He aged to 86 years around the time I left Florida, and finally started letting family help him with chores around the house. My Mom and her sisters were handling everything he needed, but since I was back in the area, and didn’t have a ton to do, it ended up being the perfect opportunity for me to hang out with one of my favorite people. I got lucky, too. In the months that followed, I was able to chip off a few pieces of wisdom that came with living close to 90 years.
I had great respect for my Grandfather. Still do. He grew up poorer than dirt, but made a spectacular life for himself and his family by working harder than anyone I’ve ever known. He was a military man. Very corporate, organized, and had a tough-but-fair kind of attitude. He was a very short step away from being vice president of GM before he decided to retire in his late 50’s. He showed me what hard work could afford, but just as importantly, what it takes away. He always wanted me to remember that sacrifice was a very real part of busting your ass.
I’d visit him at least once a week, sometimes more. I’d change lightbulbs that were a little too far up in his ceilings, go with him to the hardware store so he could get odds and ends for projects, change out wiring in his furnace — whatever he needed. He was still a pretty active guy that got around relatively easily in his old age, but there was enough he couldn’t do that he ended up taking the help. I think he liked having me around after a while, but it took some time. He liked to bark a bit, but he never had a bite to him. I always did my best for him, and he was happy because he was getting free labor (as he saw it, I was just helping my Gramps out).
Eventually, he was also able to talk to me in a way I don’t think he ever expected to talk to anyone. At least anyone I knew. Maybe my Grandmother. And I didn’t expect it either. It didn’t happen right away, of course, but by the end, he was more than my Grandfather, and I was more than his grandson. We were friends. Close friends. It was a special relationship, and I'm glad we had the chance to have that.
It all started easily enough. I’d just ask questions. I’d be using a screwdriver on a door hinge and ask him what it like being a teenager in the 1940’s. What was it like being a part of the automotive revolution in Flint and Detroit? Was it hard having thousands of employees? What was the hardest day of your life? How did you meet my Grandmother? What’s the one thing you didn’t do that you wish you would’ve done? He’d answer every question, some in greater detail than others. He never refused to answer anything, and that felt great. Eventually, he started to offer up thoughts on his own, without me having to ask. He was never a big “back in my day” kind of guy, but I got him to open up.
I’ll never forget the day he told me about mysteries. I was replacing a few boards in his deck that were going to rot if left there for a few more winters. It was a late afternoon in June, and we both had a few beers in us. It was warm, but there was a nice breeze rolling in through the trees around his place. Gramps sat in the shade in his favorite chair, offering his best board removal tips (as grandfathers do). I must’ve been doing alright because he didn’t offer too many tips, and let himself think about other things.
It started as a work story, as a lot of his stories did. I think that was always a comfortable place for him to start, but he’d eventually take his thoughts to another place. Philosophize a bit. Kick around some theories. Anyway, he spoke about how leading a team whose job it was to come up with a new design for a car was tough work. There were so many pieces that had to come together perfectly. He said the people that were the best to have on his team were the people who could reach into the unknown, hold onto a mystery, and transform it into something new and exciting. Something worthwhile. I remember smiling pretty broadly. This god-fearing, perfect American family guy was talking about the unknown, and it was completely out of character for him. I loved it. I told him I liked that very much, and that I tried to do that with my work. He chuckled a bit. He probably knew better. I had plenty to learn. Still do.
As conversation drifted on, he told me that the most special mysteries are fragile things. They can shatter with small amounts of pressure, but offer untold amounts of wonder if handled appropriately. If you treat them right, he said, they can give you inspiration, motivation, and help you create something you never would’ve expected from yourself. And once the mystery is over, and everything has been explored, it can transform into a core of understanding. Something you can carry with you for all time. A solved mystery still offers everything it did in its previous form, but with the added bonus of knowing how to do it better next time. How to reach further, deeper, and with great confidence.
I was dumbfounded. Gramps had never spoken like that before, and I just sat there with a hammer in my hand, staring at him. He brushed it off, and told me to finish up so we could have dinner. We didn’t speak for the rest of the task. The trees and birds talked while I thought about his words.
Thinking back, I don’t think he was getting soft in his old age. Not him. I think he wanted to give a few more of those tips before he decided his time here was over. That was my Grandfather in a nutshell. No one was going to tell him what to do, when it was time to die. That was his choice. And that’s how it happened one night in a nearby hospital. I miss my Grandfather very much. I hope to be half the man he was. I work towards that goal every day. You can have many things in life, but only a few are mysterious enough to be of great importance. Only a handful can really be magic.
You’re my greatest mystery. The most fragile I’ve had the chance of holding. Maybe you feel that way too. Maybe that’s why you’re hiding. Maybe Gramps knew more than he was letting on, even about this. I don’t want to squeeze too hard, I don’t want to shatter this, but I have the strongest desire to turn us into a core. To keep that core in my chest and let it drive me every day. But I have to keep your wants, your mysteries, in mind too. Maybe my desires are misplaced. This all might be too much.
I want to keep writing to you. I can stop if that’s what you need, but I have a few more things that I want to say, and I’d like to have the chance. But if this is getting too big, tell me. I want you to smile. If it’s easier for you without all of this, I understand. I really do.
Bye for now.