I was recently in line at the grocery store, and two older women were chatting in front of me, bemoaning the fact that their children and grandchildren never call.
I wait and wait, but the phone never rings, harped one.
I know. And after all we’ve done for them…
I looked away, thinking of Grandpa, and knew precisely what he would have said: The phone works two ways, ladies. Pick it up and call them.
I smiled, thinking of his voice.
And quite suddenly, I recalled a specific day…
But before I tell you the story, I first must paint the backdrop.
My father’s German parents dwelt in a pretty, tree-lined suburb of Chicago. My Grandma Flo both entered and departed this life within the same four walls, and never lived a moment elsewhere. She and my grandfather married, and raised their four sons in that very house. The yard and flowers and shrubs were tended and lovely, as Grandma possessed a green thumb. She preferred her plantings and gardening to people. Other than gardening, her interests centered around creating beautiful pulled rugs while watching the Chicago Bears, and heaven help anyone who blocked the television on Sunday afternoons. A complicated and difficult woman, she married her extreme opposite. My Grandpa Herbie was every bit as sweet and mild-mannered as Flo was stubborn. Yet when she laughed, tossing back her head, I knew exactly why Grandpa had fallen for her. Her wedding photos are stunning.
Grandpa was quite handsome himself, hair slicked back with olive skin, set off by clear blue eyes. He quietly watched the Bears with his wife, pot roast and German potato salad perched upon the plate balancing atop his knees. He chewed slowly, mild-mannered even in eating, washing down bites of pot roast with hot coffee, every now and again murmuring: Oh Golly, as the Bears fumbled. Herbie smiled passively and smoked cigarettes liberally, humbly watching life pass by like a slow parade. He was a hard and steady worker, a housepainter by trade, timely and neat in his work and appearance, yet never rushed.
After a spell, when the pot roast was gone, he softly slipped to the garage. His hobby was woodworking, and he labored carefully cutting and sanding and blowing away sawdust in the garage. I have a toy bench with my name burned in the bottom, plus a doll cradle he built, my heritage from this grandfather. That and his blue eyes, same shade.
When my grandparents passed away, their four sons found decades worth of Christmas gifts we had purchased for them: belts, gloves, shirts, sweaters, vases, cologne, and picture frames, neatly stacked in the guest closet, unused. They also discovered thousands of dollars hidden throughout the house, in coffee cans and unmarked tins. My grandparents had been excessively frugal, plus mistrustful of all banks, unforgiving even decades after the Great Depression.
I grew up one thousand miles away from these grandparents of mine. Whether or not they sent birthday gifts, I do not recall. Christmas gifts arrived, painful evidence of their ignorance of us, their own grandchildren. But it was their lack of relational pursuit that stung. In my entire life, they visited us one time, Out East, as they said, and that was before I was even in kindergarten.
We traveled many summers to visit them, driving nearly twenty hours. I remember finally arriving at their home, which smelled of coffee and aftershave and cigarettes. I was quite young and beyond excited, combing my hair repeatedly minutes before we pulled into their driveway. Yet after shyly saying our hellos, there was nothing for my brother and me to do. No games, no outings, nothing special planned. They did not ask us about our friends or pets or hobbies or school. We were perfect little strangers; our heritage invisible regardless of both shared blood and last name.
After a time, we ran outdoors, screen door banging, ready to play with neighborhood children and our younger cousins.
It was always thus.
I grew up in New England, where the magnificent seasons spun in brilliance. My maternal grandparents also dwelt in New England, on Washington Street, the only childhood home my mother and her four siblings ever knew. Their home remains at the center of my childhood memories: a fenced yard, woods in back, a wide front porch with French doors, bunches of loud holiday gatherings and meals, and most importantly, Grandpa.
Grandma was certainly there too, but as moody and difficult as my other grandmother. She excelled in bookkeeping and running numbers, plus her secretarial work. Grandma kept a clean, tidy home and was an exceptional cook. But people were simply not her thing. She could knit circles around everyone, and she adored her Boston Red Sox. Grandma and Grandpa spent evenings in their television room, ball game blaring. Grandpa was more interested in reading by lamplight each evening, donning a noise-blocking headset, while amicably seated next to his wife. He rocked in his chair, turning pages, lost in story, while Grandma rocked, knitting needles clicking while she clucked at those Red Sox players: correcting, criticizing, and cheering them to victory.
Grandpa was the best people person. It did not matter where you came from from, what you wore, or what you believed. He found a friendly commonality, and in a snap put even the most reticent person at ease. He was a salesman by trade, and a delightfully honest one. People simply adored him.
God was kind to gift my brother and me with such a grandparent, who made up for all of the withholding from my other grandparents. He was a Go Big or Go Home Grandpa, lavishing us with laughter and gifts and complete presence. Grandpa took the mundane, and wrapped it up in adventure. Errands to the hardware store and town dump and the gas station were fun. He shared stories and sang songs, and treated us to ice cream cones at the funniest times of day without batting an eye. We felt like royalty in his presence, cruising around town in his Volvo. We were cherished and honored, deeply known and forever loved.
