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.
What a touching -- and real, and optimistic -- take on the death of a loved one. Gramps sounds awesome -- thanks for sharing this Tynan. Beautiful.
I think it`s something beautiful to learn from the old generation. For just some simple given attention, we are able to learn so much in return.
The wisdom of a lifetime full of struggles, achievements and running a family packed to some nice stories. Stories even a child can understand.
Grandfathers are sometimes really great in producing small story masterpieces.
Regards from Germany :)
Your way with words is incredibly moving. Thanks for sharing and being so public Tynan. Best to you!
Deepest sympathies to you! May the fond memories you have of shared times with your grandfather, bring you peace. The article here is a beautiful tribute to your grandfather and those good times you shared.
Thank you, Tynan, for sharing your life with us, and especially the relationship you had with your Gramps. A great reminder to all of us to think about the legacy we want to leave behind.
This was a very moving post; thanks for sharing and I'm sorry for your loss. I'm visiting my 92-year-old Dad in Baltimore today for Father's Day, and it's a real blessing to still hsve him. I'm in Baltimore from Topeka, KS in my first rented RV. Loving every minute! In two years (or less) I'm hoping to chuck apt living, become a real minimalist, and live the RV lifestyle on a permanent basis; still doing the research. Thanks again for a beautiful post.
It's a dangerous night to be walking outside. Not for me, but for the tiny little frogs that dot the gravel road. I swish my overpowered Surefire flashlight across the dark gravel trying to avoid stepping on them. When I get close they freeze in their tracks, making them harder to see. This would be a good reflex if I was trying to eat them, but it's working against them tonight.
I'm walking down to the beach for old times' sake. It's 2am and I'm in Milton, Vermont. Calling it a beach is generous. Shale rocks densely scattered over green outcroppings of weeds lead up to murky water. There are a few docks and a few boats pulled up out of the water. They're not locked to anything - they're just sitting there.
I crouch, pick up one of the little green frogs, and watch him slowly climb around my wrist as I rotate it. I probably haven't touched a frog in ten years. Playing with frogs used to be my favorite thing to do when I was in Vermont. I liked to catch them in a bucket and then empty it into the nearby creek and watch them swim away. Sometimes we'd throw them in the air so that they'd land in the lake. That seems a bit inhumane now, but we didn't know better back then. We were kids. I lower my arm to the ground and nudge the frog off of my wrist.
I walked into the airport in Seattle, ready to fly to San Francisco. I was checking in, and the kiosk I was using gave me the option to change my seat. I mostly fly on the East Coast, and really only on Airtran Airways, and on Airtran it costs money to change your seat. This time however, it was free, so I decided “What the hell” and hit the button. I immediately noticed I was in the back row, all the way on the left. There wasn't even a window, it was almost as if it used to be additional storage, but decided to put half a seat there to make an extra couple of dollars. There were two other seats open, one center seat about 3 rows from the back, and one in center of the very first row of coach. “Hot damn,” I thought, and I grabbed the seat at the front of coach.
I got onto my plane, and noticed there was no where in front of me to put my bag, and the flight attendant made me put it in overhead storage (which I hate using). The plane was about half filled when another guy who looked about my age (19) sat down in the window seat next to me. He had kind of scraggly, unkempt hair, and an earring that looked like (and probably was) just a woodchip through his left ear. He sat down next to me, and the flight attendant immediately yelled at him to put his bags up above. We exchanged grumblings about having to put our stuff up, and then we started talking.
“It's weird being in an airplane again,” Marty commented, looking around uncomfortably. “In fact it's kind of weird to be surrounded by people.” I asked if it was his first time flying, and he responded “No, I've just been... out of touch with the world for a while.” He then went on to tell me about how he had just spent the past four months by himself in a log cabin in the woods of Northern Minnesota, fifty miles from the nearest road. He told me about how he was in the backwater bar in Minnesota, talking to some loggers. This one logger was telling Marty about his grandfather had built a log cabin up north a long time ago, but no one had had time to go there in fifteen years. Marty thought about it for a second, and then asked the logger “How much?” The logger was a bit taken back, and replied cautiously “Nine hundred dollars?” Marty wrote him a check on the spot, and then met back up with the logger the next day for a topographical map. “It's the only way you can find it,” the logger said. Since it's so far from any roads, you have to find the right hills, follow streams and rivers, and take the correct forks. Marty got some equipment, and then headed off.
He arrived in the closest town (50 miles from the cabin) and proceeded to make three trips to the cabin. He was hiking the whole time, so he could only carry so much. He arrived towards the end of winter, and had some trouble the first month. He shot three bucks, but didn't preserve the meat of the first two correctly and the bodies were covered in flies and maggots within 45 minutes. The third one he did right, but had to dry the meat in a corner of his cabin for a month. He said “it smelled like a dead animal.” He paused, and then laughed and added “Well I guess it was a dead animal.” The cabin had a wood stove, a wooden desk, some candles, and not much else.
He spent a lot of time cleaning up the cabin and the surrounding area (no one had been there for 15 years), and spent the rest of his days hunting small game (rabbit, squirrel), fishing (in lakes so clear you could see 30 feet below the surface), and exploring. He told me about how he used a series of pink bandannas to tie around trees, so he could find his way home. When exploring, he'd tie them around trees as he was about to get out of sight of the previous one. On the way back home, he'd untie and collect them, leaving no trace he was ever there. When he arrived back home, he would sit at his desk and read books, write, and draw.