Memoir by Diane Hallett

There are two people in my life who were extraordinary; they hold that title with me even to this day, though they’ve been gone for many years. They are my grandparents and, although they have equal places in my heart, this particular story is about my grandfather, who was born in 1885 and died in 1961. I knew him as Pa.

Spiritually, Pa lives with me always; he has transcended death in this way, and when I picture him, and when he helps me, he is in color, he is moving, and I hear his voice. He will not die until I do and perhaps when you’ve read this story, he will, in some small way, continue to live on with you.

I thought he was a very large man, yet when I see photographs I realize that, actually, he was not; standing next to my grandmother, he appears only a few inches taller, and she was about five feet and two inches. I think he seemed large to me because his presence gave that impression. 

He had snow white hair that my grandmother kept trimmed and shampooed, and she also shaved him — all undertaken in the kitchen, but I’m not sure why. 

He wore the same style clothing, varying only the shirt, from winter to summer. They were work clothes, a wool blend, and looked like a uniform. The shirts had pockets and were white and short-sleeved in summer, charcoal grey and long-sleeved the rest of the year. 

My grandmother had a hard time finding those same clothes year after year, but he was insistent that the pants have a button fly — no zippers permitted. He wore the same old belt, cracked and scratched, to hold up those baggy pants around his slightly rotund middle. White socks and old work shoes completed his daily attire. He never wore a necktie or a suit. He dressed for comfort and utility. Sometimes in the sun he wore a fedora, but not usually, and this accounts for his pink skin, because his beautifully snow-white hair was a little thin.

He seemed gruff, unless you knew him, and then you heard the gentleness and the heart in his voice. He swore a lot but it meant nothing; my grandmother, I’m sure, gave up long ago trying to correct him. 

He smoked a corncob pipe as he walked and as he sat in his platform rocking chair, watching the trains carrying Beech-Nut baby food. The tracks were only about 100 feet from his window.

 The sound of him knocking his pipe against the ashtray could be heard throughout their small second-floor two-bedroom apartment. The ashtray, a glass dish sitting in a miniature Firestone tire, was a gift to him from his brother-in-law who had visited the 1933 World’s Fair. I have the ashtray on my windowsill today. 

He loved my grandmother, my mother, my brother, and me like someone hopes to be loved, and although he may not have told us verbally, he valued what we did, gave us what we wanted and needed, complimented our triumphs, and usually ignored our failures. 

Sometimes we did hear that loud swearing voice as, for example, when he yelled at my grandmother for trying to ride a bicycle, because he didn’t want her to get hurt, or at my brother for not responding quickly enough when summoned. His choice phrase was usually, “Jim, Goddamn it, get over here!” He didn’t yell at me much, although I remember a banter he had with me when I was pretending to be injured and had put my arm in a sling. He, in his infamous tone of frustration, exclaimed that I should be ashamed and that injury was no game, that many people suffered from injuries their whole lives. I didn’t play that game again.

  He helped my dad as best he could, mending fence, helping with the harvest, and working in the garden. He hired a large ice cream truck that delivered ice cream to stores to deliver regularly to our house. He bought us a freezer and filled a shelf with a multitude of flavors. 

He and my grandmother sat in their lawn chairs in the open doorway of the garage on summer evenings and watched the traffic go by while eating their ice cream. His favorite flavor was black raspberry; it was new then, and you’d think they were swallowing a miracle flavor. Of course, we joined them and confirmed their opinions. 

He bought us our first TV. I think it was the first in the neighborhood, and he loved to cheer on Gorgeous George, the wrestler. He bought us bikes, tents, .22-caliber rifles, bows and arrows, and then helped to set up the hay bale targets.

 If getting all those gifts hadn’t been so great, it would have been embarrassing. He bought us just about anything we wanted. He longed for the new and scientific and told us that one day we would be able to afford a Polaroid camera because the price would come down. That day came, but he was no longer with us. 

