Tag Archives: Grandparents

I Didn’t Know Ponds and Cigars Could Do That

vintage wedding photo

Pardon the crookedness of this photo. I wasn’t planning to publish it. These are my maternal grandparents on their wedding day. I’ve always liked this photo. A lot. (Image/Matthew Fray)

That’s my grandparents on their wedding day about 62 years ago. It’s one of my favorite photos.

The handsome gentleman on the left died last night, just one week after his 85th birthday.

Father of eight. My mom’s the oldest.

Grandfather of 23. I’m the oldest.

Great-grandfather of three. My son is the oldest.

Nearly 40 years ago, my grandparents traveled 400 miles west to be with my young parents at the hospital.

My dad was 23. My mom was 21. My mom had received a college scholarship far from home, and that’s where she met my dad while she was in school.

I was supposed to be dead, according to the doctors and nurses. They told my parents and family to expect the worst.

But then I lived anyway, because I don’t always do what I’m supposed to.

My father handed my grandfather a cigar at the hospital. Wrapped in plastic. Blue ribbon.

It’s a boy.

When I was 3, my grandparents again drove west from Ohio to visit me and my parents.

While someone wasn’t looking, I decided to run off into the woods on the edge of our lot. I wandered those woods for more than an hour.

I came across an elevated storm drain spilling rain runoff into a creek bed.

While it was likely just some nasty corroded old water drainage infrastructure, it looked magical through the prism of a 3-year-old.

I thought it was a waterfall.

Then I wandered some more.

Eventually, I heard my grandpa’s voice cutting through the woods. Calling my name.

He must have been terrified. But he wasn’t angry. Not only wasn’t he angry, but he let me take him by the hand and blindly wander those woods again searching for that shitty waterfall I was so excited to show him.

I never found it again.

He never got angry with me.

Not long before my 5th birthday, my mom and dad divorced and then my mom and I moved into my grandparents’ big farmhouse with them in rural Ohio.

They lived on 43 acres, which felt to me like Oz.

They had a small pond, just a little over an acre in size on the other side of a field, far enough to drive to.

There was a little one-room wooden cabin with an old cast iron wood-burning stove that I never saw anyone light or use. Rustic. Dusty. Bugs. Smelled old.

But we called it “the cottage.” And it was perfect.

There was a weeping willow tree close by—a large one—where you could usually find the empty shells of cicadas stuck to the bark of the tree trunk.

If my grandfather wasn’t taking me on a fishing trip to a large nearby lake, or to watch me fail at fly-fishing in the river, we were catching fish at the private pond.

With his youngest son—my uncle—about to finish high school, it must have been perfect timing having me show up to live with them.

He included me in everything age-appropriate.

Not a huge talker. Not like me. He was a doer.

He didn’t really have to say anything, because what he DID was always so transparent. His actions always told the story.

We’d spend hours along the shore of that pond. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling. Landing a fish. Then releasing it. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling.

Dragonflies would buzz around. Wind would stir the trees and tall grass. Grasshoppers. Crickets. Bullfrogs.

And my grandfather.

There to help me tie a better bass-hook knot if I needed it. There to help me unsnag a hook. There to praise me when I landed another largemouth or catfish.

In a life that sometimes feels too heavy, and with a mind that sometimes feels too busy, that was where everything melted away.

The relative silence of the great wide open. The only nearby machine being that fishing rod and reel providing life-sustaining therapy I never even knew I needed.

I didn’t know fishing in a pond with my grandfather could do that.

Two years ago, my grandparents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, and my son got to be there for that. When my grandparents, both in their 80s took to the dance floor at the reception hall to share a dance in front of everyone, my great-uncle—my grandma’s brother—faux-scolded my grandpa: “Keep your hands off my sister!”

More than 60 years of marriage. Eight children. All the grandkids. Health problems. Friends dying. Watching all of the good and bad things happening to all of the branches on his family tree.

I doubt he thought of himself as the patriarch of the family, the way most of us looked at him, but that’s all I could ever see.

A man who loved and served. Steadily. For 20 years longer than I’ve even been alive.

