Lake Texoma, summer, 1990. Blue sky, brown water. A ski boat idles, rocking in the waves. An eight-year-old Eric is holding onto a rope, fighting to keep the tips of his skis out of the water. Grandad is in the boat, seated patiently behind the wheel. They’ve already been out there for an hour, repeating the same sequence: Ready? Ready. The boat lunges forward, pulling Eric up out of the water and immediately onto his face. After each failed attempt, the boat circles back around as a set of simple instructions are shouted across the water. “Hold on, stand up, stay in the wake.”
This is the picture of my Grandad. Steady, encouraging, eager to share something he enjoys with people he loves. But this distant memory turned metaphor doesn’t quite do it all justice. It’s not the entire story, only the beginning.
Some fortunate people will tell you that their grandparents’ house was their favorite place growing up but for me, I’ve been fortunate enough to say that well into my mid-thirties. Augusta means so much to me and my girls, it has recalibrated my soul too many times to count. The view is nice and the cheese dip is always hot, but Grandad’s steady presence cannot be understated. Weekends there have become my favorite and have changed the way I look at vocation, marriage, parenting, and life. I’m sure those failed skiing attempts felt like an eternity back on Lake Texoma but time seemed to stand still in that house in Holiday Island.
But it wasn’t. And we all knew it. Each time we drove away, feeling refreshed and encouraged, I felt like I was getting away with robbery. That I had somehow managed to slow time and squeeze as many of those weekends out of the clock as possible. So I made it a habit to rise early, sometimes beating the sun but never Grandad. Those mornings I’d find him in the sun room, frost on the windows, he’d be there wearing the largest house shoes ever made. We literally have big shoes to fill. I’d pour strong coffee and listen.
Nearly a century of wisdom, mistakes, regrets, and learning. And fun. He told me in April, “it went fast but we had a lot of fun.” It dawned on me the other day that losing Grandad really feels like losing a time traveler, someone who would tell us about things from another place. Depression-era Oklahoma, coming home from church to hear about Pearl Harbor on the radio, his time in dental school and in the service, the early days of Midwest City, and sadly too many other stories that have evaporated from my memory. But I was paying attention. I doubt he knew just how closely I was listening. But in every interaction, I was trying to learn just who this man was. What makes a man so humble yet so magnetic, so compelling and attentive? What drove him to do things the right way? Why did he buy three of the same crockpot? Because if you grow up with nothing, you take care of everything. And if you find a crockpot you like, use it. And when it stops working, don’t worry, there’s always another one within reach.
Nurses told him this month that he didn’t look ninety. He didn’t act it either. There was still a presence about him, a spark that allowed him to still make discoveries. He was still paying attention. A down-to-earth kindness, forged by years in a small-town dental office. If an old friend called on the phone, he would sit down, tell jokes, and listen. I marveled at his ability to think of others, to set aside a magazine with an interesting article and pull it out for me weeks later. In recent years, when we would show up at his house, he would have a unique rock for Alice, one that caught his eye, something that those of us between the ages of seven and eighty-nine would miss.
Nothing was too small or insignificant. One of the more defining stories of my Grandad came a few years ago, it was one of those early mornings and I came upstairs and saw him outside in the yard, bent over, analyzing something. I stepped outside and found that he was looking at a little sapling, one that was coming up “volunteer,” he called it. There was a mixture of excitement and care in his voice, and as he built a little barrier of rocks around it he said, one of these days, this tree will be as tall as those. Months later, I used this interaction in a sermon, which he heard. Later he told me, “you know why I do that? It’s my role in restoration.”
To the common observer, this was nothing more than an old guy who was obsessed with his yard, however this was not vanity but a spiritual exercise. It wasn’t a chore but a partnership with God. A man can worship even if he doesn’t like singing in church. He was entrusted with so much and stewarded it all faithfully. It’s like he understood that everything we have is on loan. Money. An Arkansas mountain. A young lady who would become a grandmother way too early. (I’m sorry.) A body. And even time. I’ve always wanted to be like him and now I feel compelled to carry on his legacy. And every time I smoke brisket, search for a golf ball way off the fairway, tell a joke, or hug my two daughters, I’ll do so trying to steward my life and live out the best parts of this wonderful man, walking with the realization that every breath is a gift, hoping that I still make him proud.
It is an honor to be his grandson. And I always will be. And if I live to be ninety, I’d like to be like him. I admire how he lived his life all the way to the final weekend. Yard work on Friday, football on Saturday. Full until the very end. I’ve never met anyone who looked at the last chapter of his life like Grandad did. I told him this recently and he replied, “No one’s getting out of this world alive.” He was focused and ready. Even if I wasn’t.
That’s not just comforting but also motivating. He got everything he could out of this life. A beautiful wife, a loving family. Callused hands, a heart both weary and full. Years of success and failure, some regret and a lot of joy. He beat cancer, outran both of his knees, gave generously. And in a world where most people get conservative and try to preserve what they cannot save, Grandad reminds me that life is meant to be spent. And like a good crockpot, you pick a good one, use it and when it eventually stops working we don’t need to fear because there is another one just within reach.
Ozark mountains, fall, 2018. Blue sky, brown leaves. I am dry but still trying to keep my head above water. Just as much in Grandad’s wake as I was a boy learning to ski. And here’s the thing about wakes—they are always bigger than the vessel. And they go on, long after the boat is gone. So here I am, still. Hold on, stand up, stay in the wake.
Cover photo by Luca Severin.