That summer, Grampa, more like a wise older brother than a man forty years my senior, would take out his pocket knife and sharpen a square pencil to a point as he began to write out a list on the back of an envelope. He knew that everything he did was “so cool” to me; he showed off with a bit of quiet pride that understated his joy in the way a father—then grandfather—develops throughout a lifetime.
A box fan whirring in the background on the windowsill dulled the crackling sound of the AM band receiver broadcasting some football game or talking voice in the background. That garage was more like an office; he allowed the car to share the space.
There was nothing about wrapping up the day that I didn’t love. As we crossed off that day’s accomplishments, we made the plan for the next. Each word he transferred—from his mind, a manifestation of memory mixed with artistry— to that piece of paper carried the weight of a thousand dreams yet to come true: a list of tasks that I never imagined I would want to do until he told me they existed. The wrapping up and the planning, the crossing-off and reconfiguring of our accomplishments and still-to-dos, comprised the daily point of tangency between pride and optimism. The list of chores framed lessons, each one carrying with it a mix of metaphysical and mundane in ways that still wash over me in the memories that continue to ignite my curiosity.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to my friend’s farm, and he’s going to give us some manure.”
He had a way of making even poop relevant, if not the greatest thing on earth. And throughout that next day, as we fetched it and spread it and tilled it into the ground, that poop became the pungent palette for the garden that we staked and seeded and for which I’d awaken with the sun each next day to walk and look for sprouting tomatoes and carrots and beans and zucchini.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to my friend’s hardware store, and we’re going to buy a new blade for the wood splitter.”
“Why do we split the wood?”
“So it will dry and crackle in the fireplace. Wet wood doesn’t burn.”
And nothing made me prouder than splitting that wood, wielding that hand-splitter and positioning those wedges into the center—then half, then quarter—of a leaning oak he’d removed from ol’ Mr. Bibb’s yard the season before; except maybe stacking it. From the room I slept in, I overlooked that growing woodpile with glee: beaming in the future of the glowing hearth that I would have facilitated come Thanksgiving.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to change the oil in the old pickup.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to paint the barn.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to mow the yard.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to fix the fence out by the road.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to clear out the thickets from the rock garden.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to install a new light out on the pine tree by the wisteria bush.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to teach you how to drive in your Aunt Chy’s old Comet.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to change the broken sprinkler heads by the crepe myrtles.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to fix the boat trailer.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to make some window boxes for your Gram to plant her herbs in.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to head over to ol’ Mrs. Bibb’s and move her hope chest into her attic.”
“But there’s so much to do right here, why shouldn’t we do that first?
“Because she can’t do it herself anymore; it’s our responsibility to help her out when we can.”
I didn’t need to ask, but he always let me: “Grampa, why?” He always had answers ready.
Each day’s reckoning—the crossing off—came with a new item, and a list of sub-tasks, to replace it. By the natural western light filtering in through that garage window, we always finished up with a plan. We didn’t rest on our laurels. Instead we merely rested-up for the next day’s work: the next day’s promise: the next day’s lesson.
His house, the house he built from the cellar, on-up, was situated so the morning sun shone through his bedroom to signal the new day and the setting sun would shine through that garage window to enlighten his reckoning and planning: his own architectural manifest destiny.
And each next day, regardless of our shifting list, started the same way.
If I was up at six, Grampa was up at five. She was up at four-thirty making us breakfast. Mid-morning, with the sun slicing through the forming clouds, she would bring us fresh-brewed iced-tea with hand-picked mint leaves in tall yellow tumblers.
At a minute ‘til noon, she’d call us in to partake in the lunch she made for us: salty, thick-sliced tomatoes from the garden on gooey white bread sandwiches with leftover chicken or meatloaf or hamburgers from the previous night’s dinner; then some confection she’d baked from scratch.
Mid-afternoon, more tea and some blackberries sprinkled in sugar to nibble on.
And, as we wrapped up our day, rolling hoses or extension cords, putting our tools back to their spots in the shed, sweeping up our workspace, and stomping the mud out of our shoes, she’d sneak us out a cookie or a brownie or piece of watermelon she’d sliced and seeded for us. This would be our sustenance at the end of the day. As we prepared our list, the smell of the dinner she was preparing wafted through our space, enticing and sating at the same time: the scent of reward.
She was the fuel that kept us going, I knew that. She was the sugar on top, I knew that. But I didn’t know that she was more than how we made it through the day.
At the end of that summer, as I knew that it was my last day, I saw Grampa writing out the list as I came into the garage. The sweat had dried on my shirt but remained on my forehead. As was often the case by the end of the day, I was exhausted. My hair hung down in my eyes. I rubbed my hands together and noted that my blisters had grown into callouses just as he had explained—six weeks earlier—they would.
“Grampa, can I stay longer?”
“No, you have to head home, fella. School starts back tomorrow.”
“You had fun, though, right? You’ll come back soon, right?”
“Yes, Grampa, of course!” This was the first, hardest time, I ever had to say goodbye to him. Fortunately, there would be plenty more opportunities to say good bye—before the next-hardest, last one— that were as fleeting as this one.
He handed me some money. Today, I don’t remember how much it actually was—probably twenty or thirty dollars—but on that day it was at least a million. I thanked him and, as a kid, had no idea that I was even supposed to pretend I didn’t want it. That was a lesson that he never tried to teach me. Hard work, I learned from him, came with the reward of satisfaction; it came with the reward of wages as well.
Then he taught me the most important lesson of the summer. He pulled out a stack of envelopes and flipped them over. He shuffled through them and showed them to me, fanned out like a deck of cards. I could see the daily lists with dates, each one with lists of supplies and activities crossed out, straight and systematically as though he had used a ruler. I could tell that he put as much thought into the marking of accomplishments as he had in queuing up the tasks in the first place.
“This is what we did this summer. We did a lot of things, didn’t we?”
“Yes, Grampa, we did.”
“What was your favorite part?”
“Gosh, I don’t know. Splitting wood? Planting the garden? I just don’t know, all of it, I guess.”
“We did a lot, didn’t we?”
“Yes.” I was proud.
“Do you know what my favorite part was?”
“Being with me?”
“Well, yes. But it wasn’t just you and me out there.”
I struggled to understand where he was going with this line of thought. And then it hit me, what he was teaching me.
As we finished up our watermelon wedges, he reminded me of the sweet mint teas and the gooey sandwiches and the cookies and the sugar-dipped blackberries and the three-course suppers and the love and hugs that accompanied their deliveries.
I thought back to her watching us from her rock garden while she sipped on her own tea.
I thought back to her pruning the wisteria while we hung the light.
I thought back to her picking the vegetables from the garden.
I thought back to her washing out our paint brushes.
I thought back to her sweeping up the piles we’d missed.
I thought back to her hanging out our clean clothes on the wash-line while we dirtied that day’s.
I thought back to him, and that he watched her do these things: how he looked at her while she looked at us. She was much more than the how for him.
“Do you know why we did all this?” He continued shuffling the envelopes.
“For her. She’s why.”