Slight bit of hyperbole: my grandfather was not exactly the squishy type. Never mind that he drove a baby-blue Delta 88 (1979, used) with a baby-blue slipcover for the bench seat, and especially never mind that all farm work stopped every day at 2:00 PM so he could watch Another World. Other than that his default mode seemed to be exacting bastard, and seldom was heard an encouraging word.
I know he loved us (and we’ll get to that), but it was tough never feeling like anything we did around the farm was good enough. My grandmother always consoled my brother and I later, saying “Don’t mind him; his bark is worse than his bite.” But it was hard. If you were to do a mash-up of sound bites from people who played football for Vince Lombardi in Green Bay or Bear Bryant at Alabama, the running narrative would be “We hated the son-of-a-bitch’s guts, but he made us winners.” I never felt all fired up to beat the hell out of the Bears or Auburn, but I do know the feeling: I wanted to impress grandpa with everything I did.
But there were fissures in the wall.
Visits to the farm meant a wonderful haze of smoke from his Wm. Penn cigars, Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk and Dallas and The Rockford Files, all interrupted, upon his return from the kitchen, by a big Pyrex mixing bowl full of Jiffy Pop and the thwack of the peanut butter cups he would toss at us.
On snowy winter days he would be at the kitchen table, next to the woodstove, playing solitaire. While bundling up to go tobogganing, he would always offer the admonition, “Watch out for automobiles.” Always automobiles, never cars or vehicles.
He drove like a maniac, and I’m amazed we were never pulled over, or killed. Grandpa would take us the fifteen minutes into Gardiner so we could go toy shopping at Wilson’s Department Store. My grandmother would navigate, always saying, “ohhhKEY!” when there was no oncoming traffic, and those trips often turned unintentionally comical. Witness the time he bought a banana split, took one bite while driving and smoking a cigar, barked “This tastes like shit!” and flung the entire dessert out the window. Sorry, EPA.
As we were saying our goodbyes at the Portland Jetport after Christmas vacation 1982, grandpa leaned down and gave me a kiss on the forehead. You could tell he wanted to, but you could also tell he was kicking his own ass internally for doing so. But it was …nice. An all-too-rare and unexpected moment of unspoken mutual love.
The biggest crack in the armor came during his last summer, when I was twelve. It was July 13th, 1985, the day of Live Aid. I woke up on that blistering morning, turned on the Zenith and was blown away at the site of Ozzy reunited with Black Sabbath. Awesome! What a great day! Grandpa was off in the fields mowing the hay, and my brother and I spent the day rocking out. By evening, everything would be different.
He invited me along to the general store to pick up some smokes. I was feeling rather adult that day, for whatever reason, so I bought a Perrier. On the way back, I found myself becoming more adult than ever when my grandpa, the tough-as-shit bastard, said out of nowhere, “I guess I’m not much of a grandfather.” Heavy thing for a 12-year-old kid, already fragile in the presence of the speaker, to hear. I felt myself desperately trying to be adult and comfort him on his level, saying, “No, you’re doing a hell of a job!” I don’t remember the rest of the five-minute drive, the rest of the dialog, or anything else ever being said about it. And I certainly don’t remember the rest of Live Aid.
But I do remember feeling much softer toward him from then on, and I like to think that during his remaining eight months he felt a little softer toward us.
Not to get too squishy, or anything…