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I was four years old, sitting in my Gramp's lap. The sweet aroma of
fresh pipe tobacco stole from the breast pocket of his dark gray work
shirt and mingled with the last, lingering scent of supper. I snuggled
my head on his shoulder and watched the smoke from his pipe,
illuminated by a small table lamp, curl in a glowing haze above the
easy chair in which we sat. Nothing felt more comfortable than his
lap, nor warmer than his embrace. I fell asleep, lulled by the soft
puffing of his pipe and his steady heartbeat.
At age six, holding Gramp's hand, we walked down the street under the tall, thick, horse chestnut trees, past immaculately kept lawns, and well-maicured rose beds. The houses were close together, each perched on its own little hill, divided by narrow, shared driveways. We were going to Mac's Store, affectionately called the "White House" because of its colonial pillars and stark, white color. Mac's heavy door opened with a groan and jingling of bells. The old, wooden floor creaked and thudded under our feet as we walked up to the counter. The two men greeted each other heartily before Gramps made his purchase (including candy for me, of course), then Mac wrote the receipt by hand.
"You look like your mother when she was little!" said Mac, patting my head. Somehow the thought of my mother as a little girl made me feel strangely uncomfortable.
When I was seven, He patiently listened to every new accomplishment and carefully examined every work of art which I brought from school, flashing a smile of genuine approval. One hand held the ever-present pipe; the other frequently ran through his straight, black hair. He spoke with just a tinge of the air of South Dakota, and when he spoke of Indians, excitement twinkled in his deep, brown eyes. Surely there was some truth in the family legend (a legend he started) that we are descendants of Indian orphans. How like his paintings of Indians he looked: tall, dark, noble, high-cheeked, long nosed.
At eleven, I was sitting in the kitchen at the old, oak pedestal table which had long ago had its round top covered with a checkerboard pattern of red and black linoleum. Armed with pencil and paper, I was ready to please my most ardent admirer while he busied himself in his basement workshop. Presently, I heard the thump of Gramp's sandaled feet ascending the stairs, then diligently wiping off the dust before stepping onto the kitchen floor. I felt his hand on my shoulder as he stooped to look at my drawing, the profile of a girl with a large eye, long eyelashes, small nose and mouth, and long, flowing hair. "What good expression!" he said in his rich basso voice. Then his large, whiskery face pressed against mine in a quick hug. The joy I felt from his simple praise always spurred me toward my best; I could not bear to disappoint such unconditional love and faith in me.
Now I am grown, and Gramps is an old man. His shoulders stoop, he walks slowly, his once black hair has thinned and turned salt-and-pepper, and his voice has the quaver of age. His pale face reveals the toll of many years spent in the sun fishing, picking wild blackberries, camping at the coast, and growing grapes and tomatoes in his back yard. Three severed fingers on his left hand tell the story of a table saw accident, and his browned teeth and nagging cough betray a lifelong habit of smoking....
...But the power of his faithful encouragement will never leave me. I will hear his voice and see his face in the images of my childhood for as long as I live. The loving care he invested in me will yield a priceless legacy for many generations.
Postscript: My Grandfather passed away on a Sunday evening in November of 1998, less than a year after my grandmother's passing. The day he died, I had visited him at the nursing facility where he lay with a feeding tube taped to his face.
I took his face in my hands to gaze into his eyes. Though he was weak, he was still lucid. I carressed the furrows from his brow and spoke earnestly. I did not want to waste my chance to speak straight to his heart.
Years before, I had written a letter to him, explaining how he needed Jesus in his life. Something had happened which made me realize I had not shared my faith with him and that he was just a man like any other who needed a savior. A few days after receiving my letter, he called to tell me that he was "ready to die, now". At first, I was scared he was telling me that he was going to die, but later I realized that what he meant was that he had made peace with God. We never spoke about the letter again, until that afternoon at his bedside.
"Gramps", I said, "Do you remember the letter I wrote to you years ago?"
He nodded, and then, with effort, hoarsely whispered, "I believe... I believe!" as he patted my hand. He knew what I was going to ask.
"I know...", I admitted. I had always known, but I needed to hear it from his own lips. "Are you afraid?" I asked. I wanted to know how he was feeling, to confort him and give him assurance.
He shook his head, 'no' and I could feel his calmness. I spoke to him about heaven and how God had wonderful things for us to do yet, that heaven wasn't just sitting around, that there was life with God.
Tears welled in my eyes. "I don't want you to go..." He reached out to comfort me, he could never bear to see me cry. I begged him not to give up, to fight for life, but secretly we both knew he would not live long.
"I love you so much!" I cried. We hugged as best as the tubes would allow. He smiled and I basked in his love. I would have stayed longer, but I had promised to pick up a friend from the grocery store. So I said my good-byes and told him I would be able to visit again on Tuesday.
Late that night, I got a call from my uncle telling me that Gramps had died just a few hours after I'd left him. He left me, as he always did, with his unconditional love. I thank God for the precious moments I was able to share with him that day.
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