Grandpa remained trustworthy: he protected his family, drove safely, was consistent in working hard, and although he spoiled his grandchildren, he was fun without being embarrassingly silly. There was a steadiness at his core that allowed my stomach to relax. I was a quiet child, and preferred a bit of personal space, while my brother was far more social, interacting and talking constantly. Grandpa seamlessly honored both personalities, understanding our depths like no other. His favor over us had no strings attached and never increased after our achievements. It anchored us, and remained as steady as the rising sun. He was proud of us simply because we were his grandchildren.
His love dazzled through his actions, and I do not recall him telling us that he loved us. He did not need to. His love was strong and unspoken. The very best kind, because it was proven; a steady stream flowing through our childhood. Likewise his devotion to God. He never announced that he was having his quiet time. Instead, he simply prayed and read and marked his Bible. Who Grandpa was was evidenced in his daily living. It was beautifully uncomplicated.
As it goes, bees are drawn to nectar, not vinegar. I loved my Grandpa.
The other day, while cleaning out my dresser, I found Wormy.
Wormy was my beloved childhood bookmark. He is a very thin leather shoelace, with an orange head and two googly eyes. He kept my place in more library books than I could ever count. Wherever I meandered, I brought a book, and that book contained Wormy.
The year I began first grade, I had one wish for Christmas: my very own dictionary.
Word spread through the family, and my uncle could not let this go. A first grader who wants a dictionary? He grabbed my mother’s elbow. Should you take her to the pediatrician? What first grader wants a dictionary?
Grandpa did not make fun. Of course she needs a dictionary! His voiced was clear; certain. Every true reader needs a dictionary!
That Christmas morning, on Washington Street, I ripped open my gift. I was now the proud owner of a Macmillan Dictionary for Children. I had been given the world. Wormy did his job and marked pages as I expanded my vocabulary.
Grandpa softly elbowed me with a twinkle in his eyes. We bookworms must stick together.
One spring, we packed our bags for a long weekend trip to Maine: Grandma and Grandpa, my parents, my brother, and me. I must have been seven or eight at the time. There was to be plenty of fishing and outdoor fun, eating out and after-dinner ice cream cones. My brother and I couldn’t wait.
The rain began to fall as we headed north in Grandpa’s Volvo.
We arrived hours later at the cabin door, soaked, suitcases in hand.
The cabin was not quite as advertised, and there was scarcely enough space for two, let alone six people. Grandpa promptly announced that everyone was to get back into the car, as we would be dining out.
It took an hour to find a suitable restaurant. When we had finished dinner, Grandpa asked to see their dessert menu. No ice cream.
We left, and Grandpa said that no vacation was complete without ice cream for his grandchildren.
Oh really, Bob. We are tired, said Grandma. We’ll get a cone tomorrow.
Grandpa was not as mild-mannered as my other Grandpa. If he said we were getting ice cream, then so be it we were getting ice cream. And we did, over an hour later, as we drove through the winding woods in rain.
It was still drizzling the next morning, when we scurried to the Volvo, to take a drive to an outlet, something to do since fishing was out.
The rain was torrential. We eventually picked up sandwiches at a local deli, and ate silently, scrunched in the car. I pulled out my book and read, passing time as we waited for the rain to lighten. It finally did, and the sun peeked out. We emerged from the car to stretch, and to throw away our lunch wrappings.
Things were definitely improving. Without rain we could finally go fishing and perhaps even play mini golf.
Thirty minutes later, while Grandpa was driving, I picked up my book that had fallen at my feet earlier when we had exited the car to stretch. Wormy was gone.
I frantically flipped through the pages, felt near my seatbelt, and looked on the floor. Nothing.
My eyes filled.
Wormy’s gone, I told my mother.
She helped me look, but to no avail. We stopped at a gas station and everyone got out. We searched the Volvo, but Wormy had vanished.
There’s nothing we can do, my parents said. Your bookmark is gone.
I began to cry.
Why is she crying? my grandmother asked. It is just a bookmark, for Pete’s sake.
Grandpa grew serious.
He is not gone, he said matter-of-factly. In fact, he is probably waiting for us back at the spot where we ate our lunch.
I felt a spark of hope.
The three adults began murmuring at once: It is too far and This is our chance to fish and It is just a bookmark and These things happen and She will get over it and…
Who died and made you boss? Grandpa’s eyes were wide. My brother and I giggled.
So we headed back, and it was a long drive. The rain picked up again, just as we sailed into the parking lot. Grandpa hopped cheerfully out of the car, and walked around, opening my backseat door. I felt like the luckiest girl in the entire world, with a Grandpa who understood and cared enough to go back for Wormy.
We looked around for a minute, before I spied his orange head in the dirt.
I knew he was waiting, Grandpa offered with a smile.
He opened the door for me with a low bow, and I am quite sure that I felt more cherished in that moment than I ever have.
Real love is costly and unselfish. A gigantic mural, painted with sweeping strokes of unmistakable goodness in action: colors vibrant, alive, and utterly impossible to hide.
Grandpa died nearly thirty years ago, but I remember.
Thank you, Grandpa for loving well, for not leaving me mere crumbs, wondering if I belonged or if I mattered. Thank you for giving me an entire banquet feast, a surety of belonging and love through presence and pursuit: the likeness of the heart of God.