When I was thirteen my grandparents moved into our basement. Having Grandma and Grandpa living with us changed my life in profound ways. For one thing, Grandma and Grandpa liked our friends, and our friends liked them. It took me years to realize that other people’s grandparents didn’t become beloved figures among their grandchildren’s friends. It’s hard to say what their magic was–they were not rich, or particularly well educated, or stylish. They were an elderly German couple from the Midwest. Grandma was loud and boisterous. Grandpa was softspoken, and had a wicked sense of humor. They were both storytellers. Grandma told her stories loudly and emphatically, with an eye to drama. Grandpa told his softly and matter-of-factly, often ending with a rusty chuckle and a “bet ya didn’t know that, didja?”
Grandma was a carpenter. Grandpa was a member of the Harlequin book club. Grandma was diabetic and made orange coffee cake for us. Grandpa loaded us kids into his car and bought us Charburgers. Together they took us through the Columbia Gorge, and stopped at all the waterfalls. Grandma stumped emphatically around snapping pictures. Grandpa walked around with us kids, telling us stories about his days driving trucks from Wisconsin to Portland, on the very road we were driving.
I loved Grandma and Grandpa, and I never took them for granted. I never lost sight of the fact that their presence in our basement was in the nature of a loan, not a gift. They would not be there forever. Still, though, they were there for a long time–five years, during which Grandpa and I worked together on the ranch. During our lunch breaks, Grandpa told me stories.
Five years is a long time, and Grandpa tended to repeat himself. But I never minded–it was Grandpa, and I loved listening to his soft voice, his rusty chuckle, and his dry wit. He told me his stories in the garden. He told me his stories sitting under the truck on the ranch while we ate our lunch. He told me his stories while we were riding in the car. And always in the same words, with the same intonations, the same pauses. Listening to Grandpa was my first exposure to literature. Had he been born a thousand years earlier he could have been a bard, or perhaps a minstrel. Certainly his memory was prodigious. He could still recite huge swaths of Hiawatha, which he had learned before leaving school at the end of Eighth Grade.
I listened to his stories the same way that I read books, going back over and over to reread favorites, asking again and again for favorite stories. And then one day it came to an end. Grandma and Grandpa went back to their house in Wisconsin and took up the threads of the life they had left when they came to live with us. All that was left behind was an empty room in our basement, a few Harlequin romances we girls had squirreled away, and the fugitive smell of butterscotch and chewing tobacco. And the stories.
Before I had ever considered writing, Grandpa taught me how to play with words, how to craft a story, and how to build a scene. My Grandpa is the reason I am a writer today. It is perhaps fitting that over the last few years I have been writing down Grandpa’s stories. And I could do it, word for word, because Grandpa had written them in his head, and then spooled them out, time after time, binding our souls so tightly that even now I can see his face, and hear his voice, and writing his stories is not an act of creation, but of transcription.
And so the next project, I think, will be a novel filled and shaped by Grandpa’s stories, the familiar old favorites, and the stories he only told me once, in a time of great need. (That’s for tomorrow.) My Grandpa was a man worth knowing–a good, simple, clear-sighted man who knew the value of moving slowly, nurturing blossoms and children, and treating roots gently.