A Memory of My Grandfather (2001)

I am inordinately proud of all my grandparents, proud of their heritage and what they did and gave to us. All of them worked extremely hard under difficult circumstances to bring, in their own way, the basics of life, love and happiness to their families. We enjoy the blessed lives we have in no small part due to their sacrifice, courage and matter-of-fact commitment to making a better life for us.

My grandfathers, both, were awe-inspiring men. Flawed (charmingly, not fatally), down to earth; loved to laugh and loved life, didn’t put up with any baloney. Their gifts to us, both in genetics and memories, are legion. From my father’s dad, I got my bad eyesight, an impatience for ignorance in high places and the mouth to jaw about it – plus loyalty, integrity and an occasional impish sense of humor. And from my mom’s dad, the sweeter side of my nature, a dedication to work and friends and family and a wanderlust par excellence – plus a propensity to trade cars far more often than is healthy to the bank account. He was George Oval Booth, Sr., affectionately known as “Buck,” to his family and friends, and “Granddad” to his grandchildren. And he was the measure of a successful man.

Time has a way of healing all wounds, softening all memories, but I can honestly say that my memories of Granddad don’t need softening much. When it came to us grandkids, Grandad was always in good humor. I never remember him being short or ill-tempered with us (perhaps he softened up as he got older). I remember his laugh, and his sweet smile. I remember the smell of his snuff and the feel of his somewhat boney shoulders as you hugged him, shoulders and a back bowed and bent after decades of hard scrabble in the tough soils of west Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, earning a living for his wife and five children. I remember drinking water out of his empty snuff glasses on hot days while playing in the hot New Mexico sun. And I certainly remember his singing, particularly, “Won’t It Be Wonderful There?,” the song that Aunt Joyce always thought was about her because it contained the line, “Joyously singing, with heartbells all ringing,” which she thought Granddad was singing, “Joyce Lee singing …”

And that wanderlust. I certainly remember his pacing, and jangling of change, and his excuses to get back home after a visit (“We got to get home and turn the well off”), even if they had only been there for a short time. I remember that mainly because it lives on in me. I can fully appreciate his sometimes acute need; the fun is in the journey, in the departure, in the moving from point to point, not the actual stay, which, while enjoyable in itself, means having to keep still, at which he and I both aren’t much good. This wanderlust is legendary in the family; mom and the sisters remember quite vividly leaving Roswell late on a Saturday afternoon after work, driving the 450 miles to Duncan, only to return late on Sunday night and be at work at sunup Monday morning. It was the only way he could see his family, particularly his mother, but there was certainly an element of restlessness to it, of always wanting to be on the go, the so-called “thrill of the open road.” I know, because I feel it keenly myself today, and think of him and smile when it happens to me. My friends are sometimes understandably confused when I stand up and stretch and say, “I got to get home and turn the well off.”

Granddad went through the entire lineup of automobiles produced in Detroit between the time he was old enough to drive and that final Oldsmobile in the ‘80s. Well, maybe not, but it certainly seemed that way at the time, particularly to my grandmother, Brooksie, who pretty much never knew what was going to be in the driveway and whether the key on her keychain was going to fit the ignition of whatever hot deal was sitting out in the sun. He was the quintessential American in that way; his car was his identity in some ways. It was a source of pride and pleasure – something to show for the hard work on the seat of the tractor. And hey, if a new car got a rise outta Brooksie, it was probably a secret little bonus for him. For some reason, I remember particularly a dark red Ford Torino in the ‘70s, and a journey through north Texas when he and Grandma took my cousins Jeff and Jami and I to Sherman, Texas, sweating in the hot back seat. This particular deal didn’t include an air conditioner. That car gave way to another in fairly short order.

His storytelling was often fascinating; one that sticks in my mind is most certainly aprocryphal, especially in light of subsequent research into the family tree. But he remembered it clearly and took it with some seriousness. One day on the family farm in Montague County, Texas, when he was somewhere around seven years old, he was in the field plowing with his father. A strange man came to the edge of the field out of some woods. His father stopped the team, handed him the reins and told him to not move. His father then went to the edge of the field, talked to the stranger for a while, then came back. According to Granddad, his father then said, “You know who that man was? That man was John Wilkes Booth.” Grandad’s sense of humor was sometimes quite subtle and easily missed. Either he had a grand joke on us, or his father had a grand joke on him. Or perhaps, who knows?

