Whenever I think of aging not just gracefully but with joie de vivre, I think of Grampie. Family legend has it, he suffered a nervous breakdown from being too kind to his poorer customers during the Depression.
Story goes, he owned the first Harley‑Davidson shop in Hudson, Massachusetts. He was so good‑hearted that he found it difficult to collect debts when folks were down and out. Because of his soft heart, he went bankrupt and they found him crying one day in a closet. They sent him away to a psychiatric ward and he came home a much different man.
We never knew the man that ran the motorcycle shop, but the one that came home from the hospital was our hero. He loved us to a fault and was always kind and so funny.
He was perhaps, an early prototype of Robin Williams. He spun strange tales, told us jokes, and best of all made funny cat sounds with his mouth and let his top dentures drop when talking to us. Each occurrence would set my brother and I off into paroxysms of delight and laughter.
We loved him because he constantly defied the rigid house rules that we could not. For instance, he lifted his cereal bowl and drank it with both hands. We’d never seen anyone do that. Something it seemed was always dribbling down his chin; if not milk from cereal, it was butter. Grandma finally put a bib on him.
He was not religious. Where Grandma was hyper Catholic, kissing relics and praying non-stop novenas, Grampie snored in church and during the nightly rosary. He dressed funny for Mass and argued daily with Gram about needing to shave. They fought constantly and we always rooted for his side.
Even his stubbly‑chinned kisses weren’t like anyone else’s. They were small explosions of love. He blew on our cheeks, making obscene sounds that we loved. Grandma failed to see the humor in most of his shenanigans, but then she was German to his Irish.
I don’t recall her being too much fun.
No one ever told her side of the family about joie de vivre. They subscribed to that immensely barbaric credo, “Children should be seen and not heard.” It scarred them all for life and would have scarred us as well if it hadn’t been for Henry Clark.
How the two of them ended up together is beyond me, but one unexpected outcome of Grampie’s nervous breakdown was that it liberated us from the Gloucester gulags of Eastern etiquette and transplanted us into the lyrical quirk and whimsy of County Cork.
The ultimate utilitarian family meets the rain man.
Daily, Grampie would escape across the street and up the wooded hill to his workshop. He would form and fashion useless and most wonderful things: birdhouses, wind vanes and wooden creatures on sticks that ended up all over the yard at Lake Boone. Things antithetical to pragmatism, not to mention feminine control.
I will never forget the smell of that small, white shed on the hill; a magical combination of wood sap, paint and turpentine. Grampie was a firm believer in turpentine and loved dark, smelly salves and ointments of all kinds.
He was the wizard of Horehound cough-drops too, and penny candy. I’m convinced he was an elder in the First Church of Penny Candy. My brother and I were his willing converts, both of us with lousy teeth still giving ample witness.
When Grampie died, I understand he just fell face down in the washroom with a massive heart attack. He didn’t suffer, instead just went down with a great crash like one of his big trees on the hill. No fuss or drama. No long good‑byes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Gramps lately and how much joy he brought into our lives. No one and nothing was spared his leprechaun humor, his sprite sensibilities. Not even the fearsome aging process itself… maybe especially the aging process.
I remember him when things get too serious, and since I can’t drop my dentures (yet) when talking, I settle for being a bit of a clown.
I can repeat certain lines of his nonsensical poetry.
I can say, “Ah G’wain,” when someone is being pretentious or preposterous.
When I have one, I will wave my cane when the situation calls for it.
I will give my grandchildren the same funny kisses and explosions of love and teach them to go often into the woods and the hills.
I will teach them it’s okay sometimes to dribble stuff when you eat and that it’s perfectly respectable to say “Grace, wish you were here,” for a mealtime blessing.
But above all … I want to teach them that being too kind and lighthearted is never an illness. Not ever.