March 3, 2011

Through Grandpa's Eyes - Part 2

I had driven for Grandpa a few times now, and we’d settled into a comfortable routine. After visiting with Grandma for a few minutes, she handed us our destinations on 3x5 cards, typed both in Braille and on a regular typewriter so either of us could read them. Grandpa rested a giant paw on one of my shoulders, towering over me with his sturdy 6-foot frame, as I led him out to the car: a behemoth 1970’s era Chevy Impala in the ugliest olive green ever seen. I was embarrassed to be seen in it – it was that ugly – but to my grandpa it may as well have been a Rolls Royce with all its legroom and ample seating. That was an added benefit to being blind: his vision was based solely on impressions from his heart, and in his eyes both the car and I were beautiful.

“Okay, Kewpie. You need to drive east on Broadway until we reach Saturn, then you’re going to want to turn south…” he instructed me as soon as we pulled out of the driveway.

Everyone thinks that in-car GPS units are a fairly recent invention, but I know better. Grandpa was the world’s first GPS unit. He had built a virtual map in his head of all the cities he had travelled in, and if he was unfamiliar with an area he would ask for the names of the roads we were crossing, and just like that they were added to the internal map. Idaho Falls is not like most Mormon communities which are built on the grid system, making addresses easy to find. No, in the Falls, most roads have random names: Broadway, Pancheri, Skyline Drive, St. Clair, and there was no rhyme or reason to where they were. However, I cannot remember a single time that he couldn’t get us to our destination, though he’d always joke with me that “you can’t get there from here.”

“Which way is south?” I asked, heading towards Saturn, and then listened as he patiently tried to teach me, for the umpteenth time, how to tell directions by the position of the sun in the sky, the time of day, and whatever else you needed to know; I still haven’t been able to figure that one out. Turn by turn he piloted until we glided right up in front of the house we were looking for.

“It’ll be on the right-hand side,” he said as he checked the house number on the Braille card, and so it was.

Once inside the house, he introduced me proudly to the lady who answered the door, embarrassing me by bragging about my recent win of the school spelling bee, as she led us to the upright piano, then left us to do our thing. Like a well-practiced surgical team, I cleared the piano top of all the smiling family photos and knick-knacks so that grandpa could pull the piano away from the wall. While he did that, I opened his battered toolbox and started laying out the tools he’d need, like a nurse prepping the doctor for surgery: tuning fork, tuning lever, myriad screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers, and the rolls of wool felt strips, used to mute and isolate the specific chords. I grabbed the blunted putty-knife-like tool used to stuff the felts, and carefully started threading them between the steel strings, each attached to the 88 piano keys, as he’d taught me to do.

At our next stop, we repeated the procedure, complete with some other bragging tidbit of what a “wonderful” granddaughter he had. These introductions always embarrassed me, but inside, my soul lapped it up like a kitten drinking sweet cream.

On these trips, Grandpa and I discussed everything under the sun. We’d talk about the current events of the day and what I was learning in school. I’d tell him about friends, and boys I liked, and what a pest my brother was. We discussed religion (he was a devout Baptist; I was being pressured by friends at school to attend and join the LDS church), and he explained the difference to me between religion and a personal relationship: two very different things when you are talking about God, no matter what church you belong to.

In more personal discussions Grandpa would tell me about his childhood and his early adult years, which were far from perfect. His dad, Frank Sr., died when he was 6 years old. A year later he started losing his sight to glaucoma – one of the earliest cases known in the country at that time – and went completely blind by the time he was 13. He told how his mom remarried when he was about 8 years old, giving him a cold and aloof man for a stepfather, who soon shipped both Grandpa and his brother Chuck, also blind, to the School for the Deaf and Blind in Gooding, Idaho, almost 400 miles to the south. He lived through World Wars I and II, and supported himself during the depression by hitchhiking around the country selling women’s hosiery with his guide dog, Hal, by his side. When Hal died a few years later, he vowed to never have another guide dog – you can’t replace a love like that.

Once he was set up, hands deep in the bowels of the piano, we got started on one of our favorite topics: reading. He must have had a photographic memory before he lost his sight, because he could recite whole pages of books that he’d read back then. In my English class I was being required to memorize The Children’s Hour by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Mentioning this to Grandpa, he immediately launched off in his deep, rich voice:

“Between the dark and the daylight,
When the light is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupation
That is known as the children’s hour…”

And finished by reciting perfectly, the entire 10-stanza poem.

Like me, he was a voracious reader, preferring to listen to talking books because his fingers, calloused from wrestling with untold thousands of piano strings, sometimes had a hard time feeling the raised bumps of the Braille. Each weekend we’d discuss at length books that we were both reading. I was in the midst of a preoccupation with Stephen King horror novels. Explaining the plot of the latest that I’d brought along with me to read while he tuned, Grandpa gently introduced me to the concept of “garbage in, garbage out.”

