My Granddad was a wonderful man. Whenever I think of him, my heart fills with gratitude for the opportunity I’ve had to be alive. He was born in 1927, and had my father, his first child of five, at the age of 23. He then spent his life working and raising his children and making a better life for them than he ever had. The Johnsons basically clawed their way into the American middle class during his lifetime, and in the process became a joyful, boisterous, passionate, sometimes contentious but nonetheless loving clan of maniacs that I’m nothing but happy to be a part of. Granddad did everything you could possibly think of doing in order to consider yourself a man, a father, and a grandfather, and he did it with a stern, quiet elegance that I found protective, intimidating, and awe-inspiring in its depth and austerity.
He died on Thursday, mid-morning, and services happen today, Saturday. I imagine it will be a low-key but well-attended affair full of friends and relations. I imagine there will be many kind words spoken through teary eyes in an open forum setting, and that this will be followed by an increasingly raucous reception in which the bourbon will flow freely and hearts will be open wide.
I wish to God I could be there, but that was not the man’s style, to make me feel obligated to drop everything on this trip I’m on all on his account. He would be glad I’m out here doing well for myself, and he’d want me to know that he’ll be silently looking down on me from wherever I need him to be, just the way it was when he was alive.
Thank you Granddad.
And now here’s something I wrote before I knew he’d gone:
The child asks if his Granddad has ever been bitten by a snake and if so how much it hurt. The man delivers his answer (either yes or no) calmly after a deliberate but carefree negotiation of long memory. This in the face of dire circumstances, when just the thought of a snake is enough to make the child’s heart pound uncontrollably. The child thinks, “Here is a man who is bigger than snake bites,” and feels soothed abstractly as if by watching a single peaceful ripple gliding across an enormous black pond full of snapping turtles who won’t let go until they hear the sound of thunder.
The Grandfather doesn’t lie. There are snakes. And they bite. But his bemused demeanor wordlessly indicates to the child that this is not all. “Yes, there are snake bites, but none right now,” comes the subtext, sliding secretively from out of the creases of the old man’s sun squinted eyes. The answer is cool and helpful and incomplete because the question is insufficient for the task.
The child senses this and upon further reflection attempts a new tactic. “Granddad,” he pauses, “How many places have you been?”
Granddad answers with a smile that is cautiously not laughter. “I don’t know,” he says plainly, “more than I can remember. How about you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, that makes two of us,” Granddad punctuates this last with an affectionate pat and walks on. The silence begins again and deepens and becomes its own answer.
The Grandfather in this way teaches about silence. By walking slowly, perhaps gingerly, over pine roots and loose dirt, saying nothing unless provoked to by a question or the discovery of a common wild animal that can be shared with the child.
Grandfather has a separate silence. It is not the urgent, purposeful silence of mothers or fathers who must concentrate on the task at hand or else an unknown peril will somehow take over, some secret adult danger at parking lots and restaurants, sometimes with a name like “money” or “the tall man in the hat” but still having the same unknowable effect of good somehow becoming bad, of cookies unbought and scorned when, inexplicably, in other times praise may have rung. Strained voices whispering “be quiet” as if the whole world depends on it, which surely it couldn’t. None of that with Grandfather.
This distinct silence is the first silence the child can live in, even enjoy, without it being his own, without feeling overwhelmed by the towering fact of lost cookies and poisonous snakes. He will go to it often in times of need and silently thank his Grandfather for it each time.