Last Saturday morning, I was standing in the kitchen when I returned my dad’s call. Sun was pouring through the window. Dishes from Friday night’s deep dish extravaganza were stacked in the sink.
And as I hung up the phone, I thought to myself, I wish I’d known him better. So lest I forget the things I still somehow remember, here are the things I know.
My grandfather was the son of a sharecropper. He was the youngest of 13. By the time he graduated eighth grade, the Great Depression was in full swing. He never went to school after that. He was needed at home.
His fingers were stiff as boards – the fine-tune muscles had been built into a slingshot-wielding weapons out of necessity. They could bring down a squirrel in the blink of an eye and sometimes, that was all the family had for dinner.
He and his siblings killed most of what their family ate. Including possum, of which Grandpa never spoke too fondly. However, he did speak with particular fondness of burying potatoes beneath the coals while out in the woods and grilling frog legs on top. As he tells it, “That was good eating.”
When Grandpa and Grandma came to town, mom always bought Pinwheels – chocolate cookies, topped with marshmallows, and dipped in chocolate. She’d buy two containers and eventually have to buy several more. Grandpa would always sneak me one or two for every one he took.
Grandpa also loved ice cream – big bowls of it topped with chocolate sauce. And nuts. He swore the “fancy kind” tasted better.
I remember Grandpa had thumbs so wide they reminded me of spoons. His smile cracked into the edges of his cheeks and creases of his eyes.
I remember, the kind you’re not sure if it’s real or fake or somewhere in the middle, of him, sitting at our kitchen table laughing. His hand on top of his belly as he laughed. I remember that laugh filling up the room, swelling around us like happiness hung in the very air itself.
I remember he was wicked smart. He knew how to fix or build darn near anything. And he hated to be idle. The months leading up to their visits, mom would start a ‘honey do’ list. She’d fret over adding too much, but he’d dive right in, conquer it all long before their stay was finished, and then ask what’s next.
Grandpa often wore golf hats and suspenders.
He smelled like day old soap and musky cologne.
He loved to golf. And, he played a mean game of pool.
He’d ‘count my ribs’ whenever he saw me and he always ended his birthday notes with: eat an extra piece of cake for me.
He liked to read books about cowboys. And I’ve been told, when it was just the men around, he could be counted on for a good off-color joke of two.
He was an expert fisherman, incredible shot, and loved the wilderness.
And while he didn’t pass down his handyman skills or fishing wherewithal to my dad – Grandpa gave him something so much more valuable – an work ethic that’s proved to be the key to success for generation after generation.
Because Grandpa wasn’t simply a man who worked hard in the moment. That kind of work is good. But it’s easy compared to working towards a long-term goal – especially if that goal isn’t a certainty.
No, Grandpa was the kind of man who worked hard for the future. Who was capable of dreaming bigger than the world he was given. Who was able to sacrifice without a guarantee of success.
And, Grandpa loved the Lord. I remember him as a strict Baptist. No drinking, cussing or going around with ‘guys who do’ was the motto.
But, I’ve been told he had a beer from time to time in his early days.
I would have liked that. To have had a beer with Grandpa. I’d have like to tell him over a bottle of suds how I killed, cleaned, and ate my first rabbit. I think that would make him proud. I’d have liked him to watch him fix something. And build something. And catch a fish…again.
We caught a fish once together. Which is to say, he wrapped his hands around mine, cast a line, caught a fish, and then pretended I’d caught it. He hugged me after I reeled that one-inch slithering fish in like I’d won a championship. And I remember feeling like I had.
Like I said, I wish I’d known him better. On Sunday, Dad shared a few details and pictures from Grandpa’s past with us kids.
This is of one of Grandpa’s first service trucks after he opened the store in Ottumwa.
Grandpa and Grandma at their 50th wedding anniversary. The whole family flew to Ottumwa to celebrate. I remember the humidity while we were there. And the swimming pool at the motel. And the fireflies. I remember catching fireflies in the fields at night. Grandpa told me as a small boy he’d catch them and tie a string to them.
Grandpa and Grandma on their wedding day, June 27, 1942.
This is the country school, Union # 4 by Soap Creek, where Grandpa finished the 8th grade.
This is the DX filling station at the end of Main Street in Hedrick, Iowa. Grandpa owned it in the early 1950s.
Grandma, Grandpa, and Uncle Doyle standing in front of the old log cabin outside of Mountain Home, Arkansas. Grandpa was born in that cabin and spent the first 9 years of his life there.
Grandpa in 1949 farming as a sharecropper outside of Packwood, Iowa.
All of Grandpa’s living siblings and his parents taken in 1950.
The following cookies aren’t for my Grandpa. They’re for my Dad. Because that’s really who funerals are for. The living. The folks who we can hold and laugh with and get to know. The folks who we can look at and make sure they know they’re loved.
These cookies are one of my Dad’s favorite. They’re a buttery, sugary, coconut concoction studded with cranberry. Mom cut this out of Sunset some years back and it’s been part of the “Christmas Cookie Arsenal” ever since.
Taken from Sunset Magazine
1 1/2 cups (3/4 lb.) butter or margarine, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked dried coconut
In a large bowl, with a mixer on medium speed, beat 1 1/2 cups butter, sugar, orange peel, and vanilla until smooth.
In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to butter mixture, stir to mix, then beat on low speed until dough comes together, about 5 minutes. Mix in cranberries and coconut.
Shape dough into 1-inch balls and place about 2 inches apart on buttered 12- by 15-inch baking sheets.
Bake in a 350° regular or convection oven until cookie edges just begin to brown, 8 to 11 minutes (shorter baking time will yield a chewier cookie; longer baking time will yield a crispier cookie). If baking two sheets at once in one oven, switch their positions halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheets for 5 minutes, then use a wide spatula to transfer to racks to cool completely.