Grandpa Joe was a country boy long before it was cool—many years before John Denver sang about it… Truth be told, being country was more a part of his bones than it was an identity.
Joe tapped maple trees, collecting their sap and furnishing our family with an endless supply of maple syrup and sugar; he also made knives, carving the handles out of old bones and antlers that he’d collected. I think he loved the peace and tranquillity that his hobbies afforded him.
My parents said that Grandpa Joe was shortening his life with his cigarettes and alcohol. More importantly, however, he would surely never get into heaven with his behaviour.
I always felt that my parents’ harsh judgment of Joe was probably more than matched by his disregard for their opinion—in fact anyone’s opinion— of him.
Joe could roll a cigarette with one hand; a feat that mesmerized me. And although I never saw him drink or even smelled alcohol on him, he had quite a reputation … I wonder, now, if his drinking was mostly confined to his youth and if those days were accurately portrayed or grossly exaggerated when those observations and memories were filtered through the eyes of prohibition children. Either way, my grandfather didn’t seem to give a lick about anyone’s opinion; as an approval-seeking child, I loved that. Although Joe never rubbed anyone’s nose in his own opinions, that I recall, or even outwardly disrespected them: He simply didn’t give one shit what people thought or said about anything.
He was a man of very few words. But he had eyes that twinkled whenever he looked at me and I always felt that I had a special place in his heart.
I suspect all of his grandchildren felt exactly the same way.
When conversations got too grim for him, Joe would mumble, “I’m going down the grove and check on the maple taps,” or, “I’m going out ta the porch for air.”
Joe had a crooked smile that looked like he was either constantly amused or housing a pinch of chaw behind his lower lip. Probably both.
He called me Old Crow; sometimes shortened to Crow. When I asked him why he called me that, he said it was because I had the blackest hair he’d ever seen. “And I have a fondness for crows,” he smiled and added. That was as close as my grandfather ever got to expressing his love for me, in words.
It was autumn in Potter County—probably 1956 or ‘57—and we were spending Thanksgiving with my grandparents. As I recall, it was out of the blue that Grandpa decided it was time I learned how to ride a two-wheeler, although it’s entirely possible that he thought the conversation in the house was just too grim for both of us.
“Absolutely not!” my mother insisted. “She’s too little and a driveway like yours is no place for a child to learn to ride a bike.” I’m pretty sure my mother thought the conversation was over, as her father headed off quietly to the barn.
When he returned, he was wheeling the most beautiful small brown bicycle I’d ever seen, by his side. Closer inspection proved that the bike had once been blue before rust devoured almost all of its paint … I didn’t care. I still thought it was gorgeous and I had that distinct feeling, in the pit of my stomach, that this was going to be a red-letter day! “I cleaned her all up and oiled her for you, down the barn,” he said quietly.
Looking back I can’t imagine what she looked like prior to being all cleaned up.
As I mounted the bike, Joe explained that he would hold onto the seat, thus not allowing me to fall, until I could balance on my own.
“But how do I do that?” I asked.
“You don’t do anything; just let it happen,” he replied. “It’s like a bird learning to fly; you’ll just do it after a bunch of tries.” I nodded knowingly, silently wondering what in the world he meant.
My mother wrung her hands in despair, saying things like, “Daddy, this is the worst idea you’ve ever had and I absolutely forbid it,” as Grandpa Joe walked with me, perched proudly on the little brown bike, through the yard and down to the long rough, dirt and gravel driveway.
For what seemed like hours, we went up and down the drive, from the house to the road, and then back again… . To this day I can remember the joy I felt as I silently relished that beautiful day spent with my grandfather.
Since our staunch Christian home—and 1950’s society in general— seemed to house an overabundance of rules, attention was generally given with words: Either explaining a rule, or reprimanding us for not following one. As an extremely shy middle child, I lived quite contentedly receiving little attention.
That day, however, I felt warm and whole, bathed in the golden autumn sunlight while receiving the full—yet silent—attention of my grandfather, as we wordlessly accompanied one another up and down the driveway: My grandfather, huffing and puffing, and me grinning and pretending like I was doing whatever was expected of me—having no idea what that actually was.
I’m not certain that this is an accurate recollection, but when I remember that autumn afternoon in Potter County, it feels like one of my first meditations: Although it seemed like hours, it also seemed timeless … So was it our 10th time or our 30th time travelling that bumpy dirt driveway? I have no idea and never will. But on that final run from the road back to the house, I turned—as I had almost every other minute since we began this project—to ensure that Grandpa Joe had a firm grip on my seat. And suddenly something magical happened: as I fell heavily to the ground, skidding across the dirt, stones and grass, scraping my left leg and arm raw, I simultaneously saw my grandfather—grinning from ear to ear—with his arms raised joyously towards the heavens, 20 or more feet behind me in the driveway.
I had done it. I had balanced on the bike without ever knowing how and without a word of explanation. There were no rules or restrictions and no conscious learning … I had simply flown, on my own!
It was quite possibly the beginning of my understanding that sometimes, just the desire to do something and the will to stick with it, are all we need to accomplish the impossible: like building a house from the ground up with almost no skills, or moving to unknown parts of the world with children and no support system, or reinventing oneself almost entirely in those golden years… .
My grandfather and I walked silently back to the house, me trickling blood down my arm and leg, and both of us smiling like victorious generals returning from war.
I sat on the side of the bathtub as my mother and grandmother cleaned me up.
Angry statements like, “That Joe is such a stubborn mule,” and, “Daddy is the most infuriating man I know,” were muttered by the women as they dramatically bandaged my scrapes and cuts. Oddly I don’t remember any pain or even discomfort. I do, however, remember Grandpa Joe sticking his head in the bathroom doorway and saying, “Crows need to fly, don’t they?” It was more of a statement than question. He looked at me with his eyes twinkling and I’m pretty sure it was not tobacco tucked beneath his lip that gave him his amused expression.
Flash Forward Many Years
It was a warm autumn day that a middle-aged woman sat down next to me on a park bench here in London. I was resting from my bicycling route, which I do several times a week.
“I want to learn to bicycle but my husband says I’m too old,” she said.
“Well you’re never too old,” I replied. “But I think everyone takes a spill of two when learning and those spills are more painful as we get older.”
“I watch you here in the park and you always have a smile. You look like you’re flying!” she said, “This makes me want to learn to fly, too.”
In that moment I remembered my Grandfather. In a childhood filled with duck and cover drills and religious rules and regulations, my grandfather gave me his love of tranquillity as well as the gift of not only his silent attention, but also the gift of flight.
With the cool breezes and sun in my face I have always been able to pedal myself above almost all earthly stresses and horrors; and I’ve known a few. Bicycling has always been so much more than transportation or relaxation; it’s been a magical key to my inner freedom; it’s my meditation.
I’ve come to think that heaven is a place in our minds and souls. But I’m sure of one thing: If there actually is such a place as heaven, in spite of his smoking and drinking and not giving one shit about what people thought of him, my Grandpa Joe—just a simple country boy—will be there with bells on, if for no other reason, than his love of tranquillity. Oh yeah … and that entire afternoon of his life that he spent silently teaching a little Crow to fly …