We went to my hometown on Sunday to take him out for a brunch celebration. Sunday was my sister's birthday, and ever since her first birthday they have gone out for lunch as a dual celebration, usually just the two of them. We honed in this year, since it was only the second time in the past 25 years that I have been in Ohio during his birthday.
Grandpa has never been one of those who is coy about his age; he's 97 and pretty proud of it. As well he should be, since he has a lot to brag about: he lives alone in the same house he and my grandmother built 60 years ago; he cooks; he does his own laundry; and is still an avid reader. He also drives, but limits himself to the backroads in the daylight hours only.
Every morning, just as he has done for more years than I know, he drives to "the barns," the county fairgrounds where the horses are kept. He and his brother still own and train harness racing horses, just as their father did before them, and as my Uncle Ed's kids are keeping alive in the generation below them. Grandpa used to give the horses their morning jogs on the track but gave that up on his 90th birthday because he said, "I don't bounce so well anymore."
The horse barn provided me with childhood memories and words of wisdom, Grandpa-style. Nearly every Saturday morning of my pre-teen years was spent rising in the humid early mornings and driving with Gramps along narrow country lanes, passing cornfields and sprawling tracts of flat farmland, about twenty-five minutes to the town he grew up in. "Town" being used loosely here, because there is basically one intersection with a traffic light, and clustered there was a general store, a barber shop, a diner-type restaurant, and the post office. I think the general store and restaurant are gone now.
Just outside town was the fairgrounds, which provided a grouping of barns and the most ramshackle grandstands you ever want to see. The area beneath the stands was enclosed, and I didn't like going under there to reach the steps up into the seating area, for fear the whole wooden structure would come tumbling down on my scrawny little self.
In the barn I would be handed a pitchfork, knowing well that my task of the day was to schlep out the stalls before I could be rewarded with a ride around the track. They usually kept three or four horses, which meant I had to hold my nose and clean them out, then generously sprinkle the stalls with fresh straw. On the one occasion I whined about the chore, my grandfather boomed, "Hey! Let me tell you something, kid...shoveling shit builds character!" which pretty much turned out to be true.
Afterwards came the pay-off for the pooper scooper as I climbed up on the sulky and rode with my grandfather for the horses' exercise laps around the track. I still remember the silence of the countryside broken by a train whistle, the breeze of cool, humid air, the sound of the horse's hoofs methodically pacing the gravel track, and the small dirt clods they would kick up in our direction. As I grew, I was allowed to hold the reigns. Sometimes they would get obstinate and my grandpa would grab the lines while calling out, "Knock it off," or if they were particularly ornery, "Stop it, ya bastard!"
My parents were not always humored by the vocabular lessons I garnered from the horsemen, but then I heard just as bad or worse when we left the barns and stopped at my great-grandparents' house before heading home. Everyone in town called my great-grandpa "Pop". He had a stroke and most of his language was incomprehensible, except for the cuss words. He'd mumble along trying to tell a story, which my grandpa seemed to be able to understand but I could make no sense of, until he cursed. Out it popped crystal clear, which always made me giggle, and Pop would grin and laugh along with me. My great-grandmother baked the biggest, best molasses cookies of all time; I've never tasted one so good since she passed away.
Grandpa still goes down every morning to rustle around the barns, chat with the horsemen, poke at his "baby brother" (who is 80), and feed the horses. He catches up on gossip, evaluates the horses' training progress, gripes about the cost of feed, and returns home glad to have a task to look forward to each day.
My grandfather is a big guy with a big booming voice, and strong opinions to go with it. He delights in offering them to anyone who will listen. He has enjoyed intimidating three generations of small children with his deep rumblings like, "Sit up straight, you look like a question mark!" or, “What are you doing sitting in front of the idiot box? When I was your age TV was called Books!”
My grandparents (on right) with her mother, brother and sister.
That is my grandpa, as he was and is today. He is 97, and still getting along. Happy Birthday, Gramps.