Friday, August 9, 2013

A Practical Man

Today I learned that my grandfather Earl Brown has died at the age of 94.

He managed to avoid ever having a real two-way conversation with me for my entire life. That's just part of the way he was with me, he was a relentlessly practical person and I'm not. We all open up differently to different people, and I know that in some settings and with some people he was far more gregarious.

But I didn't know him very well, and this has hit me pretty hard, because time is up. I had my whole life to get to know him, and I tried, but I failed. I asked him to teach me to shoot about ten years ago, and we drove out to the range west of town a few times and spent the days out there. I can't say I love shooting, I just wanted to try to get into his head a little. Maybe I did, but what I found in there was mostly shooting.

But I think there was a time when Granddad reached out to me.

A year ago I was going through a really horrible time. I don't think many people knew how bad it was, certainly Granddad didn't know the extent. But right in the middle of it, Granddad phoned out of the blue to see if I might have use for a dremel set.

This was always the way with Granddad ... there had to be a reason to visit. I knew that much, and I hadn't seen him for a while, so I said, yes, I could probably find a use for it.

So I went by the house and sat down with Granddad and had a beer or something. He said he was sorry to hear I'd broken up with my girlfriend. Me too, I said. That's too bad, he said, I was really hoping to see you two develop into something serious. Me too, I said. He said, well, maybe we could work it out. I said no. He said, are you sure? You both seemed so happy. You never know, maybe you can sort it out.

"Granddad," I said, "There is another guy."

"Oh!" he said. He looked down at his beer, embarrassed, I think. "Next subject."

He thought for a little while, and trying to think of something practical to talk about. We sometimes talked about renting property, that's how he landed a comfortable retirement, and so he said, "How's your renter?"

"That's the guy," I said.

"Oh!" he said.

He thought about that for a really long time. Then he said, "Well. It's not advisable to shoot him."

That was the first laugh I'd had in weeks. It felt pretty good.

We talked about something else for a bit, and then he asked what day it was, and I told him it was May 20, or whatever it was. There was a calendar on the wall, and he looked at it and said, "Let's see ... May 20, May 20... yes, there it is. That makes it three years ago today that Edith died."

Edith, his second wife. I realized Granddad was having a bad day too. Coincidentally, the day that he decided he suddenly didn't need his dremel set anymore. And I, the unlikeliest of his many progeny to ever find use for a dremel set, was the one to bestow it to. It's still under my desk, whatever it is.

We sat and finished our beer, Granddad announcing whatever unrelated topic came to his mind ... I don't remember what, but I do know it was all about practical things. His computer, or investments, or something. And then he asked if I could use some spoons.

Spoons? Sure, why not. He had a whole drawer full of spoons. Those I do use, I noticed some of them are engraved KOCR, for King's Own Calgary Regiment. They look very old. Then he started rummaging around in his closet. Do I need a tea cozy? Not really. Well, you could use it as a heat pad or something. Sure, I guess I could. How about these paintings, can I use any of these paintings? I took one, it's a little boy in a cowboy outfit and hangs on my wall next to the closet.

He went through all his stuff looking for anything he can give me that I might actually use. I had to draw the line at some point, he got into things so profoundly useless and unsentimental that I knew I'd have to throw them away if I accepted them. But it gave us some time in which we could talk about anything at all besides grief.

There are times when practical subjects are the only ones that don't hurt. That was one, and so is this. Listen in at a funeral -- not his, he was too practical to want one. But listen in at somebody's. Other than an occasional toast to the deceased, that's what people talk about more than ever. Practical things. My first thought when I heard that Granddad had died was that I needed to drop what I was doing at work, go home, and fix my clutch.

I did leave work, but I'm writing instead of fixing.