Editor’s note: This Sunday, Sept. 13, is national Grandparents Day.
The sounds that came from the basement were mesmerizing. The constant whirr and buzz of saws like a swarm of angry bees, the hammering of metal on wood upon unseen projects. The smell of fresh-cut wood and developing chemicals, the traces of sawdust from shoes when they walked up the long wooden steps. The clunk, clunk, clunk of my grandfather’s shoes up those creaky wooden stairs and me, straining, laying in the entryway trying to peek under the basement door just for glimpse of what was happening beyond my sight.
I remember this place so well. I can smell the tobacco of my Grandpa’s pipe and my Grandma cooking hamburgers in the kitchen. I am trying to drown out the sizzle so I can hear what is happening down those stairs. Just what is in store for me down there?
My grandfather had a knack for making the ordinary seem so extraordinary. Just the chance to ride the lawn tractor while on his lap still seems better than any roller coaster I have ever been on. Venturing into his basement was the only exception. Nothing could outdo the mystery behind the basement. My grandfather was a do-it-yourself Willy Wonka. He was the Picasso of jigsaws, my own personal Ansel Adams and the Aristotle of teachers all rolled into one.
You had to be a certain age to explore the basement and being old enough to go down there was a rite of passage. You became a different level of boy in my Gramps’ eyes. His basement was a wondrous place for me as a child. It was a place where I was first introduced to a band saw, the first place I held a BB gun, and it was the first place I ever developed a photograph.
Well, technically, it was a color photogram, a photograph created by light travelling through a colored object forever burning itself to the chemistry of color paper. I was very young when I made it. I still have it sitting on our mantle, the oranges and yellows autumn from fallen maple leaves fresh from Grandma’s front yard garden forever imprisoned in the Kodak Cibachrome paper my Gramps kept in supply. I remember gathering them with her while she encouraged me to hurry and scooted me up the gravel driveway headed for my first time through the basement door.
He let me learn by doing. He was always patient even when I made a critical mistake. I think it almost delighted him when I did mess up because it meant I could learn something new, and then he would make me do it all over again. He never brushed me aside and did it himself. The last time I usually did something, he just stood back and watched.
My grandfather was a chemist by profession but he was an amazing artist. He created pictures out of different kinds of wood grain, called marquetry, to create realistic representations of people like Abraham Lincoln and Jesus. On the side, as a hobby initially, he took photographs. When he retired he became a professional photographer in Madison, Wisc., and traveled all over selling his photos. He used to take us with him sometimes, in the giant black Dodge van, lugging chests of framed photos he all did himself and setting up his wire displays one section at a time well into his late seventies. Traveling with my grandparents was always an adventure as Gramps couldn’t hear and Grandma couldn’t see. “Vernon, you aren’t going the right way” she would say. I’m not sure if he pretended not to hear her or really couldn’t, but often responded with a “Huh?”
He often took us fishing but sometimes we just drove with Grandma, listening to her tell us every fact about Wisconsin she could hold in that amazing brain of hers while Grandpa just nodded and interjected with a “Yup.” They found roadside ice cream shops and quiet fishing holes where we could just be together. That is was what was important to them.
He kept every letter that my brother and I wrote to him, proudly displaying it on his wall in his photo lab in the basement. I used to walk past this one letter he kept up there since I was eight. I had written it with one of those pens that has every color as an option to change inks. And had sent a photo of a boy and his grandpa fishing that I had cut out of a magazine that I sent to him captioning it: “This is you and me”
He could talk to anyone and everyone and had the greatest smile and laugh. When you looked into his eyes, they just twinkled with a boyish excitement. He could tell you stories and you would hang on his every word. At night when the house was still, sometimes I couldn’t sleep because of the anticipation of spending another day with him wound me up.
He wasn’t about what you had but what you could make of a situation. He was about people and getting to know them and being genuine. Sometimes, when we would be in the basement together we would talk about everything I was doing. He always had a words of encouragement, never judged, and only listened. Then, in his own quiet way, would teach me a lesson without me ever knowing it.
I try to apply what I have learned from grandpa down there in the basement as I am raising my own kids, hoping that the patience, skills and wisdom he taught me are passed on to them. The basement where he helped shape me from a boy to my own man still resides in my memory though Vernon is long since left this Earth.
He was the perfect example of what I think a father should be; gentle but strong, wise but with a boyish curiosity, modest but giving. I want to say thank you Gramps for helping to teach me how to be a man through encouragement and support and not by doing it for me, but letting me discover that on my own that anything is possible. You and the basement revealed those doors for me and because of you, I learned to walk right through them when they opened.
A version of this first appeared on DadNCharge.