We spoke no more than 100 words to each other over the course of twenty years and the time we spent together amounted to no more than a few days. It should come as no surprise that I have very few vivid memories of my grandfather, and the ones I have are like the edges of an old photograph, frayed and stained by age – an uneven yellow, almost brown tinge like someone dipped it in cold black coffee and left it out to dry in the sun.
When he died, my grandfather left his material legacy behind – a two-story house and a two car garage, both with matching blue paint fading and peeling, along with one of those fifteen-foot contractor vans with the two windows in the rear. This van, brown with gaping rusty holes, rattled as he drove it from neighborhood to neighborhood picking up from the side of the road broken washing machines, old computers, scrap metal, and anything he thought might be of use or value to him one day. These he would stash, stack, or stuff in his garage or house until his garage spewed forth his treasures or the stacks within his house threatened to topple over. I know this because I rode in the front seat of the van while he made one stop before dropping me off at home.
It was a hot August day. My mother told my brother and I that she had arranged for my grandfather, her father, to pick us from soccer practice that afternoon. When the time came, all of our teammates and our coaches left us alone, baking, sweating, and thirsty in the green desert of our high school’s sports complex. We waited, deciding that this man we both barely knew had forgotten about us. At this point, we walked until we reached the crest of the hill leading out to the surrounding neighborhood where we saw the van.
I recognized the van and its driver before my brother did. Or, more accurately, I chose to recognize my grandfather, whereas my brother bluntly refused to get in the vehicle. He walked home and I rode with my grandfather. The van shook and rattled metallically while an old microwave, caked with dust and grease, crashed across the floor as we bounced over potholes until my grandfather spotted a pile of garbage sparkling in the afternoon sun. Without asking if I minded, he stopped the van, cranked the emergency brake, and got out without closing his door. The rear door creaked open and one, two, three pieces of scrap metal slid in, along with another microwave and a filthy computer. The rear door creaked shut with a slam and my grandfather was back in the van. He looked at me, chuckled gruffly, and said, “That’s a good find.”
Years later, long after my grandfather died, my parents were getting rid of their surplus of coffee mugs. I took the two that belonged to my grandfather, a matching set with a cartoon picture of two gloved hands holding a porter cable grinder applying pressure to a pile of coffee beans. The image is captioned in bold lettering: “FRESH GROUND COFFEE”. When company comes, I serve them coffee in these mugs. They chuckle. And I tell them, these belonged to my grandfather, a man who truly saw treasure in what others would dismiss as junk.
Though I never really knew the man, I am fascinated nonetheless. He was a man who I believe had a reason for everything he did. He loved the wild, or so I heard. Though I don’t remember the details, I am told he went camping with us. Attached to this experience is a memory, cloudy and faded with time, of learning how to fish. We were set up beneath a shade of trees upon a lake. He showed my brother and I how to wrap a worm and apply pressure to the squirming muscle until the spear-like end pierced through with a pop. Then we cast off our rods and he let us alone. When we needed help, he came to us, gently showing us again how to set and cast our line and wait a silent eternity until we felt a tug. And there, beneath the shade, he would help us gently real in our line, inspect our catch, then toss it back in. It was not about catching fish, so much as it was about being there as one generation passed on a legacy to another. Just one lesson in what I imagine to be potentially countless others in learning how to survive for days, if not weeks, with just a pocket knife, a fishing rod, and a frugal use of words.