One thing about age is that I think it’s an automatic license to impart wisdom to people. Sure, there’s the cliché stuff, but if you get the right person, sometimes the right things come out and trickle into your life. It’s just up to you to listen and accept it.
One such giver of wisdom was my grandfather. He died this morning.
It wasn’t a surprise, but as always happens with those you love, it’s still a deep, heartbreaking blow. But at the same time, it’s a reason to let all of the good memories of 43 years that I’ve had with him to bubble to the surface.
For those who knew him, he was Willy, or Willie, or Willy D, or Wild Bill. Rarely was he simply Bill or, heaven forbid, William. Because let’s face it, he wasn’t really a William. I don’t think the world could have handled him on a formal basis.
He was an eternal kid–always curious, always moving, always doing, reading, learning, or tinkering with something. There were parts of life that just seemed to be in the way because they took time that he could have used doing something else: like eating–he was known by many in the family as the Indy 500 with a fork. He was the epitome of chatty–always stopping to talk to people he knew, people he didn’t know, and anyone else who seemed interesting to him. And he took no greater pride than in reveling in the presence of his family.
It was he who really did the bulk of my driver’s education–most of it before the time I was 15–on the lawn tractors at the pasture mowing in preparation for the annual Fourth of July church picnic and softball game. Then later I graduated up to driving the old pickup truck across the pasture.
I learned to emulate his cooking style, which was strong on guesswork and experimentation and loose on actual technique. Though that’s not to say he lacked the ability to cook some wonderful things. He just developed a style that I’m sure was heavily influenced by the need to feed five kids. By the time that he had a handful of grandkids around for a holiday breakfast, he had custom pancake making down to a fine art. It kind of makes me feel a little guilty that I’ve never made my kids anything but round pancakes. I know: slacker.
He loved gadgets and electronics and seemed to live by the motto of getting something just because he could. He had the first computer I played on–a Commodore VIC-20, complete with cassette deck for loading the software. In my youth, one of his cars had an altimeter in it, which was totally cool but completely pointless in a relatively flat state like Minnesota.
He loved to discover things in the world and share those discoveries with anyone willing to sit and listen. In my elementary school days, I’d shared with the class items ranging from pictures of an electron microscope enlarged cancer cell and 3-D CAT scans of a dog’s heart to rocks he had collected and polished himself; and once, with strict orders to return it, a small Geiger counter.
He passed on a healthy disregard for the dangers of radioactive waste–he once actually told me that “if you handle it right, there’s nothing to worry about.” Along with that came a lack of fear over working with electricity, in cases where he would troubleshoot problematic circuits while they were still live.
It was hard as a kid not to look on him with awe–he was what just about every kids wants in a “cool grandpa.”
But we all grow up and grow older. He slowed down, but never lost that curiosity or the love of people. He was thrilled to have great grandchildren and just as thrilled to watch them grow up to become their own people.
I know that I’m damned lucky: very few people ever get to have a grandparent in their life for 43 years. And as far as my kids go, I hope that they appreciate the fact that they had a great grandparent around until their teen years. All three of them will have firm, meaningful memories of two of their great grandparents, and for that, I’m very grateful.
He was 90. His body was breaking down pretty rapidly recently, and he was really missing my grandmother, who died about a year-and-a-half ago. And thanks to gadgets, science, God’s will or intervention, and who knows what else, lived longer than he probably should have. But in the end, he died on his terms–the night after a hospice discussion revealed he could have his pacemaker turned off if he wanted.
I’d always said he had two speeds–on and off. It was just not the right time for the off until now.
He shared a great deal of wisdom with me over the years–too much of it not as appreciated as I should have. And he loved reading the blog here, to catch up on what we were up to, but then also to discuss things I was writing about. More often than not, he’d send me an e-mail to reply to something I wrote and share his accumulated experience. But two more recent messages, containing his wisdom just reverberated, even though they were so similar.
Just last week, in a pair of e-mails wishing Jenni and I happy birthdays, I received these nuggets, as if he knew something was coming:
Happy Birthday old fella from another old fella. The best years are still ahead, the years past are memories that will get better as the years go by.
Life is made up of tough times and great times and as we age all are memories.
It’s a tough time right now, but only because I miss the great times. But they’ll all fade into memories in the end anyway.
See you tomorrow.