My understanding of what love is has evolved over many decades, but it has its roots in my Grandpa Leo’s arms. One of my earliest memories involves standing at the edge of my grandparents’ farm yard, the dust billowing up in a cloud that hung suspended in the thick summer air as my mother drove away down the long gravel road. My parents, divorced, were beautiful but displaced persons, both physically and emotionally. Partners, employment, and shelter were all seemingly at the whim and wont of the wind. So my grandfather’s arms provided solace from the uncertainty and turbulence of my more immediate family. Grandpa Leo and my grandparents’ farm in Minnesota were the true north on my childhood compass – the people and place I sought safe haven in each summer, weekend and holiday of my early youth.
Grandpa Leo’s and Grandma Marion’s farm was about 300 tillable acres, accumulated over several decades of farming. At various times over those decades they kept milking cows, broke and rode horses, raised pigs, chickens and crops. Sometimes, if Grandpa was working in a distant field, Gram and I would pack up some sandwiches – thick slices of homemade bread with another slice or two of baloney slapped between – and a big cooler of Kool-Aid to deliver to Grandpa. We’d sit in the car at the edge of the field and wait for him to make a pass nearby and then deliver our goodies. Covered with a healthy layer of soil, Grandpa would greet us and if he removed his cap to wipe his sweaty brow, he revealed a gleaming white forehead, while the rest of his face was all sunburst capillaries and grime. He might eat one of the sandwiches while standing there talking with Gram, then he’d take a long pull on the cooler and jump back up on the tractor. Sometimes, when he worked the fields closer to the house, I’d run out and wave him down. He’d let me hop up next to him and sit on the wheel well over the tire. I’d sit tight, one hand gripping the metal beneath me and my other hand resting on Grandpa’s shoulder. Once, I slipped off the wheel well and landed in the rutted soil right smack between the teen-neensy front tire and the black rubber behemoth of a rear tire bearing down on me. Clearly, Grandpa stopped in time, as I’m here to write about it today. Grandpa just bent down, offered me a hand, and hoisted my little self back on to the tractor. I was just a bit bruised, more in spirit than body.
On the day my mom sped away from the farm, spitting gravel in her wake, I mopped about the perimeter of the yard. Lying down on my belly, I looked for salamanders in the well. My eyes began to water as I peered into the darkness and I cried silently, I knew not why. At some point Gram saw me skulking near the willow tree and called me into the house. She said that if I was going to cry, I ought not to do it alone. She hugged me close and fed me white bread, fresh from the oven, sliced as thick as cake and slathered in jam. Later, Grandpa came in from the fields, and even after washing with coarse Lava soap in the utility sink, his hands still bore the traces of oil and dirt along the edges of his nails and the whorls and ridges of his prints. He smelled of a pungent coupling of machine oil, grain dust and animal. Grandpa swept me up in his arms with those hardworking hands. “Madame Queen,” he asked, “shall we dance?” Then he waltzed me about the kitchen crooning, “Tea for two and two for tea, me for you and you for me.” For the lost little girl in me, this was nothing short of glory, nothing short of home. Grandpa had an impish grin, equal parts sweetness and mischief. It was anchored in his eyes with a sparkle, then crinkled where eyelids met cheek and tugged upwards, revealing a toothy sort of overbite. His humor was simple and sweet and aimed at teasing a smile out of the most stalwart of pouters. A spin round the kitchen with Grandpa perked up my little soul.
Once, as the family gathered in the living room of the old T-frame, white clapboard farmhouse, we watched the wind and rain grow in strength and destruction, bearing down on the farm. I tried to follow the weather warnings on the radio and the hushed speculation amongst the adults about the storm’s speed and direction. At the age of six, this was no little cause of concern. I had seen the Wizard of Oz. I quietly found my way into my Grandpa’s lap and planted myself there like a clinging burr. If a tornado was coming, the safest place to be was outside, near the front of the house, where a white wooden door lay latched atop six short steps down to an earthen cellar. It was damp and dark and another of the likeliest spots on the farm for finding salamanders. Should the storm worsen and necessitate a desperate dash for the storm cellar, I reasoned that Grandpa’s lap was the surest, safest place to be. I would not be left behind like Dorothy if I was in my Grandpa’s lap. The storm came. The wind howled. We counted seconds between lightning and thunder. And the storm went. It took a few trees and a power line and razed a great Uncle’s home several miles away, but I had been safe on Grandpa’s lap.
