Grandpa’s Murky “Legacy”

Sunni's picture

I rolled up the garage door yesterday, intently focused on reclaiming a portion of our yard from the weeds that flourished while I was sick and unable to do much of anything. The scent that wafted over me sent my mind on an entirely different path, however.

Our yard is small enough that the owner used a gas-powered weedwhacker as an ersatz mower. It isn’t an optimal solution to the problem, though, so I got a reel mower for Snolf Mk. I to use in addition to it. He’s still learning about taking care of tools properly—which is complicated even more in cases like this one, where I don’t know enough about the equipment to advise him well—so post-job details like cleaning and fine-tuning are often overlooked.

Thus it came to be that—my nose intermittently deciding to do its olfactory thing yesterday—the lush, summertime mix of cut, decaying grass and gasoline fumes swept out of the hot garage as I gathered tools for weeding and trimming. The flow of memories from the smell was just like a movie’s rapid-fire montage, and focused on my paternal grandfather: squatting beside him as he cleaned the grass off his mower blade, always at the same corner of the barn; walking behind him (and trying to step exactly where he did) while he mowed our yard; roaming my hometown in the summer on foot and bike, and invariably seeing him mowing someone's lawn—if he caught sight of me, he always threw out his hand in a hearty wave; and the quiet, dusty outbuilding where he kept rabbits for several years.

He was a deliberate dynamo, apparently unable to comprehend the notion of leisure time, much less indulge in it after he retired from the dairy where he’d worked. As far back as my memories go, he was our town’s first and foremost “lawncare business”, in an era when it really wasn’t a business model. By himself and with just a gas-powered push mower (later self-propelled), every sunny day spring through fall, one would invariably find him mowing somewhere in town. His work was excellent, and he was the “grand old man” of my hometown.

But he was a worrier and a complainer of the severest sort in private. Early in my teenage years, I recognized that I was starting down a negative path in terms of my default mindset and recognized his influence there; and I decided to choose a different course. It became difficult to visit with him, as his conversation ran through the familiar litany of complaints and dour outlooks; and after going off to college and then farther away after marriage, I saw him even less, and we had less in common to talk about. I was so centered on graduate school and being married that I don’t remember much of his ultimately fatal struggle with heart disease. I missed him, sure, but I maintained the emotional distance I had cultivated while trying to forge a more optimistic mien for myself.

Yesterday’s fortuitous, ephemeral whiff of youthful days left me thinking about his life... of which I know very little. His childhood was very likely passed on a farm, filled with hard work and the daily uncertainties that a life tied to soil and weather has. Getting the dairy job was a means to a better, more stable way to support himself and his family, but it likely didn’t change the farmer’s perspective I saw from him.

Life was simpler in many ways back then, but it was harder, too. He was a young man just starting a family when the Depression hit. Grandpa may not have been a congenital pessimist and worrier; the timing and circumstances of his life could have simply channeled his development in a way that was exceedingly difficult to resist. When this realization struck me yesterday, I felt sad for him. What I had been viewing as a fait accompli was him possibly being, as a Rush song puts it, “tricked by circumstances”.

Turning this insight toward my current situation and interactions, I was struck again by the truth that we live our lives—to ourselves as well as others—as icebergs: revealing so little of what has formed us, and in some cases, not even recognizing in ourselves how circumstances of history and culture have shaped us. It was a sobering reminder in that, while trying to understand another, one all too often relies on judgments that may be made carefully and deliberately, but remain nonetheless flimsy hypotheses based on very little substance and a lot of highly subjective interpretation. The human mind can be seen as a frightening thing...

Oh yes!

My mother and I were best friends most of my life. We thought a lot alike in so many ways, and I see her in myself more as the years go by. But we never really know another person completely, even when we are that close.

Mother died in 1992, and I inherited her diaries and other writing. I discovered so many things about her and her struggles with life, some very surprising. None of it changed my love or respect for her, but I've always wondered why she hid some of those things from her daughters.

I have a beautiful covered glass dish, with a small amount of her favorite bath powder and the big "puff" she used to apply it. When I lift the cover and smell the powder, I can close my eyes and see her clearly, remembering her with joy.


We see the icebergs in buoyant isolation but forget the massive glaciers and climate that stretches back and forms them or the elements that wears away the exposed surface as it floats. Great metaphor!


Murphy's Bye-Laws

You are so right.

I hadn’t thought it through—your elucidation is spot on.

Hope you and yours are doing well.