We said goodbye to my grandfather yesterday. I sat on the edge of the dock as we scattered his ashes on the bay -- from the very spot where Grampa and I caught a bucket full of crabs and promptly tossed them back because we didn’t like to eat them -- and memories from my childhood flooded over me. Grampa was part of so many moments of my life, present for all the biggest, most important times. It was so difficult to watch his rapid decline in recent years because he was larger than life when I was a child; a visit to Bellport was a trip into his kingdom. Everyone knew Dick Stock. He was a teacher and principal, a volunteer fireman and ambulance driver, member of the Hearth Club and local Methodist Church, library trustee, fix-it guy, fence painter, builder. We would walk through that town and I felt a special sense of pride at being his granddaughter.
But as a child I often felt nervous around my Grampa. He was a stern man, a Navy man. He was raised during the Great Depression, came of age in wartime, and raised four children on a single income, so he was also a frugal man. He had high expectations of his children and grandchildren, and we all worked very hard to live up to them. As I got older, though, he mellowed, and I appreciated him more each time we were together. He was not outwardly affectionate, but Grampa never missed an opportunity to show his grandchildren the world around us, to give us new perspective, to make us things, and to teach us how to do things on our own.
When I became a parent, I gained a whole new perspective on the importance of grandparents. They are the foundation of the family, acting as back-up for the parents, supporting us with advice and childcare. Grandparents give their grandchildren love in a special way, often filling in the magic when Mom and Dad are too focused on the practical, everyday details. Oh, and grandparents are around on the most special of days – birthdays, Christmas, holidays, summer vacations, births. Many of my memories of Grampa took place on those special days; my grandparents were with us for just about every holiday and birthday I can recall from my childhood. The took care of us when my mom was bedridden during her pregnancy with my sister; they held us all up through my mother's declining health and her death. Gram and Grampa helped us celebrate, and they helped us mourn.
My most vivid Grampa memories are sun-infused and taste like salt water. We spent countless hours sailing on the Great South Bay and playing on the beach. He taught me how to sail -- how I loved to sit on the bow of that boat with my toes in the water! -- and we built sand castles using giant clam shells as shovels. He pulled me in a canoe when I was too afraid of the muck at the bottom of the water to dig my toes in for clams. He taught me how to slide down the fireman’s pole at the playground. He built us swings and a tree house in his backyard, and he piled the leaves up high so we could jump from the tree house into the leaf pile – totally grandfather stuff right there.
Food was very important to Grampa; every time I went away to camp or traveled to another country, the first question he’d ask was “How’s the food?” He showed me the joy of dipping a fresh strawberry in sugar before popping it in my mouth. He helped me pick sugar snap peas in his garden and crunch them in my mouth, warm from the sun. When I was a toddler, he grew pumpkins in his garden that were bigger than me, and when I started my own garden in my first house, he gave me helpful pointers about where and when to plant. He introduced me to Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies and crumb cake; we would sneak out to the back porch together and demolish a box of those cookies – and he always had a back-up box so Gramma wouldn’t know. He showed me where to find the best wild blueberries in Acadia National Park. And from Grampa I learned the joys of ice cream. Over the last few years that he lived in Bellport, especially, we could be assured a trip into town for ice cream – always vanilla for Grampa, peanut butter swirl for me. (Oh, and I still can’t eat a slice of apple pie without a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese on the side.)
He built us things. Fabulous, hunky wooden things: a built-in bed and walk-in closet in my childhood bedroom; a gigantic bunkbed that both my brother and sister used over the years; a dollhouse, a garage, a desk, an entertainment center. You name it, Grampa could build it. I marveled as I watched him design and build the giant gazebo down by the bay 25 years ago; today it stands tall and broad and sturdy, just like Grampa once did. The bedroom in my first college apartment was only 8x8 – no room for a bed and a dresser, when you considered the giant radiator that took up a chunk of that tiny space. No problem. Grampa visited with a tape measure and a clipboard, and before I moved in, he had built a custom-made dresser/fold-down desk/stereo shelf that fit perfectly over the radiator, between the window and bed, and out of the way of my door. He also built the cradle that my sister slept in as a newborn; my son slept in it when he was an infant, and soon it will rock our new baby. I know this cradle will slumber many more babies in its lifetime.
From Grampa I inherited insatiable wanderlust. He loved to travel and wanted us all to see the world. One of my favorite photos of Gram and Grampa shows them in fabulous silk robes in China; my grade school classes marveled when they visited to tell us of their trips to the former Soviet Union. Maine has always been a special place for my family. We camped in Acadia when we were young, and I watched Grampa scramble up and down the rocky shore like a mountain goat. My brother and I spent a week with Gram and Grampa traveling the East Coast one Easter break. We hit every military base between New Jersey and Florida, we saw where the Wright Brothers flew on Kittyhawk, we watched for alligators as we drove to Cape Canaveral; throughout that week the love of this country and his pride in our military glowed on Grampa’s face. Many years later, even though he was not a sports fan and had a hard time grasping the idea of a granddaughter-jock, he traveled all around the country following my basketball career. I still giggle when I remember him sitting in the stands at AAU Nationals in Amarillo, Texas, yelling “It’s not football!” when he felt the other girls got too rough. He funded my college trips to Europe, the UK, and Russia, and years later I’d call him and Gramma from fabulous hotels around the country when I traveled for work. (And every time, his first question was “How’s the food?”)
My most treasured Grampa memory, though, is of the day he held his great-grandson for the first time. He smiled and cooed and sang, and love lit up his face even when Hayden screamed and cried. I had never seen him shine like that, and my heart fills up when I remember those moments. I’m grateful Grampa had a chance to play cars with Hayden as a toddler, and I’m grateful Hayden had some time to sit on his Great-Grampa’s lap. I’m grateful too that sometimes I look at Hayden and see Grampa’s broad jaw and big sparkly eyes.
The last time I visited Grampa with my family, on his 85th birthday just over a month ago, even in his failing health and cloudy mental state, his eyes were crystal clear blue. He still recognized my grandmother and my uncles – proof to me that true love never falters. I’m thankful that he knew such a long healthy life. Can you imagine never spending a night in a hospital until you’re 81 years old? I’m grateful, also, to have stored up over 30 years of good, strong grandfather memories – one of the perks of being the oldest grandchild. My grandparents were present for many, many of the special moments in my life -- good and bad -- and I know how fortunate I am for that.
I don't know yet what heaven might look like, but I'm hoping that for Grampa, it's an endless sail on a crystal-blue bay, the sun shining above him and the wind at his back.