I never knew my grandfather that well. Really, he was my step-grandfather, my mother’s stepfather. Her real dad died in France of pneumonia when I was no more than a toddler. Her mother remarried an American soldier—the man I referred to as “Grandpa.”
In my youth, I spent a good deal of time with Grandpa. We fished together, made things out of wood and he even let me drive his truck a few times before I was 10 years old. But I’ve always wondered if I was close to him because of the love I felt for my grandmother—Mimi, we all called her, because of our French heritage. Talk about a sweet-hearted lady.
Over the years, our time together dwindled. High school came and went with sports and girls, then college with parties and girls, and finally my restlessness to see other places. I guess you could say I separated myself from a lot of my family.
At Grandpa’s funeral I hardly shed a tear because I felt he was a man I barely knew. The years apart had calloused any emotion I had felt for him when I was younger. The hardships I battled were for the sake of my mother, the rock of our family.
It was in Grandpa’s death that we suddenly became closer. Grandpa was a stoic man, never saying much and even less if he could. We seldom heard about his early life, though I knew he’d grown up in the Midwest before heading out to Wyoming, then Washington, and later Korea.
He certainly never talked about that last place, except once when he told me he’d smelled the bodies of dead men that left him gagging for a week and unable to eat. He faced life like a man, and later with alcohol. I often wonder if my own path of destruction lies in the wake of those before me.
When Mom walked into the living room the night before the funeral carrying what appeared to be a double-barreled shotgun, I didn’t know what to think. I merely watched as she closed the gap that separated us and placed the shotgun into my arms. It was Grandpa’s old Ithaca side-by-side. It was like the first time I ever held a baby—a bit awkward at first, so damn careful of the proper placement in my trembling hands.
The 12 gauge was open and the smell of oil from the worn barrels filled my nose and I breathed deeply. I could smell the years of use, the remnants of spent gunpowder and old hunts lying at every crease. It was as if Grandpa, the man I knew so well as a child, was standing there beside me like he once had, showing me how to properly tie a bass plug onto my line. Together, we bent over the table in his shop and assembled a wooden seat that he would later claim my hands alone had built. Of course, there’s the etching of our names that would tell you different. And how about the first time I drove a stick shift? It was his old Chevy truck and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. We were careening so hard to the right as I worked both pedals and tried to shift and only his cool hand kept us in the road. The times at his and Mimi’s old house when he used to let me go sit in the truck, with the keys, and start it up like I was driving. What a thrill for a young boy! When he went inside to make a telephone call I didn’t waste time putting the Chevy in gear and screamed like hell as it rolled into the cul-de-sac behind me. My mother and grandmother didn’t find it funny, but Grandpa just laughed, not saying much in his usual style, as he started the engine and pulled the truck the 30 feet back into the driveway. I bet he would’ve let me keep playing had it only been the two of us there.
But best of all—Grandpa, do you remember the very first time you showed me the Ithaca? Of course you do. We were on that wooded hillside in southern Tennessee where you used to shoot squirrels and woodcock and we had a grand time. You must have thought so because you sure laughed a lot. So did I when that big 12 gauge knocked me on my butt when I unknowingly pulled both triggers at the same time. Well, between you and I, I cried at first but it was your wide grin that got me to laughing again.
So I guess here in the end it’s those memories that guide the tears down my face as I hold the shotgun that was once so dear to you. I sit real still and think real hard and recall being there with you in one of those rare moments when your words took me to the gamefields of eastern Washington, Wyoming, and Minnesota. The snow and the cold and the hardships you must have endured are ones that I’ll probably never know. You went to war and made it back home and your old shotgun was right where you’d left it in the corner of your bedroom in your parent’s farmhouse just outside of town. I can’t remember exactly how you shook off the bad memories and exchanged them for your brush pants, heavy jacket, and a pocket of shells and headed out to beat the sunset for a pheasant or two.
But I can remember now more than ever as I will hold dearly what was yours in life and mine in death. Because if I didn’t celebrate your life like I should have, I will try the impossible task of doing so now. The old Ithaca will remain ours—the bond between a grandfather and his grandson, even if we didn’t share a drop of blood.
I promise I’ll never fire it unless you want me to, and who knows if I can ever hit a damn thing. The accuracy of a side-by-side has always seemed to elude me no matter how much I practice. But if I do miss, you’ll never chide me for it, just keep on grinning as I reload and trudge on just like you always did. The blued barrels and worn wood stock of one of my most prized possessions will remain my truest memory of the man I called Grandpa.
Images by Josh Wolfe