Last night I returned from a long weekend in Pennsylvania where I celebrated my grandfather’s 88th birthday.
He is not a man who seeks attention of any sort, but in this case he had no choice — all of his baby birds were flying home to the nest whether he asked them to or not.
And there are quite a few of us: four children (plus a spouse), seven grandchildren (plus 3 spouses) and three great-grandchildren. It was semi-controlled chaos.
We grandkids gathered around the birthday boy and his darling wife for a multi-generational photo.
It’s easy to gather around the man who for nearly forty years has gathered his arms around his grandkids. He’s the epitome of engaged; during our childhoods he intentionally orchestrated specific events that would be easy for our memories to grasp hold of.
My earliest days with him were long summer days spent at his and grandma’s house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The fact that they moved within five miles of my sisters and me is demonstration of his dedication. That he also made those long summer days a total kick in the pants is the icing on the cake.
For starters, he bought me a Powerwheels red Corvette convertible. Any child of the 80s just read that and said to themselves, “Stop right there. No need to continue! He’s obviously the greatest grandparent alive if he knew to buy you the most royally awesome gift of all time.”
And it was! …right up until he was crusing through Toys ‘R Us one day and spotted a red Jeep Powerwheels that could not only seat two, but also had two speeds. Needless to say, I was soon upgraded and flying across his backyard at mach 2.
But lest one should think all he did was spoil us, I offer this illustration. A couple times a week while my parents were at work, Grandpa would take us on walks down the retired railroad tracks, where we’d skip along the iron rails and jump between the wooden ties. This was particularly fun because we were usually fresh off the latest episode of Shining Time Station (Ringo Starr as miniature magic train conductor? Of course!).
These walks always happened to land us at the local ice cream shop at the end of the tracks, where Grandpa would treat us to two scoops. Hmm, this story was not supposed to be about spoiling the grandkids…let me try one more.
When we’d run to the grocery store to pick up something for Grandma, we’d stroll the candy aisle and he would lift the lid on a couple of the jelly bean canisters and tell us to grab one.
“How do you know you want to buy them if you don’t taste them first!?” he’d say as justification. We felt like we were being given permission to rob a bank — it was glorious.
But let’s be honest: any man who served in World War II deserves a few free jelly beans.
That’s him on the left, Mr. James McMurtry, Jr. Quite the stud, right?
GP, as we call him (short for Grandpa…this isn’t complicated) taught us about life mostly by example. I can’t recall him ever giving me a lecture on finances, but I watched him save and spend wisely. From what I hear he was fairly frugal most of his life, but even that has its limits: he’s been known to buy a new car rather than have the oil changed on the one he owns. He’s owned ten Cadillacs in as many years.
When I got married a little over two years ago, he didn’t pull me to the side for some marriage advice. He didn’t need to; his marriage of 65 years spoke for itself.
In 2004 when I was headed to D.C. for an internship, he and my grandma dropped me off and helped me get settled in my new dorm on Georgetown campus. We quickly realized the dorm room didn’t come with plates, cups or utensils, so we headed to the store to buy some. He and grandma started filling the cart with far more than I needed, and I said, “You don’t need to get some for my roommates! Let them get their own supplies.” He turned quietly from filling the cart and said, “That’s not a very good way to start a friendship, is it?”
I couldn’t reply. I honestly thought he’d be proud of me for trying to save him some cash, when instead he taught me that generosity is far more valuable than saving a dollar.
When I got into town last week, there wasn’t much for us to catch up on; we never let enough time pass between calls. Most Monday or Friday mornings you can find me blithly breaking the law as I chat with GP and GM on my way to work. That’s how it’s always been for us: casual, close, best buddies, really, rather than distant, formal family.
The most I can say is what he’s done for me is all I can hope to do for my grandchildren. I’ll keep them close while letting them find their way. I’ll never let them doubt that they are loved beyond their knowing, but that the world does not revolve around them. And one day, when they ask me about when I was a kid, I’ll be sure to tell them about this man, this Grand Father, this patriarch of our family tree.