Grandpa Leo taught me to ride a barebacked pony and how to butcher a chicken. He taught me how to waltz in the kitchen and how to polka at a shed party. He taught me how to peel an apple skin in one long unbroken strip and how to make homemade ice cream. He taught me how to sing Amazing Grace without regard to key or pitch, but with deep feeling. He taught me how to swing on a rope from one end of the hayloft to the other. And, of course, Grandpa Leo taught me about love. It was an enduring lesson. The happiest moments of my childhood were often spent in Grandpa’s presence.
Then my mother died suddenly in my sixteenth year. Grandpa and Gram rallied round me, along with a contingent of extended family and friends. My father was absent, my mother was dead, dear Brother Mine was leaving for college and my first sweetheart and his family were moving out of town. I could scarcely have articulated it at the time, but I felt desperately heartbroken and abandoned. As a result, I pulled away from Grandpa and Gram, my aunties, uncles and cousins. I moved in with one, then another, friend of my mother’s and at eighteen I flew off to New York for college. I returned home only grudgingly for holidays and abbreviated visits and the door was always open.
Not long after I graduated from college, I found myself struggling to sort out which path I ought to follow – a possible stint with the Peace Corp in Eastern Europe or a year of navel gazing and soul searching in San Francisco. One afternoon Grandpa climbed into his pick-up truck and asked me to join him for a country drive. It turned out to be an excuse for a few quiet words of advice. Grandpa followed the river as it wound through the valley. I sat on the passenger side of the truck, enjoying the spring sun on my face and the rich scent of river bottom. We did not talk. I was alone in my thoughts. My application with the Peace Corps was in its final phase and I was torn about my future. I had been harboring a vision, in my mind’s eye, of life in some rural Latin American setting. My ideas about the Peace Corps were not fully formed. They came to me like the bits of debris from my unconscious dreams, leaving me to piece together some sort of cohesive whole. A posting in Eastern Europe had not figured in any of my imaginings, but when I had last communicated with the Peace Corps offices, it was looking more and more likely that I would be heading to that part of the world. I was uncertain about this new development, but I hadn’t shared many doubts with my family. At the time, Sarajevo was still under siege. Eastern Europe was, as far as I could tell, gray and dark and scary. Grandpa interrupted my unquiet thoughts to ask why I had applied to the Peace Corps. He listened as I rambled on about service and adventure. When I was done detailing my messianic hopes for world peace, Grandpa was quiet for another few miles. Finally he asked, “Why do you need to fly so far away for that?” Grandpa’s quiet question helped me realize that in my fear of being left behind I had been leaving other people and places over and over. Shortly thereafter, I decided not to join the Peace Corps, though I did move to San Francisco for a year followed by a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Washington State. Grandpa Leo passed away less than six months after our spring drive through the country. During my mourning, a friend asked me what made my Grandpa so important to me. In trying to answer that question, I had a sudden understanding that he had taught me about unconditional love. I could weep and wail and he would love me. I could run away and he would love me. He would always love me. It took me a few years, but I came home again.
I have loved and been loved by many people in my forty two years – a mother who was both dynamic and flawed, a stoic and steadfast prince of a brother, an auntie and an uncle who also opened their home and family to me, another auntie who shared her creative spirit and wisdom with me, soul sisters and kindred spirits from college, and now my beautiful children and devoted husband. Though it will always be my Grandpa Leo’s quiet, generous, unaffected love that will stand as my first understanding of how love can act as a balm for wounded souls. His love is the model for the love I strive to offer to my own family and friends, opening my home and heart as well as I am imperfectly able. So, this is what I have come to understand in the deepest core in me: love, real care and affection, comes not from lust or passionate declarations. It comes quietly, without affectations, without restrictions of time and space. If we are lucky, it comes with a smile, but always it provides our spirits shelter from the buffeting winds.
*This came from a shorter essay which I wrote some time ago about the meaning of love.