Last summer, my family flew in from all over the country for a family reunion at my grandparents’ house. My grandpa’s last one. Everyone knew it.

I was outside talking to everyone. Someone sent word that my grandpa was asking me to come inside. He had something he wanted to give me.

His kidneys were failing. He was going through dialysis. Painfully. And he didn’t want to. But my grandmother didn’t want to say goodbye to him no matter how in love with Liam Neeson she might be.

So he persevered. Because that’s what you do when you love someone.

I sat on the couch nearest his easy chair. The man was tired. Physically weaker than I’d ever seen him.

But his eyes were clear. And so was his mind.

He asked how I was. He asked about my father hundreds of miles away. He always asked about my father.

He handed me a cigar.

Wrapped in plastic. Blue ribbon. It’s a boy.

I’d never seen it before and thought it was strange that my non-smoking grandfather was handing me a tobacco product.

“Your dad gave that to me in the hospital the day you were born. I thought you should have it,” he said.

I stared at it for a moment, digesting the implications. It looked almost new.

it's a boy cigar

This is the one. It’s resting on my bedroom nightstand. I didn’t know a little thing could be worth so much. (Image/Matthew Fray)

My father—long-divorced from his oldest daughter—had handed him a cigar nearly 40 years earlier celebrating my birth.

Then my grandpa raised eight children. Entertained hundreds of friends and family members in that old farmhouse through the decades. Ran a business. Moved to a smaller house nearby 10-15 years ago.

And throughout all of that, he took care of a cigar.

Just some crappy cigar.

Because it mattered, I suppose. Because it represented the grandson who lived when he wasn’t supposed to. The grandson he found in the woods. The one he must have thought would be somewhat of a stranger to him growing up, but was then granted an entire childhood with because of life circumstances no one ever saw coming.

I didn’t know cigars could do that.

The last thing my grandfather did was fight to stay alive as long as he could because my grandmother wanted him to.

He didn’t have to spin any stories. He’d just hand you a cigar, and you knew.

He didn’t have to tell everyone how much they were loved—particularly my grandmother.

Because he gave his last breath living it.

And if you’re guessing that’s something I can latch onto and feel proud of today, you couldn’t be more right.

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The Things That Matter

13599-Memories

One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite shows had a man sitting on the edge of a hotel room bed talking on the phone to his ex-wife sitting on the edge of her bed.

He had just learned she was dying of cancer.

His eyes well with tears and he calls her by his pet name for her. His voice breaks.

Her eyes well with tears because she hears this stoic figure breaking on the other end of the phone.

No one says anything, but they don’t have to, because the audience gets it. A silent moment where so much is happening. Two people who have completely let go of every ounce of anger and resentment toward one another because their time is short and they’re not going to waste any of it on anger. Two people focusing not on all the bad times, but on all the good.

He can’t speak.

She says: “I know.”

And we know that she does.

This was the end. Sadness and regret. Because it used to be so good and beautiful.

And they both remember those times.

The things that matter.

A Letter from my Grandmother

I’ve joked many times in this space about what will happen if my grandmother ever read my writing here, and about other things. Because I use a lot of bad words and occasionally write about mature themes, the working theory is that my super-sweet, kind, prayerful grandma will read it and then have a stroke and die.

I am her first grandchild, and was for nearly seven years. I am closer in age to my grandma’s youngest child than I am to her second grandchild.

I think when we are lying on our deathbeds, we are going to think about the life we lived and it’s going to be painfully obvious to us where our missed opportunities were. Where we failed to meet some standard to which we hold ourselves.

I think most of us are too afraid.

To go on that adventure.

To give up the day job.

To kiss the girl.

To dance.

To leap.

We like to do things that feel safe, and I think in the end we are going to regret all the chances we didn’t take. All the safe, comfortable choices we made.

And I think when we’re dying we are going to only think about the things that matter. The people we love and the people who love us. The people who shared in our pleasure and pain and celebrated or suffered along with us.

I’ve written a lot about what a charmed upbringing I had, despite not having much money. My childhood is the ultimate example of how money and having lots of “things” has never, and will never provide the happiness and contentment we seek.

