A few days ago I'd heard that my paternal grandfather, Gramps, was diagnosed with Lymphoma and was going to have some tests done to see what treatment was required. Today I woke up and found out via email that he had died. I gather that it wasn't terribly unexpected to those around him, but it took me by surprise.
He lived to be eighty-eight, which was probably a good decade over his life expectancy. When I last saw him around a year ago, he had definitely slowed down, but still had a good quality of life. I visited him and my grandmother in Palm Springs, where they were spending the winter with my aunt and uncle. He had five kids, tons of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and had a good relationship with every one of them. He had a very good life, probably died with few if any regrets, and left all of us better off.
While there's some sadness that I'll never get to see him again, mostly I feel happy that he did have such a good life, and I feel grateful for his influence on me. In that spirit, I thought I'd share a few little stories.
As a kid, my favorite time of the year was summer, specifically the couple weeks I'd get to spend with my grandparents out in rural Vermont. My three siblings and at least six of my cousins would all come visit at the same time. By any measure I had a lot of freedom and independence as a kid, but Vermont was the pinnacle.
My grandparents had two houses in Vermont. The first was a tiny "camp" they built by hand on top of a hill overlooking Lake Champlain. The posts holding up the roof were tree trunks, and the rest of the construction was only slightly less rustic. There were two rooms packed full of bunk beds and one big room with a kitchen, a woodstove, and windows looking out at the lake. My father grew up there, evidenced by his name carved into one of the tree-trunk posts.
The second house had started as a trailer, but had quadrupled in size with the house Gramps built around it. It sat on the next hill over from camp and looked over the same lake. Next to the newer house was a dried out pond that we called the sand pit, and beyond that was a cow pasture.
This was the setting for our summers. We'd run off after breakfast, completely free to do whatever we liked. We'd build racing tracks in the sandpit for our BMX bikes or just to run around. We'd race down the hill to the lake and go swimming or skip stones in the water. We'd feel like adults by staying at the little camp with no supervision, making loaves of bread worth of toast for meals, feeling very self-sufficient about it.
We'd get in trouble, too, sometimes, but were never punished harshly enough to keep us from doing it again. I distinctly remember the owner of the cow pasture not being impressed by us herding his cows at each other during a game of capture-the-flag, and I vaguely recall getting in some sort of trouble for climbing a barn and using its roof as a slide.
Gramps would take us out on the Boston Whaler, a motorboat that dated back to my dad being a teenager. One time I asked Gramps if I could take the boat out by myself. He agreed without any hesitation. I zoomed around the lake, which felt amazing until I realized that the boat was taking on water. I didn't know enough about boats to know that the drainage plug was supposed to be plugged while driving. I got back to shore without sinking, but what I remember most was the feeling of (maybe undeserved) trust that my grandfather had in me.
Another summer there was some sort of cousin scandal. I don't remember the details, but all but two of us had managed to get into some sort of trouble. Somehow I was one of the two who didn't get in trouble. I overheard a conversation where my grandfather wanted to punish the other cousins, but my grandmother wouldn't allow it.
The next day Gramps rounded up the other innocent cousin and me and took us to Ben and Jerry's. There was no explanation or fanfare, but we both knew that justice had been served, and that it tasted like Cherry Garcia.
That was Gramps' nature. He was stoic and reserved, unless you got him talking about airplanes. He used to be a mechanic and had a million stories about sketchy flights he had been on. There's one conversation I had with him, though, that I'l never forget.
We were driving to Vermont for the summer, and I was sitting in the front seat of his burgundy Ford Taurus. He asked what I'd been up to, and I told him all of the highlights. I'd just gotten a new computer, and I'd finally beaten The Last Ninja, and I had this really cool graphing calculator from school...
He said to me something like, "You know, Tynan, you need to be able to talk about more than just computers."
I remember being stunned. As a baby you're totally self centered, and then as you get older you become more aware and sympathetic to those around you. My turning point was probably that moment with Gramps in the Taurus. For the first time I realized that conversations were supposed to be two-way, and that maybe the listener's interests should be considered. For the rest of my life, I kept in mind that people wouldn't always be interested in whatever I'm interested in, and that I should be sensitive to that.
It's interesting to trace the effects of one individual's influence down the family tree. We may not build our own houses on the tops of hills in rural Vermont, but my grandfather's independent spirit passed down to all of us. I'd like to think that his inclination to trust and his sense of right and wrong did, as well.
I would have liked to have had more time with him, but ultimately I can't help but feel happy for Gramps. We all get to be born, and we'll all die, but not all of us will have the opportunity to have so many good years and to have such a large and happy family. His life was a good one, and I'm grateful to have been a part of it and to benefit from his influence as my life continues.
Photo is of Gramps, about a year ago when I last saw him.
If anyone's going to Real Escape tomorrow, let me know. We need one more person on our team.