He wasn’t a rich man by any means. He had wanted to be a farmer, but gave it up at my grandmother’s request; she didn’t want to live in the country. They moved into the town when he found a job where he could be outside, directing a grader along a mountain of coal so the driver and grader didn’t fall off. 

They resided in their small apartment over the A&P, next to the railroad tracks. My mother, an only child, was raised there. 

He wasn’t an educated man, in fact he had to quit school in the sixth grade, but he taught my cousin geometry when she lived with them, so she could finish high school. His brother had gone on to be a veterinarian, but there wasn’t enough money for him to be educated too, yet I never heard a jealous or envious word from my grandfather. 

He played the violin by ear and one of his sisters could play the piano by ear. I think he had been a bit of a wild young man. My mother said that when he entered a local bar or the dance floor, the band played “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

He was a great storyteller, although I didn’t realize it until I was about 35 years old. I was out to dinner with my father, who said to me, “Do you remember those stories your grandfather was always telling you? Do you think they did you any harm? I was never sure that it was good for you.” 

I said, after a pause, while mentally contemplating the fact that what Pa had told us was fiction and not actually his life experiences, “No, Dad, I don’t think they did us any harm.” It took me years to finally and fully believe that Pa had just been telling stories. It was an epiphany. What a character!

Pa reminisced about helping to shoe horses and how he would then ride them off an embankment into the river so that their feet would cool. He said it was a wonderful feeling to feel the power of the horse beneath him as it swam. 

His stories included suggestions, as when he told my brother and me that if we went to the old cemetery just off of our property and dug in front of the headstones, we would find a door. Lift the door, he said, and we would find a staircase, follow it and there might be treasure and a few bones. Of course, we dug and dug, but we only got down a couple of inches because it was in the woods and tree roots were everywhere. It kept us busy for many an hour. Please try not to think of us as vandals, we meant no disrespect, and it honestly never occurred to us that it might be wrong. My grandfather knew well, I’m sure, that our digging progress would be minimal, and we would do little harm.

My grandparents frequently took us to their camp on the Mohawk River, the perfect setting for scary stories. We boated up the river from the Canajoharie Lock, which we had to walk across on a bridge. It was very narrow and by opening and closing from the middle, it varied the depth of the water, making it possible for all sizes of boats to go through. Sometimes it was filled with water and at others it seemed almost empty. Either way, you didn’t want to look down. 

Once we survived this harrowing endeavor, we rode in his beautiful varnished wood motorboat, named the Bum Jack. Bum had been his dog a long time ago and Jack was my grandfather’s nickname. The ride was fun.   The camp was very rustic, with the kitchen cupboards nailed to the trees, the lighting dimly provided by a generator, and an outhouse situated behind the camp. We slept in a big bed with my grandmother, while my grandfather had a cot next to us. My grandparents leased the land from the state for 99 years. We could jump off the dock and swim in the water. It was totally brown. but no one seemed to care. 

Of course camping time was storytime and my grandfather told us the tale of a giant owl that was killed right near this camp by two hunters. He said that its wingspan stretched across the width of the path to the camp, about eight feet. He said that, although they had killed that one, he was positive that he heard something behind him when he walked down to the river’s edge in the evening or as we lay in bed. He thought that the owl, or whatever it was, could probably catch little animals or other small beings. My brother and I never left the cabin alone at night, not even for the outhouse.

The last time I saw Pa was in February of this year. He’s been coming with me to the dentist since I was 16 years old, and when the dentist turns on the drill, I picture my grandfather walking down the driveway toward me. I see his snow-white hair, his charcoal grey work clothes, his cane, and his wonderful smile. 

Just like always, he’s glad to see me and as long as I can picture him there, my fear fades away; we can see each other and I can’t concern myself with the drill. He’s never failed me yet. He wouldn’t.

Diane Hallett lives in Springs. She is a retired clinical social worker who specialized in care for the elderly, primarily the dying.