Monday, March 15, 2021

Who Taught You To Spit? Part I


This blog entry started to be a story teaching my two-year-old granddaughter how to spit. It is an important skill and one every child should be introduced to while growing up. As I planned out the story in my head, I realized who taught me all these little things my parents didn't. Granted, my uncle David did teach me a few guitar licks that I continued to use over the years. Still, most of the life skills that stayed with me, whether I actively use them or not, came from my grandparents. As I thought about the number of things that each grandparent taught me, I realized there was no way to do them justice and still tell the story I wanted to about the things that I was teaching my grandchildren. So, this turned into a two-part blog entry but having been inspired by a single event.

My paternal grandfather died when I was about eight or nine. But he still provided a lesson that remains with me today: Anything can be anything if you put your imagination into it. 

He had me go with him to his back porch during one visit, where there was a stack of empty produce boxes. He grabbed two or three, and then we went out to his backyard, where he had me gather up some sticks that were all about a foot or so long. The sticks were then laid out parallel to each other, about six or seven inches apart, forming a trail through the backyard. He then took the boxes and set them on the sticks.  A final step was tying the boxes together with the piece of twine. When all this was done, he announced that we had built a railroad and plopped me into one of the boxes. 

It didn't move, it didn't look anything like a railroad, and looking back, the only reason I got excited about it was that he was excited about it. But then he started talking about how railroads worked, and we took an imaginary ride on that railroad. He made whistle sounds and chugging sounds and told me how they would have to shovel coal into the boiler and keep an eye on the steam. My grandfather was not a train engineer and, to my knowledge, never worked on a railroad. Whatever he knew, he knew because of personal interest. That one incident stuck with me when he taught me to use my imagination. It was a gift he gave me that I still treasure. 

My relationship with my paternal grandmother lasted beyond my college years and on into adulthood. The one thing she taught me that I still carry with me: How to play the piano, but that was not what I took away. 

She played remarkably and had a beautiful upright Steinway that sat in her dining room. The only time I can ever remember being angry with her was when she traded it for an electric organ. I would've gladly bought her the organ in exchange for the piano. Anyway, when I say teaching me piano, I'm not talking about any level of proficiency or even good enough to play in front of other people. She taught me how to play Chopsticks

Most folks know only the opening notes, but she taught me a two-minute version of the song. Even today, if I have time to sit down and tinker with a keyboard, I can remember most of what she taught me. My memory of that event was her teaching me how something so simple could be dressed up to be so much more. It starts with two fingers and eventually ends up with both hands playing. Single notes into harmony and a separate baseline. It's how we build almost anything worth making.

On the maternal side, my grandmother taught me: The economics of personal visitation. 

I was fortunate enough to spend a week in her home during at least two summers of my growing-up years. During those visits, she and my grandfather made it a point to meet every single relative that was available since I was a temporary commodity. Since I was only eleven or twelve years old, I had no genuine appreciation of the effort until later in life. This led to a constant string of new relatives because I was usually the only kid around-- I spent a lot of time listening. It allowed me to hear the way she spoke with each person.

The conversations were all very different, and it wasn't until I got older that I realized it was based on time. If she had a lot of time, she would spend more time getting into the details and minutia of everyday life. Still, shorter visits called for brevity in these discussions. It's a simple lesson, but throughout my life, I'm surprised how many people never learned how to figure economics into a conversation like that. Most people do it at work, but they don't know how to handle it in their personal life. Doing this was about valuing people and relationships by giving them the essential parts of what you wanted to communicate upfront. Showing them that you appreciated their time, but you didn't want them to miss out.

The most painful phone call I ever had with her was when she was on the downside of a cancer battle. I called her, and we talked for a bit; even during that conversation, she made sure all the important stuff was said. It was painful but a conversation I will always treasure and remember.

I never met my biological maternal grandfather. He and my grandmother divorced after he returned home from World War II and it was never really explained to me why but simply that he came home very changed. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I was told the man I'd been calling grandfather since I was a kid wasn't biologically related. In a lot of ways, it made him more special to me. One of the most challenging jobs a person can ever take on is being a stepfather; I think a stepgrandfather would be even more difficult because of the limited time and contact to develop a relationship. I never had that problem with my grandfather.

Grandpa & Me
My grandfather had a great sense of humor and was something of a trickster too. I have never been a fan of professional sports and never will be. Still, he taught me about dedication to a team and the sport of baseball but, like with my grandmother, that wasn't my take away. 

He was an Atlanta Braves fan. Whenever I was visiting him and a game was on, I would usually be stuck watching it with him, but he took time to explain things during that game. Not just the fundamentals but why it was necessary at this moment. He also knew every player's name that had ever played on the team and all of their stats. All of those stats, stories, and information was what he was passing to me: a love of what some people call trivia. To him, none of it was trivial; it was all vital information. It was knowing all the backstories that told you how you got you to where you were now—how everything connected and all the little untold bits and pieces that made the whole possible.

I knew only one great grandfather. He was a retired farmer, as much as you can retire from being a farmer. When we visited, he would take me around the farm and show me different things, including going to the milking barn to watch the cows be milked. What he enjoyed doing most, I guess, was going fishing. Before going fishing, we would go out to the machine shed where all of the old farm equipment was kept and knock down a wasp nest. Once all the wasps flew away, he would pick it up, and we would use a larva out of the nest for bait.

I have never been a fisherman; I think I can count on one hand all the fish I've caught in my entire life. What I liked about this exercise was going out on the pond in a small boat, just him and me. As we fished, he would tell stories about people, experiences, and life lessons. He was a wonderful storyteller. As happens when you are with a storyteller, one day, I gave him a story to tell that wound up in his repertoire.

My Great Grandfather,
holding my son.

We had done our usual bait gathering and went out fishing for most of the day. When we got done, I took the tackle boxes and poles and put them away. Not knowing what to do with the leftover nest, I threw it in the tackle box since we were going fishing the next day, and we could use it then. The next day, we headed back down to the pond with our poles and tackle box.  After we had rowed out to the middle of the pond, he asked me to hand him the bait, and when I opened the tackle box, I was greeted by a dozen or so freshly hatched and pissed off wasps. 

I will interject at this point that I have never been stung by a wasp, but I have been stung by a bee. I can only assume it would be the same, which prompted my reaction: I promptly exited the boat. When I got back to the surface, I was not greeted by those wasps but by my great grandfather laughing at me. It took him a few moments to compose himself and help me get back into the boat.

By the end of the day, I was dry, so there was no evidence of what it happened when we walked home. We had a big sprawling family dinner and then left the next day. Still, with no mention of it, I had gotten away clean. It was years later when I had a cousin ask me about that day. Grandpappy had added it to his repertoire of stories. Still, in his version, I ran across the surface of the water for several feet before sinking into the pond. 

Not all of his stories were funny; some were serious – – like I said, they contained life lessons. But what he taught me:  Everyday life is a gold mine of nuggets ready to be turned into stories.


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