Granddaddy's Legacy

He taught me success is not measured by fame or fortune and showed us that simply living—and loving—is enough

My mother often said my grandfather, whom we called Granddaddy, was lucky in love but not in business. He never had a real career that I knew of, though he did work at various jobs when my mother was growing up.

He was our family handyman. My dad, who worked at a big job in the city, didn't even know how to change a lightbulb. (Or, if he knew how, he never did it.) But Granddaddy walked the few miles from his apartment to our house a couple of times a week, carrying his toolbox, and fixed everything there was to fix.

I see him now, in his corduroy pants, short-sleeved, button-down work shirt and a cap. Maybe a cowboy hat, being from Texas as he was, or a bill cap, even a fedora—just something to offset his full head of white hair still streaked with blond well into his 80s.

When I was little, not even in school yet, we'd have lunch together in front of the TV set. He'd walk into the den after putting in a morning of repair, and say, "Whatcha' watchin? 'Captain Kangaroo'?" I never was, as "Captain Kangaroo" was long over, but Granddaddy asked me that question every time. No, it was the "Merry Mailman" we watched at lunch, slurping our chicken noodle soup over TV trays kindly provided by my mom. I don't remember much comment or discussion over the cartoons, just companionable slurping and crunching.

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Sometimes I'd go back to the apartment with my grandfather at the end of the day. I'd bring my overnight case and spend several days there. There wasn't a whole lot to do, but Granddaddy taught me how to play solitaire—his favorite card game—and we'd sit in the living room and play games side by side. We also played checkers which I sometimes—but not often—won. Or I'd make little people out of the pipe cleaners he stored in his smoking stand.

At night, my grandmother, known as Bobo to her grandchildren, would pull out the sleep sofa and tuck me in. Sometimes I could hear the pfff-pfff of Gran's pipe as he sat, reading a book in the chair by the window while I lay warm under the covers. Or maybe I'd join him in the kitchen for a secret, late-night bowl of Cheerios.

In the morning, I'd hear the pipe again, and the soft conversation of my grandparents filtering out of the kitchen. I'd wonder exactly what they were talking about, so conspiratorially. I remember even speculating that they might be cozy communists of a sort—communism and bomb shelters being a big thing back then. But, no, if I listened a bit harder, I could hear family names and mundane topics like what to have for dinner, or whether the weather would turn bad for the weekend.

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I went for lots of walks with my grandfather, too. He stopped and talked with most of the people we met, or if he didn't stop, at least said, "Howdy." No one said "Howdy" in N.Y.—except my grandfather, as far as I knew. Most people didn't talk to strangers at all. Granddaddy always told me he never met a man who didn't like him. I think that's probably true, too. I know all my friends liked him. One time, when I was a teenager, I was standing on the sidewalk with a group of my friends and someone said, "Look at that cool old guy!" I turned to see a white-haired man in the distance, wearing a blue corduroy jumpsuit and a golf cap, walking down the street.

"That's not a cool old guy," I said. "That's my grandfather!"

When I was growing up, Granddaddy was kind of like an island, a little place of refuge from the chaos of my family life. With an older brother and two older sisters coming of age in the late '60s and early '70s, conflict reigned in our house. My grandfather, however, kept his own counsel. Which is not to say he was quiet—he could chat to a brick wall, and probably did. But he kept his opinions about other people to himself. I'd pass through the house while a raging argument ensued, and find Granddaddy sitting in the living room, one leg slung over the arm of the chair, puffing on his pipe and reading a book.

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"Whatcha' reading, Gran?" I'd ask.

He'd pause, close the book, look at the cover and tell me the title. He never seemed to remember the title without looking at it. It was usually a western by Louis L'Amour or maybe a Dick Francis mystery. He might tell me a little bit about the book, or maybe launch into a story about his early married days in Kansas City, but he wouldn't say much about the yelling down the hall. Unless he had some philosophical gem to offer, like, "It'll all blow over soon" or "Why do people fight anyway?"

Granddaddy taught me to be friendly to strangers. He taught me success is not measured by fame or fortune. He showed us that simply living—and loving—is enough. He was a good husband, a caring father and a grandfather who devoted his extra hours—and there were a lot of them—to his grandchildren. He didn't have much money, but he had the love of those he loved until the day he died, and beyond. I think he would be pretty happy with his legacy.

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