Now that I have completed my ascent to that third rung on the generational ladder, I feel a keener appreciation for the lifelong reach of my grandfathers’ influence.
My grandfathers had very different backgrounds and personalities but both had the patience to mentor their grandchildren and share their avocations.
Jack, my maternal grandfather, was a conductor for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. He had a rascal’s grin and an effervescent, sometimes crude, sense of humor. His summer cottage, Camp Lynda-Mark, in Great Barrington was named after his first two grandchildren — me and my cousin Lynda — both born in 1947.
His views on child-rearing are perhaps best embodied by his approach to swimming lessons. When the time came, he walked you to the end of the dock, picked you up and threw you in Lake Buel with instructions to swim back to him. Similarly, driving lessons (starting around age 10) consisted of Jack telling you to slide over into the driver’s seat as he jumped out, ran around to the passenger side, and climbed into the moving Cadillac, all the while showcasing his trademark grin.
Jack’s workshop was carved out of the crawl space beneath the cottage. The rocks excavated in the process became the building materials for the aptly named “gin and tonic wall” which, over the course of many summers, grew to surround the patio. The high spirits of our work crew, which also included my uncle and father, were not due entirely to the beverages. The men loved working together and weaving a tapestry of male bonding out of their one-upping banter and steady stream of laughter.
To my knowledge, nobody ever saw Grandpa Sam so much as pick up a tool, let alone use one himself. Those elegant hands, the recipients of regular manicures, were used extensively for waving his Pall Malls and gesticulating during his frequent story telling. Sam’s wife, Grandma Gert, died when I was 5 so I knew Sam, the raconteur, as a bachelor.
When he wasn’t eating dinner at our house, he often invited my younger sister and me to dine with him at chop houses and ethnic restaurants. He introduced us to exotic foods like shrimp with lobster sauce, frog’s legs, sweet breads, Wiener schnitzel, and baked Alaska. We met his many friends on these excursions, other solo diners like Sam.
I cook shrimp with lobster sauce [recipe below] now for my own family, which now includes an eager and impressionable granddaughter. I love to cook most everything — but nothing more than this stir-fried homage to Sam’s attention, affection and taste.
Some of Jack’s sturdier tools now hang in my workshop, organized just as they were at Camp Lynda-Mark, by a system of pegboard hangers with tool silhouettes and coffee can storage bins. My own garden is dominated by walls and paths constructed of field stone excavated from the yard, over the course of many summers. When I need it, I can find solace among these stones, durable reminders of the laughter and camaraderie of Jack’s gin and tonic crew working on a perfect and endless summer afternoon.
Improbably, both Jack and Sam outlived my own father, who died when I was 15. I have been thinking lately that my grandfathers’ greatest gift to me might have been the transformative effect they had on my father. My dad adored both Jack and Sam and he was more cheerful, outgoing and accessible in their company. Somehow their presence seemed to lighten the burden he so visibly carried at other times.
My grandfathers have both been gone for more than 40 years. Now it’s my turn to be a patient and entertaining teacher.
A couple of weeks ago, while riding in the car with my 2-year-old granddaughter, I was identifying the yellow flowers we saw everywhere as forsythia. At the end of the day she spontaneously said, “Look Papa, yellow flowers forsythia.” She was so proud of herself for mastering this four syllable word.
As we were celebrating her victory, I imagined my grandfathers celebrating with us here at the timeless intersection of memory, love, and family.