for pretty ladies. That he loved to dance and enjoyed a slow waltz as much as a good Wisconsin polka. That he loved blackberry brandy and baseball and birds of all shapes and sizes. I know that he could build almost anything, and that his hands were his most prized possession. And that he loved and cherised every single second he got to spend with every single person who knew him.
My grandfather passed away last Monday night; His death was quiet. Easy. He simply closed his eyes and slipped away. No whistles or sirens, no crash carts or pain. He died the way most people fall asleep, slowly and then all at once. The night after he died he came to me in a dream. We were fishing – or rather, I was fishing and he was there – standing in the water with his waders on, casting out his line. He was younger – I’m guessing late fifties – probably what he looked like when I was five or six – his dark hair interspersed with flecks of silver. I looked over at him as he flicked his rod back and forth and he looked at me for an instant, a smile spread wide across his face, before he turned to look over the lake. It was a perfect summer day and he was happy. So remarkably happy. The dream was so vivid that when I close my eyes to remember him – to tell him I love him and I miss him and I’ll hold him with me for always – that’s the image I see. Not him as an old man, a victim of the cruel hands of age. Not his face the night before his hip surgery, or the last time I saw him – the night I finally allowed myself to say goodbye. No. I see the face of the first hero I ever had staring over the water on his favorite lake. With the sun in his eyes and a smile on his lips, I see my grandfather alive. Happy. Perfect.
For that – and for all the amazing and wonderful years I had with him – I am forever grateful.
I love you Grandpa.