If your opinion of your fellow man is based solely off the evening news, you are likely to believe the world is full of evil. Most of what makes headlines is shocking and / or appalling. Sure, they mix in a couple of feel-good human interest stories, but the overwhelming amount of reporting is dedicated to crime, death, and scandal.
Of course this isn’t an accurate illustration of “most” people. Most people aren’t evil. Most people aren’t criminals. There is just nothing interesting to report when a man lives his whole life being a good person.
“In today’s news, the man next door works 40 hours a week, is faithful to his wife and loves his children. He is also financially responsible and rarely raises his voice.”
That’s just not interesting.
When my grandma Helen passed away, my grandpa John was completely lost. They had been married for 63 years. Theirs was a life built on routine. His part of the routine was to work and provide. He worked on small engines from 9 to 5, and in the evenings and on the weekends he worked on anything he could think of around their acreage. I don’t remember a time when his hands weren’t dirty with engine grease, or his classic blue single pocket work shirt wasn’t similarly tainted. He is an incredibly hard working man. When my grandmother got sick, he took to caring for her full time. When she passed, in addition to the loss of his best friend and partner in life, he seemed to be lacking a purpose for maybe the first time. Up to that point he had been a remarkably healthy man, but shortly after her death he suffered a stroke. For a bit of time it felt like we might lose him too. While it would have made for a beautiful ending to a love story, our family wasn’t prepared to lose both the pillars of its foundation, and something inside him decided he still had work to do here, so he fully recovered.
After he got better, I started going to breakfast with him every Saturday morning. I wanted to make sure I was around for him the way I wasn’t there for his wife. It was over 8 years ago those breakfasts started. A lot has changed in my life since then, but the Saturday morning breakfast with Grandpa has not. Well, that’s not entirely true…
When we first started he had to pick me up because I didn’t have a license. We would go to Dahl’s grocery store. Their breakfast reminded me the most of the breakfasts my grandpa would make me when I was a kid. I think he cooked the eggs in the sausage grease. His cooking specialties were breakfast and hamburgers, and in both cases I think the grease was what made the meals special. I think about how unhealthy it is to eat greasy stuff like that, but he is 94 and really healthy, so it can’t be that bad for you.
As for breakfast, we don’t go to Dahl’s anymore, it closed. And he doesn’t pick me up anymore, I got my license back. And it isn’t just me and Grandpa, I got married and my wife LOVES the Saturday morning breakfast tradition. The only thing she doesn’t love about it is that my Grandpa calls me at 6:30 am each Saturday to wake me up, to make sure we are going to be on time. As annoying as that might be some weekends, it’s worth it knowing how much he looks forward to our breakfasts.
Growing up, I knew my grandpa was a hard worker and a genuinely good person, but I didn’t come to appreciate it until I got older and, maybe, sober. He lived such a simple life. He wasn’t affected by the temptations of a modern world. He wasn’t driven by money or concerned with status. If you were to ask him what motivates him I’m certain his answer would be “motivate me for what? I just always did what I thought I ought to be doing.” It’s that simple for him. It’s probably what I respect and envy most about him. Most of us complicate the fuck out of our own lives, while he just keeps doing what he assumes he ought to, and is having great results.
Granted, I don’t know everything about my Grandpa, but from where I stand he has lived such a storybook life. The American Dream. He grew up on a farm. He went to war. He took a bullet. He married his sweetheart, bought a home, made a career, raised a family. He was never saddled with addiction and all of its baggage. He just had an instinct to keep things simple. He, from what I can tell, was always a good man.
As much as I desire to follow in the footsteps of my Grandpa, there are parts of his story that I can never replicate. I made mistakes. So many mistakes. I haven’t always been a good man. I can choose to dwell on these parts, on the mistakes I’ve made. I can obsess about the terrible ways I treated people. I could remind myself of all the times I let people down. I could pull out all of the old regrets I have, and throw a helluva pity party for myself. I could sink down into that darkness like I have a million times before. That is the type of unhealthy behavior, the type of flawed thought process, that I believe all addicts and alcoholics have to break free from- the idea we don’t deserve nice things. That we don’t deserve to be happy. The way we fully expect to fuck things up anytime they start to go well. The hamster wheel that addiction is. Drink or use, feel guilt and shame for drinking or using, drink or use again to escape from the guilt and shame of drinking or using… and on and on.
It’s a complicated way of going about things. It’s much easier to just try and do the next right thing. After a while doing the right thing becomes a habit. The same way having a drink was a habit, only with less baggage.
Can I live the life my Grandpa lived? No, I can’t. But is that really important? No, it’s not.
