Dia de Muertos: Grandfather, Tell me a Story

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Preface: In honor of the Mexican holiday, Dia de Muertos, I wrote a piece to honor my favorite Grandfather. I miss him much and feel him in my heart always.

When I write, I often think of my Grandpa Dick, who passed away in the winter of 2011. As the second anniversary of this loss approaches and as I feel the nostalgia that follows turning 30, the impact he left on me is more and more apparent.

My grandfather was a story teller. Poems and short stories suited him. I’ll never forget when he came into my sixth grade class and taught a poetry lesson. You know how there’s a joke about elderly people telling the same stories over and over again? And how young people roll their eyes and if there were a thought bubble above their head it would say “Not this one again?!?!” That was the opposite of how people felt about my Grandfather’s stories. When we saw Dick we would have prepared a mental list of all the stories we wanted him to recount for us. We listened intently to grandpa recite these parables as though careful observation might unlock the portal to a parallel universe and perhaps we would be transported to the original event for which the story was told.

Something magical happened when grandpa told stories. His outlook was to make everything you did the “greatest”. When you asked him how his day was spent he would always recall the days events, which might have included berry picking, a game of cards, an early morning swim, a jaunt to the Wilson River, whatever the agenda, the response was the same: It was the greatest ever! It actually felt like his enthusiasm lept from his heart via his lips into your mind and you wondered “How can I have more days like Grandpa?” When I think of him now, this is a particularly common theme, how can I live more like my grandfather lived, such deep seeded acceptance that he genuinely feels each moment of his life is the greatest ever.

Even in the darkest of his tales, the moral of the story is positive. For example, in a memory from early adolescence, perhaps Gradpa’s most repeated story, he recalls the time when he was supposed to deliver church dues but became side tracked by a dice game along his way. Being the devout God fearing child he was, what other conclusion could be had but to gamble the dues to gain additional funds and then he would have a little money for himself and even more for the church. Well, the plan was going great accept he was loosing not winning and then disaster struck when Scrappy, his next oldest brother, happened along the game. Scrappy promptly took the remaining funds, gambled them, won back the original sum, and beat Grandpa bloody. For a crux, Scrappy hands Grandpa the church dues and charges him again with the task he has so far failed to complete. This time, detouring for nothing, Grandpa heads to the church, delivers the dues, and sneaks back to his room skipping dinner for fear of facing his mother.

In another recollection, Grandpa reminisces about his stint in the Pennsylvania Cavalry. My favorite tale of this anthology speaks to military changes in response to the industrial revolution. Grandpa told me about when the army switched from traditional equine transport to the “Motorized Horse”, a motorcycle. Shortly after his training and during the first couple runs Grandpa got in an accident that laid him up so badly he was supposed to be hospitalized. Instead, the army deployed him to a hospital bus, which was said to care for patients just as well. I imagined a prototype RV outfitted with medical equipment. Grandpa conveyed skepticism about the care he received. Hearing a first hand account from such a significant period sent chills down my spine. Grandpa’s stories took me back in time to a place before cell phones, computers, GPS, to a place were the first generation of ambulances were amazing technological feats. Some of his story’s were less about morals and more about history.

Perhaps my favorite way that Grandpa shared stories with the family was the annual birthday poem he would post. That’s right, he sent a birthday card to everyone else in the family on his birthday. Mostly the cards conveyed his outlook that whatever you do, make it the “greatest ever”. As I approach my birthday, and turning 30, I’ve re-read my collection of Grandpa Dick Bday cards. They are beautiful and I cherish them. One particular line resonates with me, “Keep smiling honey- it is free- and looks good and appropriate on you”, followed by “[Here is a] small check for pizza and milkshake”.

I thought of Grandpa often in Australia. I thought of Grandpa often on a recent Amtrak trip to California. Mostly I wonder, if he were traveling with me, how he would tell the story of each moment. What angles he would capture, which facets would inspire him?

Invariably, Grandpa lives on. I like to think of him as an ancestral pillar that connects myself, all my cousins, my aunts and uncles, my family. He holds supports us and challenges us to be our best selves as we hold our accomplishments up to his legacy. In each of our personal stories, despite the diversity of paths we have chosen, we all have Grandpa uniting us. Like an ancient tribe delivering a myth as right of passage, I know he lives when we retell his stories. He lives on when I tell my own story’s, he is speaking through me in these moments. And he especially lives on when I aim to live my life perpetually having the greatest experience ever.

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