68: New Englander at Heart

68: New Englander at Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

New Englander at Heart

Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.

~John Wayne

It was an evening in March 2002 when my dad called to report my 80-year-old grandfather was having problems. A few months earlier, Gramps, as we called him, had been in an auto accident. Luckily no one was injured. However, Gramps lost his license. My grandmother passed away many years ago, but Gramps still lived in that old farmhouse outside Merrimack, New Hampshire where he had been born in 1922. It was obvious that he couldn’t continue to live alone way out in the boondocks, so my dad decided Gramps would sell his property and move somewhere where his lack of transportation wouldn’t be an issue.

My parents had divorced in 1981 and my father had remarried and moved to Florida. My younger sister was a graduate student at Dartmouth. My older sister was married, living in Boston with her husband and twin toddlers.

It was decided, and not by unanimous vote, that Gramps should live with me—just for a short while.

I had been close with Gramps when I was younger. He let me stay at his farm for two weeks every summer when I was a kid. I remember rides on his tractor and picking apples in his orchard. Sometimes we went camping at Lake Winnipesaukee.

As I grew older, I got busy with college, then took a teaching position at a university in New York State and only talked to Gramps on the phone. I was living in Buffalo, New York, and whenever I called, Gramps would always ask how things were going “down south” even though I lived even farther north than he did, on the Canadian border!

To both our surprise, in July 2002, Gramps relocated to my two-bedroom townhouse apartment.

He was not happy.

He wanted to stay in Merrimack where he had lived all his life. Merrimack, he claimed, was an hour from Boston if he needed anything from the city, an hour from the White Mountains if he needed anything from nature, and an hour from the seacoast if he needed a ship to get out of the country.

Almost worse than his homesickness was his immediate boredom.

“I’m a New Englander,” he would tell me. “I can’t sit around all day watching TV and playing solitaire!”

So I got him a part-time job as a greeter at Walmart where he stood at the front of the store, smiled and said: “Hello! How about that weather? Do you need a shopping cart today?”

It was a job he was born to do.

Whether working or not, Gramps was still getting up at five o’clock every morning to cook bacon and eggs over easy; a real “New England breakfast” he called it, as if no one else in America ate bacon and eggs.

When I was a kid, it had been fun to get up with Gramps as the sun was rising. As an adult, I was used to sleeping late and rushing to make it to classes on time.

But with Gramps I was awake at five o’clock, even during semester breaks, and I never needed my alarm clock. I actually did get a lot more work done and was better prepared for class each day.

And then there were the cats. I had noticed a group of stray cats around the apartment complex. I’d see them climbing on the garbage dumpster or heard them fighting at night, but I never paid much attention.

Gramps adopted them.

The huge gray cat with the crooked ear is Zeus. Atlas is the black one who walks with a limp. And the calico is named Athena.

Zeus, Atlas and Athena. Did I mention Gramps was a fan of Greek mythology?

The cats wouldn’t eat canned food. We tried a variety of flavors, like Ocean Whitefish and Turkey with Giblets, but they wouldn’t touch it. Every morning Gramps shared his bacon and eggs; then for dinner they got chicken livers cut into tiny bite-size pieces. So besides taking him to work, Gramps needed rides to the butcher shop once a week to get fresh chicken livers.

Often, in the evenings, Gramps would watch John Wayne movies. Gramps professed that John Wayne was the best actor ever and he was sure the man was a New Englander. I didn’t have the heart to tell him John Wayne was born in California.

Now the agreement was, while my father looked into some other long-term options, Gramps was going to stay with me for a short while. To me, a “short while” is ten days, five weeks, maybe six months. I’m sure six months is the maximum cut off for a “short while.” But four years later, Gramps was still living with me.

On a rainy Sunday night in early September 2006, Gramps turned off the movie Rio Lobo and sat down across from me at the kitchen table where I was grading tests. He cleared his throat loudly.

“What do you need, Gramps?” I asked without looking up.

“I believe there’s something I’ve never told you,” he said. “And I need to say it.”

I sat back and took off my glasses. “Okay.”

“I am blessed,” he replied, nodding his head. “Truly blessed. Do you know why?”

“Because you have the complete set of John Wayne movies on DVD?” I replied.

“No.” Gramps chuckled. “I’m blessed because I have you. You’re a good grandson. I don’t recall I ever told you that.”

I smiled. “Thanks. I’m blessed with a good grandfather.”

“You know, I was worried when I first moved here that I’d miss New Hampshire too much to be happy. But I discovered something important.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Being a New Englander isn’t about where you live.” Gramps pointed to his chest. “It’s about what’s inside. Even if I’m not in Merrimack, I’m still a New Englander at heart.”

“That’s good to know, Gramps.”

“I thank God for blessing me with two things,” he said. “I was born a New Englander and I have you. I’m a lucky man.”

Then he got up and went to bed.

And that was it, almost as if Gramps had planned it.

The next morning I woke up just after six o’clock. I had to look at the clock twice before I could believe the time. I hadn’t slept that late in four years.

I lay in bed and listened: no rattling pans, no sizzling bacon.

I shuffled into the kitchen. Three cats sat by the refrigerator waiting for breakfast. Zeus meowed loudly.

The church was packed for Gramps’ funeral.

My dad and his wife showed up along with my sisters. The manager from Walmart, the cats’ veterinarian and the butcher were there too.

I still felt lonely.

Now I live alone again.

Alone, with three cats. They continue to sleep on Gramps’ bed, although if I sleep too late they wake me. Whenever I think the apartment is too quiet I put on a John Wayne movie for company.

At the funeral, my father pulled me aside and said, “I appreciate all you did for your grandfather. I hope he wasn’t too unhappy, being away from Merrimack and all.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “Spending the time together helped Gramps and me realize something important. We were actually blessed with each other.”

~David Hull

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