I was happy because my family loved me, paid attention to me, treated me well, and always made me feel safe. My friends did the same.

That’s why adulthood has felt so uninspired. At times, so disappointing.

That’s why divorce was so hard. Because I’d never really felt the kind of pain divorce causes. When you’ve never bled before, I think the pain of the cut and the sight of blood is more traumatic than it is to those with battle scars.

My grandmother—a wonderful, kind woman; the matriarch of a large family (eight children and 19 grandchildren)—is largely responsible for the envelope of love, happiness and contentment in which I was raised.

She wrote me a letter.

Dear Matt,

Time goes so fast. I want to write you a letter and let you know how much you are loved. The time we came to Iowa. You got lost at 2 years old. We were to blame. I was so scared. But we found you and all was well.

The time I flew out with you to Iowa so you could be in Debbie’s wedding, and when we left, you sobbed for a half hour on the plane and I couldn’t fix it. You didn’t want to leave your dad. The time you went out to live with your dad when you were a junior in high school. Oh, how I missed you. I’m so glad you decided to stay here for your senior year and graduate with all your friends.

I remember all the times just you and I went to lunch together when you were little. It was so special for me to have you with me. I love you so.

As grandpa and I are getting older we want you to know how much we love you and always will. Our time on this earth is so much shorter than it was and I don’t want to waste any time, so I hope you know how much we care for you and our great-grandson.

Matt, you’re a good father and we are proud of the man you have become.

Just know we love you and always will. 

Grandma and Grandpa

How will we know? What matters, and what doesn’t?

We won’t always know while it’s happening.

But I think one day we will.

I think, one day, we’ll just know.

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The Greatest Generation

willow-tree

After my parents came back to the house to tell me which one of them I was going to live with, everything’s a little fuzzy.

I just know the judge picked mom.

So, I said bye to dad—see you in several months!—and mom drove four-year-old me 500 miles east to her parents’ house back in Ohio.

I have memory flashes of sleeping and bathing at my grandparents. We lived there for a while. Celebrated my fifth birthday there.

My first life-reset.

My grandparents lived on a 43-arce farm in the Ohio countryside. A big, white farmhouse with black shutters.

A huge concrete porch where I spent countless hours playing. Barbecuing with my grandfather. Staring at the majesty of the vast night sky.

A red barn. Where I was chased by angry chickens. Where I would sometimes sneak into the hayloft to read books. Where I killed, cleaned and filleted untold numbers of fish caught by my grandpa and I.

Huge grassy expanses for unlimited running. Fields full of arrowheads and exotic-looking rocks to be found after the soil had been tilled. Tall maple trees I used to climb.

There were pear trees. Cherry trees. Apple trees. They attracted bees.

I was never afraid of them.

The flower beds were full of some of the biggest spiders I’d ever seen.

I was never afraid of them, either.

The surrounding fields and forest, highlighted by a gorgeous fishing pond and a one-room, non-plumbed cabin with a picturesque weeping willow tree represented my playground.

My new home.

Even when we didn’t live there, we lived there.

I spent more weekends there than not throughout my childhood.

That was a good thing.

My grandfather owned a mom-and-pop furniture and flooring store in the small town. A business started by my great-grandfather.

My grandparents have eight children.

My mother is the eldest of them. I am the first grandchild by several years. My mom’s youngest sister is only four years older than me.

What that means is I grew up in a big-family environment even though I am an only child.

Salt-of-the-earth kind of people. Barbecue chicken and hamburgers on summer nights. Fish frys. Chicken and dumplings. Hot dog and marshmallow roasting over an open fire.

These are the people who showed me how to love.

These are the people who taught me about family.

These are the people most responsible for me being whoever and whatever I am today.

My grandfather included me on his fishing trips. On his excursions to watch his beloved local high school football team vie for state championships. Running errands on the farm.

He taught me patience when the fish weren’t biting.

He showed me what it looks like to handle a life where so many people are pulling you in so many directions.

He has been a loving and faithful husband for the better part of 60 years.

As a child, I got lost two times.

