My grandparents had already sold their farm by the time I came along. They were living in a somewhat rural area outside of the city where I was born. My grandfather had created a huge garden where he taught my sister and I about strawberries and raspberries. There were other things – grapes, beans, carrots, rhubarb – but the berries were all we cared about.
He had a little barn where, at one point, he raised chinchillas. The small animals always frightened me, but I never missed an opportunity to go to the barn with him. My grandfather was a quiet man. He wasn’t overly emotional or demonstrative. Especially in social settings, he was aloof. I don’t even really remember his invitations, yet I remember always going with him. Tending the garden, mowing the grass, caring for the chinchillas, or walking in the fields behind his property I went with him whenever I visited. There were a variety of odd jobs he had while I grew up; caring for racehorses and chickens at hatcheries, maintaining the properties of his wealthy sisters, among other things. Cleaning and maintaining the large Presbyterian church was something he and my grandmother did together. My sister and I always went along. We often spent weekends at our grandparents’. That’s when my grandfather taught me how to rug hook. It was something he enjoyed doing in the evenings while watching game shows. He tried to teach me pool, but I didn’t apply myself. Winning wasn’t something I enjoyed, so I really didn’t want to become a skilled player. But rug hooking appealed to me. I still have rugs he made and one that I completed from a kit he bought me.
Lately when the uncertainty of life is overwhelming, I find myself remembering moving through the air on the tire swing in my grandparents’ front yard. There was so much silence. I loved it as a child and long for it now as a mother of five loud children.
There is so much more I wish I’d learned from my grandfather. At that point, I had no idea I’d one day be planting gardens of my own. I didn’t imagine I’d own chickens or be reading up on small scale dairy production. These are things my grandfather knew about from his life on the farm. He had a diverse operation selling produce, eggs, and milk. Never did he regale us with stories of his enterprise. He gently instructed me enough so that I could take part in what he was doing – feeding horses, filling water bottles for chinchillas, cleaning trout ponds, changing light bulbs on chandeliers high up in the church sanctuary. If I’d know where my life was headed, I would have asked for more of his knowledge.
My grandmother was a harsh and critical woman. In many ways she had reason to be. Life hadn’t turned out the way she’d wanted. My sister once interviewed our grandmother for a project in college. One question was, “What is your biggest regret?” From another room, our grandfather shouted out with a laugh, “Marrying me!” The act was so spontaneous and out of character, I’ve never forgotten my sister’s retelling of it.
It’s true, they were not well suited. I’m not sure why they married. Unable to have children, it wasn’t to avoid scandal. Neither was wealthy. All their siblings had prospered in the small town where they lived. But my grandparents were both living very modestly while single. They married later in life, fully aware of who they were and where they were headed. Still my grandmother resented who my grandfather was. I don’t know what he thought of her. He always spoke of her with respect and honoured her wishes.
Always agreeable and deferring to my controlling grandmother, I used to think of him as having a certain weakness of character. Why didn’t he stand up to her? Why didn’t he insist upon getting his own way?
Now, I see him very differently. Though their union may have been regrettable, he was committed to it. Standing up to my grandmother would have added a great deal of strife. In significant issues, he did take a stand. There was a stubbornness that came forth when something was important.
In the everyday, my grandfather cultivated a life that fed his spirit. He took long walks in the fields and forest. He grew fruit and vegetables to feed us. He planted beautiful flower gardens. He played his banjo. He made rugs and mirrors. He played pool on the table in his basement. He took his grandchildren bowling and out for ice cream on a regular basis. His home and property were immaculate as was his appearance. He was a gentle man at peace in his life. I understand the magnitude of strength he had to maintain his joy in the face of disappointment and regret that went well beyond his marriage.
Though by no means exuberant, I remember my grandfather as happy. There are so many things he could have taught me. Sifting through our time together, I realize the greatest gift he gave was the example of how to create happiness even in unhappy circumstances. It isn’t something I’ve mastered. But I want to apply myself. When I forget the cares surrounding me and fully enjoy planting apple trees or take time to marvel at the eggs from my chickens, I see how he maintained his light. He knew what mattered – being in nature, creating beautiful spaces, music, and items, and connecting with his grandchildren. That’s what he devoted himself to. He was able to shine in a great deal of darkness. In these dark days, I’m continually remembering his light.
Do everything without grumbling or arguing,
so that you may become blameless and pure,
“children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”
Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky
as you hold firmly to the word of life…