I look on in horror as the small fish attached to my pole is thrown on the ground and squished by my grandfather’s foot. Just six years old, I am on my first fishing trip, and my first catch is oozing, crushed on the ground. The fish (or thanks to my grandpa “seafood pancake”) is thrown back into the rushing river, no longer wriggling.
At the time, I could not fathom why my grandfather was so cruel to the small specimen dangling on my line; however, now I know that his actions, though blunt, had a clear cause. I was close to tears at his brutal killing of the writhing fish, and my grandmother was appalled at his action and told him so. Yet the specific species of fish I had caught was invasive and parasitic, feeding on many of the native species to the point where some species were nearing extinction, so to my grandfather it was only right to prevent it from further defiling the river. Growing up in Texas, my grandfather felt that hunting and fishing were merely natural activities. To him, there were was no point of those “hippie ideas” about saving the animals and abstaining from meat. Vegetarianism was a ridiculous concept really, for why would God have given us meat if we were not meant to eat it? Nonetheless, his mentality did not mean he did not care about the ecosystems he entered, in fact, he valued the forest and its creatures more than many of the environmentalists I see today. Respectful of the habitat he entered and the animals with in it and careful to only take what he would use, my grandfather instilled a sense of reverence towards nature and the organisms that lived in the environment within me.
Now, let us fast forward three years. I sit on the floor of my grandparent’s spacious house, shouting triumphantly after winning a rousing game of cards with my brother, as an old dog limps pathetically down the stairs towards us. A pup of his father’s farm dog, Rufus was a wedding present from my grandfather’s first wedding. After his first wife died, my grandfather moved, taking the dog with him; now that he is married again, the old dog is all he has left of his first marriage. The wooden stairs prove to be too slick for the sagging creature’s weathered paws and arthritic knees, and the dog slips and falls the last five steps. Suddenly, my grandfather stands up from his large leather chair and declares,
“I have to go do something.”
His heavy boots stomp on the ground; his hand reaches towards the dog’s throat, grabbing the unfortunate animal’s collar and dragging his weary body to the door. As he walks outside, grabbing the hunting gun from the closet, my grandmother begins to cry and my mother looks distraught, staring at his broad back in confusion.
I hold my breath, eyes glued on the closing door, waiting for-for what?
I am smothered by silence.
A gunshot cuts the static of anticipation.
My mother gasps, the door slams. My grandfather walks silently back inside, his back hunched forward as he returns the gun to the closet. He sits back on the leather chair without a single word or glance to the rest of us in the room. The dog does not return.
Later, armed with only a shovel and old memories, my grandfather digs a grave as the heavy rain ceaselessly soaks the earth. He covers his venerable companion’s body with dirt, next to an apple tree the dog had spent many hours lounging under when the summer sun was still shining and the heat wrapped its stifling arms around you.
Born in Texas during the Great Depression, a veteran of a world war, thrice married and twice widowed, my grandfather was neither tactful nor sophisticated. His fingernails were perpetually caked with dirt, and I never saw him wearing any shoes but his crusty brown work boots. He was bow-legged, broad shouldered, and had a wide face and thick square glasses. A carpenter after his stint in the army as a undistinguished infantryman, he was missing three of his fingers from a lapse in judgement. Sometime after his third marriage, he was in his shed using a table saw, when in a moment of distraction, he sliced three of his fingers off at the knuckle. Unable to accept the deterioration of his body in old age, he continued to work another year, until a fall off a ladder spurred my grandmother to finally speak her mind and prohibit any further construction. Church was a weekly social event to him, where he talked with the other elders about church business, their wives, their grandchildren, their work. Raised in the south during an era of gender roles and segregation, he cared little for the feminists, was far from politically correct in terms of race, and firmly believed women should stay at home and tend the house. He smoked and he drank and he smoked some more despite my grandmother’s pleadings; he would never break his nicotine addiction or fully abstain from alcohol. However, he was always happy to see my siblings and I. Grandpa would greet us every morning and bid us goodnight each evening, and never turned down a game of cards or an invitation to share a crossword.
Sometime around my third year in school, my grandfather had a stroke, and after that, I saw very little of him. My mother warned me extensively about the potential effects, both physical and mental, and I prepared myself to see a broken shell of my proud grandfather. I saw little change at first though, just rare times of random confusion, or a delayed response here and there. Then we recieved more bad news. The years of smoking had invariably made their mark on his body; a cancer had bloomed in his lungs and had grown past the point of foreseable recovery. Not one month later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The various terms used to label my grandfather's aliments meant nothing to me though, until, inevitably, one morning of our visit to his house, he called me “Louise”, my mother’s name. That was the day I began to see deeper, past the impenetrable image I had of him, past his face torn with wrinkles, into the more human, mortal aspect of him.
He appeared tough, rough inside, often uncaring, speaking and acting bluntly, when really he merely saw no point in social convention or dishonesty even for the sake of propriety. I loved him, but was intimidated by his strict discipline and harsh voice; he demanded respect and obedience, and was extremely pragmatic. As I am now I have very little in the way of similar political or social beliefs; I dislike hunting and am socially liberal, speak openly about my support of the LGBT community, and am a vocal feminist. However, if I were to have told him any of these things, he would have told me he didn’t care. He might have told me I was wrong, and most definitely would not have accepted my sexuality and gender views as valid, but also would not use those characteristics to judge my person. In all honesty, he cared so little about what people said, (especially politicians, as he made so very clear every single time politics were mentioned,) but instead judged by character, the way one acted towards other people.
According to my mother, he loved my smile, because it reminded him of Flo, my grandmother. With a small smile, she recounts how he loved me and my inexhaustible energy, how he thought I was a "a riot. You had that grin, and you were such a character; it cracked him up". With all of my heart, I wish he could see me now.
But come now, a last memory to send you off.
I am 11, and we are on the beach. It is cold and my hair is whirling around me in the confused winds, my feet on the gritty, freezing surface of packed sand, my ankles splattered with sea foam from the receding wave. My grandfather is walking beside me, bent over from the weight of the years and the breaking of his own body. He is post-stroke and constantly confused, deprived of clarity. The rest of my family is further down the beach, laughing and screaming; in the fog they look distant, and their yells echo mournfully down the endless stretch of sand. My grandfather and I do not talk, but we walk together, our footprints side by side. He is nearest to the water, and when I look back his footsteps are gone, engulfed by the waves that caress the sand so thoughtfully, while mine continue alone. I am suddenly crying, devastated at the changes that have come to him and the future where he will be gone. When he notices and inquires why, calling me ‘Carol’, his daughter’s name, I lie and tell him that I just miss seeing him so often. He is thoughtful for an exceedingly long time, to the point where I think he has forgotten, but then he starts and turns to me, saying:
“Don’t cry, that isn’t worth none of your tears. Save them for something...something that matters.”
But he did matter more than I knew and he himself knew. Five years after his death, I still miss him. He was gratingly honest, caring, and stood firmly for what he believed in, without letting his strong beliefs affect how he treated people. And despite our differing views, for that I admire him.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the June 2015 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.