Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Never Knew My Grandpa (part 2)

In my last post I wrote about what happened when my paternal grandfather passed away. That got me to thinking about my maternal grandfather, who passed away a few months before I was born. As I pondered my Grandpa, I came to realize that I have never had much respect for the man; a realization that rather surprised me.

Decades after his passing, it turns out that I really don’t know much about Grandpa. And most of what I do know seems to emphasize differences rather than resemblances. For example, I know that Grandpa loved to hunt and fish. He was never overly concerned about governmentally established seasons, limits, and licensing regarding these activities. While I have grown to enjoy hiking and camping, I am not and never have been much of a hunter or angler. It’s just not my thing.

I think that I have probably harbored a lifelong resentment of Grandpa because he had the audacity to die before I could spend any time with him in this life. Somehow this left me feeling deprived as a child. To top it off, he effectively smoked himself to death because he was apparently too addicted to give up tobacco. In my young mind, Grandpa’s irresponsibility denied me the opportunity to associate with him. It is likely that I have never quite gotten over this resentment.

A decade ago at a family reunion, one of my older cousins related the story of how he and a couple of my other cousins decided to try smoking tobacco out behind Grandpa’s barn when they were quite young. He said that Grandpa caught them and gave them the severest tongue lashing he had ever experienced. Grandpa explained to them how horribly addicting tobacco was and how much he wished he could rid himself of the habit.

My grandparents started out in Illinois. Like many of their era, they migrated westward over time. After spending a number of years in Nebraska, they ended up in a sparsely populated region of northern Wyoming. They were always farmers. Grandpa supplemented this with other trades, including working in the oil fields. He was kind of short and wiry. Someone once said he was a good worker.

Mom has never told me a whole lot about her father. When I was young, the only pictures I saw of Grandpa depicted him dying of cancer. Other pictures surfaced when I was a young adult (probably because my uncle was a professional photographer). Eventually Mom hung an enlarged and framed copy of her parents’ wedding certificate on the wall of her bedroom. The certificate included photos of Grandma and Grandpa in their prime. They made a handsome couple.

My Dad came from Germany, where the frontier had been eradicated centuries earlier. After he and Mom wed, they drove up to northern Wyoming to see her parents. Dad was stunned by the drive. It is one thing to see the road on a map and an entirely different thing to actually traverse hundreds of miles of desolate prairies. Dad had never even imagined that such vast stretches of bleakness existed.

Dad was shocked to see his new in-laws’ primitive living conditions. They lived in a rundown “tar paper shack,” he said. The only decent furnishings in the place had been gifts from my Mom. Their “farm” was a rather ramshackle arrangement. Nobody had lived like that in Germany for centuries. Grandpa was older and in declining health by this time. Dad’s observation was that the man did nothing but sit around the house reading cowboy novels and smoking.

Mom said that Dad’s descriptions were exaggerations, probably amplified by the fact that he was used to living in a fairly urbanized culture. But then a few years ago, my uncle found and distributed photographs of the family from when Mom was young. Mom didn’t like the photos of the family standing in front of the old house. “It looks like the Grapes of Wrath,” she said. “It WAS the Grapes of Wrath,” Dad replied.

This is about the extent of my knowledge of Grandpa. I have little awareness of his better qualities. On the other hand, Grandpa helped raise my Mom, whom I greatly love and respect. Most of Mom’s siblings have passed on, but I admire some of their qualities too. And I definitely think highly of the character of some of their children, who are my cousins. Grandpa must have had something to do with this.

We all have our positive and negative traits. I shouldn’t be so hasty to dismiss Grandpa for his perceived faults. I am not called to be his judge. Perhaps some of my finest characteristics are derived from the way he raised his family. And no matter what, he’s still my Grandpa. Perhaps the opportunity will arise for me to get to know him in the next life.

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