I hope that you had a wonderful Father’s Day and were able to share some old memories and perhaps create some new ones as well.
Now that I have completed my ascent to that third rung on the generational ladder, I feel a keener appreciation for the lifelong reach of my grandfathers’ influence.
My grandfathers, Jack and Sam, had very different backgrounds and personalities but both had the leisure and patience to mentor their grandchildren and share their avocations.
Jack, my maternal grandfather, was a conductor for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad and he had a rascal’s grin and an effervescent, sometimes crude, sense of humor. Jack’s summer cottage, Camp Lynda-Mark, in Great Barrington was named after his first two grandchildren born in 1947.
His views on childrearing are perhaps best embodied by his approach to swimming lessons. When the time came he walked you to the end of the dock, picked you up and threw you in Lake Buel with instructions to swim back to him. Similarly, driving lessons (starting around age 10) consisted of Jack telling you to slide over into the driver’s seat as he jumped out, ran around to the passenger side and climbed into the moving Cadillac displaying his trademark grin.
Jack’s workshop was carved out of the crawl space beneath the cottage. The rocks excavated in the process became the building materials for the aptly named “gin & tonic” wall which, over the course of many summers, grew to surround the patio. The high spirits of our work crew that included my uncle and father were not due entirely to the beverages. The men loved working together and weaving a tapestry of male bonding out of their one-upping banter and steady stream of laughter.
To my knowledge nobody ever saw Grandpa Sam with a tool in his hands. Those elegant hands, the recipients of regular manicures, were used extensively for waving his Pall Malls and gesticulating during his frequent story telling. Sam’s wife, my Grandma Gert, died when I was 5 so I knew Sam, the raconteur, as a bachelor. When he wasn’t eating dinner at our house, he often dined out at chop houses, ethnic restaurants and what I thought of as posh eateries.
Sam regularly invited my younger sister and me along to his favorite places and introduced us to exotic foods that were not familiar to us or to any of our friends: shrimp with lobster sauce, frog’s legs, sweet breads, Wiener schnitzel, and baked Alaska. We met his many friends on these excursions, solo diners like Sam.
I think a lot about Jack and Sam now that I am the grandfather. I have never cooked anything that pleases me more than the first complex recipe that I mastered: shrimp with lobster sauce. My craving for this dish has to be about more than pork, shrimp, garlic, and fermented black beans. Preparing it for my family, which now includes an eager and impressionable granddaughter, is a stir-fried homage to Sam’s attention, affection and taste.
Some of Jack’s sturdier tools now hang in my workshop, organized just as they were at Camp Lynda-Mark, by a system of pegboard hangers and tool silhouettes and coffee can storage bins. My garden today is dominated by walls and paths constructed of fieldstone excavated from the yard over the course of many summers. When I need it, I can find solace among these stones, durable reminders of the laughter and camaraderie of Jack’s gin and tonic crew working on a perfect and endless summer afternoon.
Improbably, both of my grandfathers outlived my father who died when I was 15. I have been thinking lately that my grandfathers’ greatest gift to me might have been the transformative effect they had on my father. My father adored both Jack and Sam and he was more cheerful, outgoing and accessible in their company. Somehow their presence seemed to lighten the burdens he so visibly carried with him at other times.
My grandfathers both died more than 40 years ago with Jack living long enough to see me married. Now it is my time to be a grandfather, to be a patient and entertaining teacher like Jack and Sam. A couple of weeks ago while riding in the car with my two year old granddaughter, I was identifying the yellow flowers we saw everywhere as forsythia. At the end of the day she spontaneously said, “Look Papa, yellow flowers forsythia.” She was so proud of herself for mastering this four syllable word.
As we were celebrating her victory, I imagined my grandfathers celebrating with us here at the timeless intersection of memory, love, and family.
An edited version of this piece was posted as “How to Be A Grandfather” on June 14, 2013 by WBUR’s Cognoscenti.