From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

The Walk of Life

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The day is etched in my memory for so many reasons; the fact that I was actually allowed to take the day off from school stands out prominently. When my dad said that I was taking the day off, I thought something was up, something immediately was strange. He said that he had a special treat for me.

My dad has always been a hardworking man—up before the crack of dawn and home after twelve hours on the job—and he never took his vacations from the job lightly. So it was something special for Dad to call on me, the youngest of his five children, on his day off.

I will always carry with me crystalline images of shared moments between me and Dad: stopping for doughnuts after church; the first time I hit Dad’s perfectly pitched fastball over the left-center field fence (after years of Dad throwing batting pratice); losing countless free-throw contests in the driveway. Even mundane things like raking leaves or going to the grocery store still hold a soft spot in my heart, but there was something different about the walks we would take that stand above all the memories.

Throughout my childhood, on every vacation the family spent at least one day hiking. Any combination of brothers and sisters would venture out into the hills of New England for a day with our dad. This was Dad’s reprieve for two weeks each year, and whoever was up for the task was invited. This particular day was my day.

We didn’t get a particularly early start, eating a leisurely breakfast. “We’re going to go in and pick up my father. I figure we’ll head out to the Quabbin and take Grandpa out to where he used to go fishing,” Dad said, looking up from his newspaper. I slurped milk from my cereal bowl.

When he said we were picking up my grandfather, I suddenly realized this was indeed a special day. My grandfather had recently become ill, but this day he was well enough to get out for a walk.

We packed a bottle of water, some nuts and berries, and a first aid kit into a rucksack. When we arrived at my grandparents’ house, I noticed something peculiar and pleasant in the air. Is this what it smells like all the time I am in school? I thought. The crisp morning was delightful. Just a few scattered puffy clouds and a gentle May breeze distinguished this day from any other warm spring morning. Worcester, Massachusetts, hadn’t ever been a pleasant-smelling city, but I was doing all I could to soak in this loveliness.

My grandmother scurried about the house as best she could, fixing coffee and packing sandwiches for later in the day. I sat in a chair at the kitchen table while my grandfather collected his things. He had visibly slowed in recent months. As he sat next to me at the table, putting on his shoes, his actions were deliberate; going through the exact order of steps he had shown me when I was five and just learning to tie my own laces. Dad and I were quiet.

Once on the road, we headed our car west, traveling through tiny Massachusetts towns like Leicester, Hubbardston, and Hardwick—places that you literally had to go out of your way to pass through. I watched the road, the small-town buildings, and the trees pass by. Dad and Grandpa talked up front, quietly and only intermittently. I watched both of them, and a shiver of curiosity ran through me. It was a sensation that happened only in moments like these, when I knew something was good, when I never wanted to forget this moment—a shiver, warm and gentle, reminded me. I watched and felt the heat of the sun through the car window.

Off Route 32A, we turned onto a gravel-covered parking area, big enough for only three cars. We had not seen a car pass for the last ten minutes of the ride and no others were at this parking area, so by all indications we’d be to ourselves.

We traveled an old hardscrabble road with blades of grass growing through the cracks, past two intakes for the aqueduct system that brings water to the citizens of Boston. The sound of water rushing far below the surface was the only thing we heard other than birds and our footsteps on this day.

Grandpa told us fishing stories, and Dad talked about the eagles and pheasants he had seen the last time he’d been in the area. I stayed quiet for the most part. The history of the Quabbin Reservoir whispered to me through the woods. Four towns had been evacuated and flooded to make this water supply for the city dwellers, but something lingered in the air. It was nearly tangible. If I stayed completely still, I swear I could hear the sounds of townspeople echo off the hills.

We made the final turn and came to the water’s edge. For years my grandfather had brought his boat to this launch. It wasn’t without sadness that he looked at the low water and gave a slight smile. “Water’s low, huh?” he asked my father. Dad nodded.

As a result of the reintroduction of bald eagles at the Quabbin Reservoir during the 1980s (eagles had been killed off in the area due to pollution and contamination of their food supply during the industrial boom earlier in the century), fishing had been reduced to all but the shoreline, and a dry winter meant the season would not open for another few weeks.

“I have a . . .” Grandpa said, reaching down, “a . . . rock, or something . . .”

Dad reached to help support him as I gave a look to Dad as if to say, “How do I help?” He told me to bend down to support Grandpa. Grandpa grabbed my shoulder and after some comedic moments of awkwardness, I helped get his shoe off and, sure enough, a pebble big enough to certainly be bothersome was in his shoe. I handed the pebble to him, and he flicked it away with some choice words. He was clearly frustrated with his inability to manage an otherwise simple task. I put his shoe back on and tied the laces, smiling while I did so, because Grandpa had helped me the same way long ago.

When I finished, and with Grandpa’s shoe now comfortably in place again, Dad asked if we should head back to the car. I didn’t want to head back, but I knew Grandpa was getting tired. We stood at that spot shoulder to shoulder looking over the lake and took in the view and the pleasure of being together. In the last year I had grown taller than Dad, and he stood a few inches higher than his father. We stood, three generations together in the sunlight.

Grandpa insisted we press on. We walked across the South Baffle Dam, heading west toward Mt. Zion. When we arrived at the other side, I sensed that Grandpa had come as far as he wanted to. I sensed he was very proud about his resolve to get to the edge of the woods. It was almost as if he wanted to just keep going and let nature take him back into the waiting arms of the Creator.

Dad said I could head up around the bend if I wanted. I had the awkward gait of a seventeen-year-old boy who had outgrown everyone in the family. I could easily make up the ground and Dad knew it. I seized the opportunity and ambled pensively, occasionally turning to see my heroes walking together. I stopped just after the bend and paused. Times like these call out for a prayer of thanksgiving. I said my piece and gave thanks for the blessing of my life. I looked up the trail farther, hoping to see some recognition for my prayer. Then I turned back and saw Dad and Grandpa slowly making their way back toward the car. I bounded back across the Baffle Dam.

The day at Quabbin with my father and me marked the last time my grandfather got out to his fishing spot. In real terms, it was his final walk of leisure. From that day on, everything became increasingly difficult. Old age crept in rather quickly and a stroke took its toll. Grandpa passed away within the year.

I learned more that day about myself and about the world around me than I did in all my years of schooling. Life wasn’t about facts, it wasn’t about dates, and it certainly wasn’t about Advanced Algebra. I learned that day about the way life is on the good days—the texture and essence of the best life has to offer. I glimpsed myself on that day. I saw myself in Dad. I saw Dad in Grandpa, and I saw Grandpa in both Dad and me. Imprints, gifts from the generations that preceded me, reside deep within my person. I understood these subtleties on that day, more so than any other day before or since.

As I now stand at the precipice of parenthood myself, I live each day with this memory emblazoned in my soul, and I know I will share a special day with my children, just as my dad shared one with me.

Matthew Favreault

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