I remember the way he would punctuate a discussion with “why,” not as a question, but as a declarative (such as “well”), as in, “If he hadn’t done that, why, then …” I remember his devotion to watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite. The fact that the Depression of the ‘30s scarred him so deeply he lived out the rest of his life in fear of another one. How he loved taking care of his yard and mowing and watering. How careful and respectful he was of other people and their things. And the way that when he laughed he sort of bobbed up a down a bit, laughing whole-heartedly.

Shortly before his illness and death, he took a ride with me to pick up a package from the Roswell FedEx office. We had to stop in a farm implement store to ask directions; he knew the people inside. They brightened up when they saw him walk in the door. He seemed proud to introduce me and charmed the socks off the place, made the receptionist giggle and the counterman laugh out loud with some joke or comment which I have long forgotten. At that point, sometime in the early ‘90s, he hadn’t farmed in quite a long time, but they still remembered him. In his own quiet way, he made an impression.

Granddad lived a quiet, unassuming, unoffensive life. He was a bit timid about certain things, but never shy about things which truly mattered. He wasn’t perfect by any means. He could be stubborn, ornery, exasperating, sharp and no-nonsense, but the worst I ever heard said about him was that he spent too much time in car dealerships. And his wife was the one who made the comment and she loved him anyway. That’s a pretty good reputation.

This was a man whose life was proscribed inside a limited bit of territory, from roughly a line running between Houston and Oklahoma City, over to Albuquerque, down to Carlsbad and back over to Houston – in the jet age, a fairly small patch of the earth. Grandad lived much of his life in New Mexico, but didn’t visit the state capital in Santa Fe until the final years of that life. On that same trip, he saw the Grand Canyon and Phoenix for the first and last time. He knew every inch of every mile between Roswell and Duncan, knew when to plow and plant, how to read the weather and when to turn the well off, but never (to my knowledge) flew on a commercial airliner or toured the White House and never (also to my knowledge) saw either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, although he did, I think, glimpse the Gulf of Mexico. He probably never went to a movie theater and certainly never crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.

But the richness of a man’s life is not defined by the title of his job, the money in his bank account, or the places he’s been or whether he’s bought cheap souvenirs at some tacky vendor’s cart in Paris. Rather, richness is defined by the job he did raising his kids and how much he loved his wife; it’s defined in the selflessness and devotion inherent in his daily life; it’s apparent in his reputation, his integrity and the love he gave and received. And in these ways, life’s intangibles, Buck Booth was wealthy beyond all measure.

Granddad was 85 years old when he died of cancer in 1993. He held his wife’s hand to the end and was surrounded by the love of his family as the final act of his long life played out. I arrived in Roswell several hours before he died and will never forget his grin and the spark of life in his eyes when Grandma asked, “Do you know who this is?” and he said, “Why, it’s Steve.” And not altogether without a flash of the old impatience, as if he was saying, “Well, of course, woman, I can see who it is. It’s perfectly obvious!” That scene is probably my most cherished memory; that when he recognized me, he smiled.

I watched him draw his final breath and felt acutely the sudden loss as that breath left his lungs, his spirit flying away with it, his body giving a final sigh as he finally attained the joy and peace he needed. We were all diminished by his passing, yet drew on the reserves of strength and love he gave us as his legacy to get through the ensuing period of grief. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him and wish he were around so that I could just simply listen to him. I’m sometimes angry that we can’t have our grandparents around when we’re older and can understand and appreciate them, but instead are ignorant, impatient youths right at the time when they have the most to give of themselves.

But at the same time, I know that much of what Granddad believed, the kind of person he was, and the legacy he gave lives on in his family. In a greater sense, he left the best parts of himself behind for us to benefit, and then laid down for the final long rest he so richly deserved. Pieces of him live on in each of us and we are humbled by the legacy. He was a grand old man.