“Why do you want to fill your mind with that kind of thing?” he asked, perplexed. “Why, when there are so many good things to read, would you want to fill your heart with garbage? Reading should build you up, make you stronger, make you want to be a better person, help you learn things. You can read hard books, things that make you grapple with a truth. But books like that do nothing for you.”

Hmmm… there was no arguing with that one. All Stephen King really did for me was make me afraid to sleep at night, something I already had trouble with even without the gory books. Somehow I had convinced myself that it was “cool,” a safe way to exert my rebellious teenage nature since I knew better than to actually act out in other ways. I took that lesson to heart, its truth piercing me like an arrow, and that was the last horror novel I ever read.

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One week that next summer, my grandparents and I took an extended road trip. My grandma was going to be staying in Boise for two weeks for some specialized training on a machine that could “read” the mail for her, a job that had hitherto been mostly mine. We loaded up the beast (as I fondly called the car) and drove, with only one glitch along the way: we blew a tire right as we took the exit into Boise. I was sure it was somehow my fault. The sound and jerking of the car scared me to death, but Grandpa calmly walked me through the steps of putting on the spare (“Be sure to tighten every-other lug nut in a star pattern until you’ve gotten them all”) and then helped me find my way through Boise – also in his catalog of in-head maps – and its maze of one-way streets to a tire store that was still open. The next day, after leaving Grandma at a friend’s house where she was staying, we started the trek back home.

Like always, there was no shortage of things to talk about, and we were cruising steadily along, while he told me many stories about his life. He attempted college several times, although his plans kept getting sidelined (something I definitely relate to now) so he never finished. One of my favorite stories he told was from his college days in Lewiston when one of his friends allowed him to drive his car around campus. They piled into the friend’s Model-T and drove all over, Grandpa at the wheel while his friend hovered close to his shoulder giving him detailed instructions. He laughed uproariously as he recounted the reaction they got when they pulled back into the dorm, shaking his head at the memory.


Grandpa’s car might have been ugly and big, but it sailed like a yacht on balmy seas, and you could be doing well over the speed limit without noticing, something I had to watch closely. As we were driving, he casually mentioned, “Let me know if there’s anything you want to stop and look at.”

“Really?” I said, thinking to myself yeah, right… It had never occurred to me that I could have a say in where we went. In my mind, cars were merely tools meant to get you from Point A to Point B in the quickest amount of time.

Testing the waters, I mentioned a sign we had just passed announcing a place called Massacre Rocks State Park. “It’s about 10 miles out of our way,” I told him when we passed the next sign for it, thinking that he’d tell me to keep driving, but instead he encouraged me to take the side trip – after all, we didn’t have to be back at any particular time. It was a beautiful day, sun shining. We walked the trail, me leading the way as he walked, attached, steadily behind me, to look at Register Rock, a huge boulder that was covered with the names of pioneers who’d passed through on the Oregon Trail. I read him the historical markers that were on the trail, and then we spent a few minutes resting at a picnic table, enjoying the slight breeze.

He took the moment to share with me a story about his grandfather, a hard man with his daughter but one who’d shown a soft-spot when it came to his grandson.

“When it became clear that I was going to go completely blind, my grandfather gave me a real treasure: a pair of 8-power binoculars that I could look at things with, encouraging me to appreciate it all. Oh, I carried them with me everywhere, studying things intently. When I finally did lose my sight, grandfather, ever practical, took the binoculars back from me. Sad as I was to lose them, I was so grateful for the gift that he’d given me, the gift of seeing."

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Summarizing all the things I learned from Grandpa is an impossible task: tips on driving through the winter snow (“Be extra careful on bridges and overpasses, as the air under them is colder and creates ice”), lessons on ancient Roman engineering, and how to re-cover piano keys (a tedious, seemingly endless job but one which taught me the importance of paying attention to detail), among a thousand others.

Grandpa taught me to live life and see it as the gift it is, planting the seeds to sing just for the enjoyment it brings me no matter how terrible I might sound (and trust me – it's pretty terrible! I still do that only when I'm alone), to let down my guard and act silly on occasion, and to treat myself with kindness, not taking myself so seriously all the time.

More than that, though, he showed me what unconditional love looks like and that I was, indeed, worthy of it. To the casual observer watching us walk together it would appear that I was leading a blind man, but in truth, he was the one leading me.

4 comments:

Carboctor said...

Thanks Pookie for so eloquently sharing my awesome father here. He was truly a remarkable person & Father

Lo said...

Lovely. You and him and this.

Ken Collins said...

Thanks Tracy for this beautiful walk down memory lane.I can only hope that I live my life in the way he inspired me to.

Dawn said...

Tracy! This brought tears to my eyes! I sooo remember that car and navigating the narrow roads in the neighborhoods. I remember the wonderful sense of humor that your grandparents (and family for that matter :)) had about their blindness and how it intensified their other senses. Thank you for the walk down memory lane and for our early friendship memories. Miss you! Dawn