Probably more than any book I’ve ever written, this was a labor of love. William J. Zimmerman–Zimmy to his friends; Bill to my Grandma; Grandpa to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren–was an utterly amazing man not because of the things he did, but because of who he was. One of the things he was was a great storyteller. He wasn’t a great one for making things up; his stories were slices of his life, and he dished them up to whoever wanted to hear them.
Some of his stories became the stuff of family legend–his “Frog in the Water Bucket” story is still told when we gather. Some of his stories were less straightforward–they captured complex events, things that didn’t lend themselves to simple analysis.
For me, his stories evoke not just slices of his life, but slices of mine–evenings in the garden, Grandpa’s hands slowly, carefully, tending plants, his voice soft, slow and rusty, the wind blowing cool after the heat of the day. They evoke moments stolen, out of time. Mostly, they evoke the safe place my Grandpa was–a man who considered every one of his grandchildren unique, irreplaceable, and remarkable. These stories remind me of a time and a person who believed I could do anything, and be anything I wanted. He had no doubt of my success.
There are too few men like my Grandpa in the world. As I grow older, I find myself talking about him to my son. I find myself not only telling his stories, but going back to them as touchstones for how I might pass on some of what he gave not only me, but every one of his grandchildren. These stories are important not just because they capture events in a life that spanned most of the twentieth century from wagons to airliners, but because they document how an amazing man navigated a life that all too often threatened to get the better of him. Grandpa was more than just a survivor–he was a storyteller, and his stories hold the key to how he did it.
In an uncertain world, Grandpa’s stories have fresh relevance not just because I loved him and loved his stories, but because they function in many ways as myth–in telling them, Grandpa offered a way to not just navigate hard times, but to do so with courage, persistence, and humor.
I started this book for my son. I turned out to be a gift I gave myself–a long, deep, satisfying conversation with a man who could be trusted with not just my life, but my heart. A grandpa like mine is worth sharing.
A quick note to the others who called him “Grandpa,” and may stumble across this. Most if not all of these stories will be familiar to you. You may remember them somewhat differently. If so, I hope you write down your versions, and share them with me. This book is a starting point.