What is important is that I live a life I can be proud of. I believe I can and am doing that now.
“You can’t change your past, but you can always change your future.” – I don’t know who said that, but they were / are right.
I want to say it was 2012, my grandpa and I were out to breakfast. He told me he wanted to get a jukebox. At first I kind of laughed it off. He has always liked music, as long as it has “some get up and go!” or “a little boogie woogie to it”- his words that he says every single time we talk about music. As he has gotten older, he will occasionally have some kind of wild idea like this and typically I will not feed into it and hope it just kind of passes, but this wasn’t going to pass. He asked me again the next week. So I looked up some little imitation jukeboxes online and showed them to him. He was insulted. He didn’t want an imitation, he wanted the real thing, something that plays records. So I did some more research and the next week I told him there really wasn’t anything good for less that a couple grand. I assumed that would be a deal breaker. It was not. He was willing to spend whatever it took to have something real nice that people could play and dance to when they came to his house. So for the next month, I dove headfirst into old school 45 inch record playing jukebox research. I scoured all the Craigslist and eBay sites trying to find something good and preferably local. In the end, I found him a 1945 Wurlitzer. It was in pretty great condition all things considered and it was in Pella, so it was only about an hour away. My step dad and I took his Chevy truck down to pick it up. It was so heavy and awkward to move. We got it all strapped in and hoped for the best. Like I said, it was in pretty good condition for its age, but we weren’t sure how it would hold up to being in the back of a truck for an hour on a cold winter night. One big bump and the whole thing might fall apart… all $2500 dollars of it. (I was only able to talk the old guy down 50 bucks.) The jukebox got its first test of stability before we left the old man’s house as my step dad backed into a tree trying to get turned around. (He will be happy I added that part of the story.)
We got it back to my grandpa’s safe and sound. He was so happy with it. It’s really a neat machine. The whole setup is visible through a plastic bubble on the top. On the right the records are stacked up in numbered metal rings. When you select a song the ring slides over and the arm of the record player meets it. The arm of the record player has two cartridges and needles. One for side A that falls down onto the record and another if you select a B-side that comes up underneath the record and plays upside down. 25 cents gets you 5 plays. His happiness with it wasn’t unconditional however, and soon he was badgering me to help him get more 45’s. Records that he liked. The problem was, he couldn’t really remember any of the names of songs or artists he liked. The names he’d remember were too few to fill a 25 record jukebox. So I spent the next several months trying to define my grandpa’s musical taste, which was mostly done through trial and error. In the end he has a…. unique taste in music. He loves Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Elvis and all the greats like that, but it’s all contingent on the song. He actually hates slow songs. He doesn’t like ballads or love songs, and again, like he always says, he really only likes music that has “some get up and go” and “a little boogie woogie.” I pretty much have it down now. (The other day I played the John Prine song “Poor Imitation of God” for him and he loved it.)
The jukebox has been a total pain in my ass. Every month or so he wants new music in it or he got something stuck on it or who knows what. Sometimes I might cringe when I hear him bring up the jukebox, but I am so thankful that I was able to do that for/ with him. That doesn’t happen if I am not sober. We don’t go to breakfast. I don’t throw myself into researching something that seemed to be a ridiculous idea. I love that we took his seemingly ridiculous idea and made it a really neat part of his reality.
A couple years ago I bought him a Polaroid camera- old school- the big pictures. I thought it would be a really neat way to document the last chapter of his life. He loves it. It typically gets used when we have a family get together at his house and he always has someone else take the pictures, usually me. Recently, however, I noticed some photos of the trees in his and his neighbors yard. When I asked him about them he told he had taken them. They are really neat photos. I love photos of things that are taken for granted constantly, like trees or a sunrise. Maybe I am like him after all.
So now, at age 94, when we have a birthday party for his 4-year-old great grandson at his house, he will ask us to turn on the Wurlitzer and snap some photos with the Polaroid. The memories of him smiling and doing his little dance moves will likely be burnt into all of our memories. The pure joy of a man who lived through so much. To see him that thrilled over something as simple as a birthday party and a record. I mean, how many birthday parties do you think he has witnessed? How many songs has he heard? Yet he still smiles like it’s brand new.
So while this life he has lived and continues to live might never be considered interesting enough to make the evening news, I for one, find it remarkable.
It’s the story I am most interested in.
It’s the story that reminds me to remain humble.
It’s the story that reminds me to take joy in life’s simple pleasures.
His life will also serve to remind me of what is important.
Hard work, family, an occasional piece of cake, and a good song. The type of song that has a little get up and go to it, a little boogie woogie.