I was sitting in the Music Room of my Grandma Grace's retirement home this afternoon. I took the boys with me for a little visit to her new place. It's like a mansion, just beautiful, and she's really spoiled there.
My Gramps would be so happy!
There was a man there playing the piano. A regular Liberace of sorts. His fingers flew over the keys as he played old hymns...which was appropriate because it was Sunday afternoon. I don't remember any specific songs that he played, but his playing made me remember.....
Gramps coming over on Sunday afternoons. On days like today, where the sun was out, just calling to an old man to go take a drive and see the Grandkids. He and Grace would pull up in his brand new, cream-colored 1978 GMC Sprint emblazoned with "Cream Puff" on the back tailgate.
He'd pull in the driveway and wait for us to come outside. My brother and I would run out to give them hugs and I can remember the smell of Gramps' aftershave...and of course, Grace's Rose Milk scented hand lotion. Poppy would always ask if they would like to come in for a cup of coffee and he'd say that no, they were just out for a drive, were going past this way and just stopping in. Those were the days when you didn't have to call first before seeing somebody. And it was just on a day like it was today that he would have stopped by.
Gramps and Grace would always stay in the "Cream Puff" with the doors hanging wide open. His new 8-track casette player usually had some Swede from Minnesotta singing gospel music that only a well-trained ear could understand. Liberace was playing just that kind of music today.
As I was sitting in that music room I found myself getting a little bit uncomfortable. I turned and looked at the door at least once, but remembered I had only just arrived. The whole vibe made me begin to think that maybe the reason I don't come visit Grandma often, like I promised Gramps the day before he passed, is that it's just so hard. So hard to see her without him. Because as much as they were an odd couple, there was never just one without the other.
Larger than life. That's who he was. A presence that filled the room, took it over with his in-your-face attitude. He either loved you or hated you and people either loved or hated him. If you were his enemy you never could become his friend. And I loved him.
He was loud, honest, unapologetic, rude, domineering and opinionated about everything. And I loved him. He was marshmallow cream on the inside. He was able to sense if you were the kind of person that didn't live your life being true to yourself. If you were honest, he respected you. But being honest with him could be so hard. One false move and he could throw you out. He did throw people out.
And I loved him.
"I'm the King," he would shout. "I'm the GREATEST!" he would holler and slam his fist down on the table. That was his way of saying hello. "Little Marrry-Annie....," he would greet me, "How goes it with you?" he'd bark like the old Swede he was. "Burr-rurr-ruur," he would growl as I hugged him, pretending it was too mushy for him. But the gleam in his eye would betray every word that crossed his lips. I knew he loved me. And he didn't have to say it.
All that man knew was hard work, and he learned how to provide for his family on the farm in Minnesota. At the end of the Great Depression there just wasn't as much opportunity for young families like his, and for men who were willing to work hard, there was all kinds of work out West where lumber was plentiful.
Uncle Andy came first. He worked in logging camps all over Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. He'd farm in Minnesota in the summer, then in the Winter when the snow was deep and there was no work to be had, he'd work as a lumberjack out West.
He'd return with pictures, stories and tales of the never-ending forests...and of the rich beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Soon, others in the family were packing up their kids and heading out for a new life and work in the lumbermills.
It wasn't long after Gramps moved the family out that he was able to buy the home of his dreams. It was an old farmhouse that needed a lot of work, but he knew how to work with his hands. If I remember right there were even dirt floors when they first moved in. But it didn't take long for him to get the house and all 26 acres into the kind of place that he could spend the rest of his life.
He built himself a big shop (it's there in the right hand corner). And if he wasn't sitting at the dining room table looking out the window, he was in that shop. He had a Farrah Foster poster tacked up on the wall for those infrequent moments of boredom. There was an old fashioned hand-crank turn table that played music in Swedish and Ole & Lena jokebooks to read when he got tired of working on engines.
The man loved anything with a motor. His shop smelled of grease and his fingers were stained black in the wrinkles from all the oil he worked with. He had over 2 dozen tractors that were stored in the barn or the open carports that faced the dining room window. (The carports are on the left-hand side) He had John Deere and Massey Ferguson. Some started with a turn of the key while others were much older and had to be turned with a hand crank to start. All were refurbished by him, his old croney cousin or his sons and only custom paint colors and decals were used. Everything looked authentic. From early Spring (days like today) through the end of Fall, he'd line many of the tractors up in the circular grass pattern you see in front of the house. This is what he would look at, as he sat at his dining room table.
He had a Model A Ford with a rumble seat that he sent out to be professionally restored, and at one time had a convertible Chevrolet Impala. The Impala looked like Boss Hogg's car on the Dukes of Hazard. He even had horns for the hood but he never put them on. You could see the gleam in his eye when he talked about it though, he wanted to! He loved to take us kids on a Sunday drive, out in the open air with the top down, with Don- Ho blaring or Swedish-accented crooners. And always, a big smile on his face. Besides your company, it was the motors he loved. He even had lawnmower motors fastened to boards. He'd just start every motor he had up all at the same time, grinning as the furious noise drowned out any hope for conversation. Maybe he enjoyed it because it represented all of his hard work.....or maybe it was just because it was driving you insane!
By the time I was 8 we had our first motorbike, a 3/Wheeler Honda ATV. Our cousins had one too and we would spend hours riding together in the fields. By then there weren't any horses to dodge and he kept the fields pretty well mowed down. We'd sit 2 to a bike and take turns driving. We had more fun going up and down the driveway and back up into the forested hillside than any kid could have. Shoot, we had 26 acres all to ourselves. I've never really thought about until right now, how much pleasure he must have gotten watching his grandchildren enjoy their own motorized vehicles. He just loved watching us go!
P.W. (Philix Wilbert). I learned many things from that man. I learned how to look past the words of a man, to see into his heart and know the kindness that lurks within the spirit. I learned how to push past fear and boldly say what was the truth within my heart, despite possible reprisal. I learned that a man could be fiercely loyal in his love, but at the same time exceptionally frustrated. I learned you can be naive about the power of your words and their negative effects on the ones you hold dear. And, how to care for someone so much that your body experiences the same pain and suffering they feel.
On such a beautiful sunny Sunday like today, I marvel at the specialness of our relationship and wonder what made it so special. We shared some secret between us....perhaps it was that I thought he was full of crap, and he knew it. Rough on the outside, marshmallow cream on the inside.
And I loved him.