Early on, when my husband and I visited my grandparents to announce our engagement, my grandfather sat back in his overstuffed chair. He nodded his head and said, "Well, what are you going to bring to the table, Dave?" and raised his eyebrows in anticipation of the answer.
My grandmother interrupted, "You can't say that!"
"Yes, I can!" he said and looked back at Dave.
I watched Dave stumble through his answers of how he would be a good provider and husband, surely thinking he must've flashbacked to the 1950's. When Dave was done, Gramp winked and smiled and gave a hearty congratulation. Once you passed his test, you were okay. But you did have to pass his test.
I just moved back to my hometown. Not only my hometown, but my parents' and their parents' hometown. My grandfather was an icon here, but I always hesitate when people ask if we were related because he was what you would call a character.
At 6'5", Gramp was a striking figure. People easily recognized him by his height, his shock of bright white hair, his overalls, his baseball cap, and his big Jeep truck. If they got close enough, they'd see his bright blue eyes, always bright with concentration or mischief. My grandfather considered himself the unofficial building inspector of our town. Hell, I'm sure he considered himself the official building inspector. It's just that it wasn't on paper. As a retired carpenter, he thought it his duty to spend his days driving his Jeep through town until he saw construction at which point he would stop and yell to the workers on ladders about what they could be doing better. He never came across a fence or construction tape that he thought pertained to him. He was never a mechanic, but he also thought himself pretty adept at fixing automobiles. He spent afternoons hanging out at the auto bodies, letting the mechanics know what they could do differently.
Until he died, he kept a farm. Early on, he had cows and chickens. By the time I was around, he no longer had animals, but he had rows and rows of fruits and vegetables. He kept a meticulous watch over the garden and waged in an epic battle with a multi-generational clan of woodchucks who loved his garden as much as he did.
He was Yankee through and through, most of all when it came to waste. He did not waste anything. Ever. Our family and friends were therefore caught in a vicious lifelong cycle of eating rotten vegetables. Because he grew way more vegetables than he could ever eat, he constantly had a pile of rotten ones on his doorstep. Rather than throw these away and eat the good ones, he'd work his way through the rotten ones. He gave away hundreds of moldy tomatoes while trying to work his way to the good ones. "Here ya go," he'd say, handing me a tomato with fur growing out the side. "Just cut that part off. It's still a good one!"
Not only could he not bear to waste anything, he could not bear to see anyone else waste anything. Broken toilet? Hey! He could fix it! Why would you throw out a perfectly good broken toilet? He had ten toilets in his basement that he'd picked up from trash heaps or old construction, ready to be installed if any of his working toilets really gave out. Windowpanes? Any time he worked on a house, he took home the old windowpanes if his customers let him. He had hundreds of panes sitting next to those toilets. You just never know when you're going to need these things.
In his late eighties when he started to have some health troubles, his sons told him he should not be riding his tractor anymore. He had scraped his legs so many times that they were constantly bruised and/or infected. Although he humored his sons and listened to them speak, he had his own plan. Within the week, he went to the local football coach's house and negotiated the loan of a set of football pads. The coach told my dad that my grandfather had come by to get the pads and, last thing he knew, he had seen him riding around the farm, fully padded. He wasn't getting scraped, but he wasn't getting off of the tractor.
As a frugal Yankee carpenter and farmer, Gramp had no tolerance for leisure pursuits or people who he deemed "lazy." He respected those who went to bed early, got up early, worked hard, and went to bed. Tennis? Golf? C'mon now. Lazy. Imagine my horror when I watched him trick my poor husband into admitting he golfed.
Gramp, "Dave, how 'bout you? You ever golf?"
Dave answered, "I do. I'm not so great, but I do like to get out there. How 'bout you?"
Gramp, "Are you kidding me? Golf's for people who have too much time on their hands! Nothing better to do."
Dave looked at me in dismay. My grandfather winked.
When Gramp died at 94, I was completely shocked. I never thought he would die. Ever. He wasn't the type of person to do that. He was too fiesty- and too crotchety. To die would not have been in his plan.
But when he died, he lay in a casket in a funeral home built in the 1800's. He rested under woodwork and moldings that he had refinished only five years earlier. The liberal lesbian minister gave a beautiful eulogy about my conservative, Yankee grandfather.
She said that Gramp must've been proud.
The funeral home was full. Full of people who had known Gramp in some way. Customers, fellow parishioners, friends, recipients of rotten tomatoes, people who had been put through his tests, Odd Fellows (of which he was a member) in their kelly-green jackets and maroon velvet hats, relatives, those who had given him their broken toilets, builders, and auto mechanics.
When the service was over, my husband and I walked outside as two little old ladies put on their coats and talked.
"He was a bit of a curmudgeon, wasn't he?"
"Yes, but he sure was a character."