Once, when I ran off to go see Santa at a relatively large shopping mall during the holiday shopping season when my mom wasn’t looking.

The police found me.

The second time, when I wandered off into the woods in search of a large waterfall like one I’d seen in a book or on television.

That time, my grandfather found me.

My grandmother often included me on trips to see her parents—my great-grandparents—about 45 minutes away.

My great-grandfather was a chess champion. And a very kind and gentle man. I can’t remember one visit where he didn’t do something very gentlemanly toward my great-grandmother. He ALWAYS helped her with her coat.

His funeral was my first experience with a family member passing with whom I was very close.

My great-grandmother could run in her 90s. Not, like, jogging. But I remember seeing her run from a doorway to a car in the rain. Things like that. One of the most-amazing women to ever live. She always had cookies. Always. Cookies.

Thick German accent.

My great-grandparents were so magnificent, it stands to reason that my grandmother would turn out so wonderful.

And that’s what she is.

I’ve shared many afternoons with just her.

We used to play Yahtzee and Boggle together. Boggle is one of the games that helped me find my love of words.

She hopped a plane with me on my first flight to visit my dad, once everyone decided me flying back and forth made more sense than driving back and forth.

Despite her unhealthy crush on Liam Neeson, my grandmother is a picture-perfect model of love, patience and forgiveness. For her husband of nearly 60 years. For her eight children. For her 19 grandchildren.

My grandmother had another surgery on Tuesday. Her legs are in bad shape after they were run over by a car.

While she was still knocked out from the surgery, my grandfather, who has had open-heart surgery twice, was admitted to the hospital due to chest pains.

Apparently his heart is only operating at about 20-25 percent. Every day we have him is a blessing at this point, mom says.

The Greatest Generation

Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe Americans born during The Great Depression who grew up in poverty, and then went on to fight, or contribute in some way to the war effort during World War II. My mom’s parents just missed the window, born just a few years after the generally accepted span between about 1914-1929.

I’m not going to get in the business of ranking generations of people.

We are all dealt the hands we’re dealt. We have no control when or where or to whom we are born. Whatever that reality is represents our individual “normal.”

Some people never knew a life with electricity and running water.

Others will never know a life without iPhones and self-parking automobiles.

Every generation’s job is to do the best they can with the resources available to them. So that the next generation can do the same.

There is a lot of neglect and apathy in this world. But I sure do see a lot of people choosing good. Choosing the harder path for their children and future generations.

More than a century ago, my great-grandparents were like me. They gave life to my grandmother. Who gave life to my mother. Who gave life to me. Who gave life to my son.

And maybe he will give life to my grandchild someday.

Everything is gone.

Youth. The time together. The big-family environment. My great-grandparents. The farm. The fishing trips.

Innocence is gone.

But everything is not lost. The stuff that really matters tends to stick.

That stuff that lives inside us.

In our memories. And stories. In our personalities.

In our ability to love. To share. To connect. To be generous. Charitable. Forgiving. Hopeful.

It won’t be long now. Until I have to say goodbye to them.

Maybe this year. Maybe in a few years. But not long now.

The people responsible for getting me through my first life-reset after my parents’ divorce.

And now I’m going through life-reset No. 2.

My own divorce.

And everything’s mixed-up. Inside-out.

There’s no rock anymore. Nothing steady to lean on.

The world’s asking me to become my own rock. So I can be a good father. A good son. A good friend. And someday, a good partner.

The world’s asking all of us to do that as we slowly lose everything on which we once relied.

So we get strong. Because we must.

And we hold one another up.

We do it for ourselves and each other. And we do it for our children.

Because our ancestors mattered.

They gave you your grandparents.

And they gave you your parents.

And they gave you yourself and an opportunity to do something great.

Maybe that’s some great big thing that everyone’s going to see and hear about in our media-saturated world.

Or maybe it’s not.

Maybe it’s just making the world a better place.

Maybe it’s just raising a child who will bring a child into the world who will bring a child into the world who a hundred years from now will change the world.

Maybe that’s why you’re here.

Maybe that’s why I’m here.

Like my grandparents.

Like yours.

The greatest generation.

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