Come Labor On

I made some mediocre rice pilaf from Barefoot in Paris last week and took over an hour to grill some chicken breasts for Friday night fajitas, but I’ve had something else on my brain this weekend.

Twenty-four years ago, around Labor Day weekend, my beloved grandpa died after a long battle with cancer. I don’t know if I would remember the Labor Day weekend part, except that it was around the time of my first week of Junior High, and I had to bring my excused absence slip for his funeral around to all of my teachers. Every single one of my teachers told me how sorry they were that he was gone, and what a remarkable man he was. At the time, I was an awkward pre-teen and I just wanted to sit down at my desk. It didn’t register with me that they told me what a great guy he was, because virtually everyone had told us what a great guy he was, in the months leading up to his death, and at his funeral. He was a very lovable, and loving, man.

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It’s also only appropriate that I think about him during Labor Day weekend. Even though he was one of the last people who would have rallied around a labor-like cause, he was a hard worker, if only to escape the house when my grandma was after him about something. He drove a bread truck, and had an early morning delivery route that took him all over the area. When he was finished with his route, he was allowed to bring home the day-old baked goods to his family, and with three sons to feed, the tradition of toast as a bedtime snack took hold quickly. My family still eats toast before bed – Neil says that toast is practically sacramental for us, and it’s true. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize is unusual until you leave your family of origin and someone takes notice. But try it sometime – there’s nothing more comforting and settling than a piece of toast with a thin layer of butter just before bed.

I thought of my grandpa especially this year because Neil posted a haiku contest on his blog last Friday, about breaking rules. The original topic was about seersucker after Labor Day, and my grandpa would have been the last person I knew who would wear a seersucker suit. He always wore the same overalls, usually with one snap unfastened. But he was rather fond of selectively breaking rules, which is probably why that snap remained unfastened.

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My haiku contributions were about him:

He parked in the fire
lane, like his son owned the place.
Grandpa, rule breaker.

That one was about my family’s grocery store, where my grandpa would unfailingly park his pickup truck, with the tailgate down, directly in front of the store, where the curb was painted yellow and there was a clear sign dictating, “NO PARKING – FIRE LANE.” As far as I know, nobody ever ticketed him or complained about it, not that that would have stopped him. While I was digging through some old photos looking for some of Grandpa, I found these, of a grand opening of one of my dad’s grocery stores in River Falls, Wisconsin, c. 1980.

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I’m the little blond girl in the cake cutting photos. Why did I look so disappointed at that giant cake? The cake reads: “Welcome to Dale’s IGA: The Friendliest Folks in Town.” There’s a little card next to the cake that reads: “YES This is a REAL CAKE. Weight 315#, Servings 3000, Size 3 1/2′ by 7 1/2′.” I don’t know how they figured the 3000 servings, but who’s going to argue with someone who makes a cake that big? The guy in the plaid pants is my very stylish dad.

Back to Grandpa. I think the illicit parking was a point of pride. He was so proud of my dad for building that store and running a great business, and he wasn’t afraid to mark his territory in front of it to show his pride. He was proud of all of us, and he would go out of his way to spend time – however short – with his grandchildren. The feeling was mutual – we adored that man. For all of his stubborn toughness, he had a tender heart and a gentle soul. I remember when I had the chicken pox in fifth grade, and I was sent to my grandparents’ house when my parents couldn’t stay home to take care of me. I was starting to feel better but still had a fever, and couldn’t return to school, and so my grandpa and I watched the entire Anne of Green Gables series on television. “That girl is going to get herself in more trouble, isn’t she?” he asked me with a wink. He helped me memorize the states and their capitals so I wasn’t behind when I got back to school.

