Sunday, February 3, 2008


Old Men

People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when...
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.

Ogden Nash

My grandfather is an old man. 94 years old. I visited him today, in his nursing home. It was a good visit, and a bad visit. The good part was that he was awake and sitting up, he could talk and did not fret or complain. Too much. The bad part was that I am not sure he knew who I was, and his eyes have changed color.

For 90 years of his life, he was a vibrant, stalwart, upright man whose blue-green eyes shone out of his sun-darkened face with a clear, piercing light. For 90 years of his life, he worked his lands, he worked with his hands, and he worked his mind. He went to college at age 16, graduated with an engineering degree two years later, and enjoyed a successful career as a tool engineer. He was filled with knowledge of birds and trees and building and gardening and he told endless stories of our family's history. He was steady on his feet, never sick, and ever thrifty.

When I was a child, he delighted in rubbing his stubbly beard on my tender arm, and he called me Sousa. After he retired, he spent his winters in Florida, and his summers on one hundred acres of land in rural Wisconsin. Part he rented out to a local farmer to plow, part of the wetland he drained to make a pond, and part he left wild. I remember summer Sundays, driving up the tire-tracks that crossed his land, grasshoppers leaping out of the way of the car. The family would gather, and we would pick raspberries, and play baseball, and eat potato salad. Then Grampa would hitch up the old blue trailer he had built himself to his sputtering tractor and we would tour The Farm. Down we went through the cornfield to the pond, where we would get out and look for snapping turtles and bullfrogs. Then we drove along the tree line, where we always seemed to get stuck in the mud or threaten to tip over, skirting the wetland where we could sometimes spot a pair of Sandhill cranes that returned year after year to nest. Then back up the hill at a precarious angle, we laughed while sitting crammed in the trailer, the youngest children on their mothers' laps, the older ones leaning out the side. And Grampa, driving the tractor, deliberately slowing down and speeding up, laughing and delighting in his family's mock terror. And his eyes shone out that piercing blue-green light.

Today, his eyes were a dull grey. His hands shook. He did not speak of the family. When I tried to interest him in a magazine filled with birds, he identified a goldfinch as a cardinal. And he did not call me by name.


Wade said...

wow. thank you for sharing about your grandfather, anglophile.

hold to the memories you have.

lizardrinking said...

It's a tough gig, 'glo.

With my grandmother, I had to view her as spirit pure, in a chemical sense, with a consciousness beyond my knowledge and without knowledge of me.

She turned into one snarky old dame who shared her room with people who had crawled down chimneys and had harmonicas for teeth.

The other spirit I used to know, maybe it had done its job and gone elsewhere.

We share a name, you know? My pop used sing 'Oh Susannah' to me.

amy d said...

Your Grandpa sounds like a fascinating person! I wish I had the gift of knowing him. I've only had the pleasure of getting to know 1 of my grandparents as an adult. The nthers have gone. My fathers' father died when he was a boy. My mothers' mother died when I was 17, on her birthday. My fathers' mother died the same year Wesley was born. She came to the hospital and was the first one (other than me) to hold him. I LOVE the pic of your grandpa!

Kathy Kathy Kathy said...

It's the hardest part.

mamason said...

Simply and absolutely beautiful.

JohnBrady said...

Hi - Sorry you have to go through this. I've made note of your post on Blogden Nash where I catalog the reach and influence of Ogden Nash on contemporary life.

Keep reading Ogden Nash!