Monday, July 16, 2007

Memory Monday

When I was down in Virginia for the July 4th holiday, I had a chance to visit my maternal grandmother who, at 93, is still a pistol. Having grown up only about 15 minutes from her and my grandfather, I saw them a great deal and consider myself extremely lucky to have had grandparents who played such a direct role in my upbringing. My grandfather in particular was a dynamic influence and, with my own dad often away on business travel, sometimes performed some of those "dad" duties like cheering at ball games, sitting through concerts and recitals, and even "babysitting" me and my brother during summer vacations. He pitched to us, shot hoops, played cards, and ferried us to the club so we could swim. He also took me on his fishing trips from a pretty early age and taught me the finer points of baiting a hook and casting.

Given the historic and geographic context of his birth, my grandfather's story is quite interesting actually. He was born in 1907 in the south-central part of Virginia, a poor rural area long dominated by tobacco farms. He was the eldest of eight children in a family that was land rich but cash poor. A smart boy who did well in school, he wanted to go to college but the family's limited means prevented higher education. Although the family suffered setbacks during the Great Depression, the did benefit from New Deal programs, including running a sawmill that supplied lumber to nearby Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) operations.

But by 1941 he found himself at age 34 with a wife and daughter and increasingly limited opportunities. So he packed up their belongings and moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, and started working in defense plants. By 1951 he had saved enough to build a nice little two-story house, the home in which my grandmother still lives. Over the years he worked in several jobs, including a dry-cleaning business and, in the last decade or so of his employment, as a sheet metal press operator in one of the local shipyards. If one ended right there by saying that he eventually retired to a life of leisure until his death in 1988 at age 80, the story wouldn't hold much interest.

Given his conservative rural background, limited education, and job history, one might conclude that he was a rough, working-class guy with typical, pedestrian interests. That picture certainly offers an apt description of some of the family members I encountered at family reunions over the years. My grandfather, however, never let his circumstances prove limiting. He may not have earned a college education, but as a life-long voracious reader, he possessed a surprising breadth of knowledge and always preached the virtues of education to me and my brother. He was a stellar cook (even coming up with his own recipes), made himself a serious gardener who tackled everything from the exotic to the ordinary, and was a humorous raconteur who charmed those around him, even strangers. I think he was at his happiest when piloting his Ford Galaxy 500 along the mountain miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, or casting a line into a favorite fishing hole, whether the fish were biting or not. The pleasure of a fishing trip was the conversation and relaxation; actually catching fish was simply icing on the cake.

From him I learned that a man can do many things and have many interests, even when those interests and activities might deviate from the stereotypical roles prescribed for a husband and father of his generation and socio-economic circumstances. He possessed a gentlemanly bearing to the very end, when emphysema made each day a trial. Dying just days before I graduated with my Masters degree, his last words to me were to congratulate me and note how proud he was.

As my sons have tried to make sense of their grandmother's recent death, I've used stories of my grandfather to help them understand loss. Indeed, I've pointed out that rather than focus on grandma's death, we should remember all of the fun times and happy memories, because we carry them with us always, and can recall those moments whenever we need a smile.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

What an extraordinary tribute to your grandfather. He sounds like a terrific man and it's obvious to me that he's passed so many of his good qualities on to you. Both of my grandfathers died when I was a bit too young to fully appreciate their characters. I do have many cherished childhood memories that revolve around grandparents and I feel fortunate for that.
Great that you included photos, made your grandfather seem more real for us (readers).