When I was in elementary school, Grandpa was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the late 1980s, the diagnosis was different than it can be today. He was an otherwise strong and healthy man, and the cancer took years to erode his life. For a long time, he was still able to go with us after school on apple-picking adventures, and to spend time on my family’s hobby farm, where there were sheep and cows. Even though he wasn’t a farmer, he loved his garden, and both of my grandparents were avid organic gardeners and composters long before it was cool. (Who knows? Maybe the overall-with-one-snap-undone will be the new hipster fashion craze?) Time on the farm always brought a smile to his face, even when he sat in the truck when he was unable to walk around.

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It wasn’t long before he wasn’t able to come along at all, and all of our visits took place in hospital rooms. With all of the cancer treatments, his body wasted away, and so did a lot of his energy. We knew that part of him was still there, though, every time he flirted with the nurses, or insisted on introducing us to his ward-mates, along with a litany of our best attributes and achievements. After so much sickness, though, and with medication that helped his body but fogged his brain, he became depressed and despondent. My dad could hardly stand to see him that way, and so he knew that he had to bring a little bit of the farm to Grandpa’s bedside.

My dad, who inherited the rule-breaking stubborn streak from my grandpa,* pulled aside some of the nurses that Grandpa had been charming for so many months. He asked if maybe he could bring in a baby lamb from the farm on one of our visits. The nurse tried not to laugh, and had a smile in her eye while she willed her voice to be stern: “Sir, that is against hospital policy.” My dad had figured as much. “But if you do it, and I’m not telling you that you can, but I’m not telling you that I wouldn’t just look the other way, either, make sure that it’s on my shift, because I want to see the look on that man’s face when he sees your surprise.”

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And so, my second haiku:

When he was near death
and so sad, we broke the rules,
too. Lamb at his bed.

My grandpa died not long after we brought the lamb to visit him. And on the same day, that lamb died, too, without ever having been sick.

I still think about him whenever my or my children’s stubborn streak shines through, or when breaking a long-standing rule just seems like the right thing to do. I think of him when we make deviled eggs at Easter, or whenever anyone cooks something in a microwave that really shouldn’t be cooked in a microwave. (He tried an entire leg of lamb once. It didn’t work out so well.) I think of him any time I hear someone whistling inside, which he did, probably just to drive my grandma crazy. I think about him every time I can’t read a map or get lost while driving – he was terrible with directions, but could never seem to get himself lost, no matter how hard he tried sometimes. I think of him when I’m driving, and it starts to rain just slightly, and I can’t decide whether to turn on the windshield wipers yet. (He once told my grandma that their new car had sensors in the windshield that detected the rain, and it automatically turned on the wipers. He was full of it, and I think she knew it.) I think about him when I see my own dad with my kids, and how much he loves them, just like our grandpa adored us.

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And so: a toast (heh) to grandpas. To laborers. To rule-breakers.

*This photo illustrates another rule-breaking episode. I found it when I was digging around for old photos of grandpa. I’m not at liberty to divulge the details, but remember that every time I substitute an ingredient in a recipe or ignore instructions altogether, I come from the stock that did this, on purpose, without a burning permit.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Come Labor On

  1. Rachel

    The lamb died on the same day??? Seriously, I just wiped tears from my face. What a beautiful tribute. I hope your dad reads this blog.

    • He does! And the lamb really did die the same day. Get this: when my grandma died about five years later, a calf from the farm died on the same day. She always was a little bit competitive. 🙂

  2. Linda Klitzke

    Wow, what a great memorial this many years later. Your grandparents and parents are still proud of you! I am amazed at how many great pictures you found that are just the right touch.

  3. Heather

    Your memory is amazing, and your awesome ability to write about them is really a gift. Thanks for sharing that gift with us!

  4. Connie

    OMG- This is such a touching story that I can soooo relate to as I think of my Grandpa and Dad! And now there is me- a chip off the ole block. Carrie, you are an amazing and talented story teller. Your Dad is right- you are so gifted and talented, quick witted and smart. Lovely lady, thank you for sharing this heartfelt Treasure! You’ve made your family proud!

  5. Pingback: The Other List | The Contessa-Curessa Project

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