I remember my grandfather as a somber quiet man who used to slowly rock in a wooden chair that now sits empty in our house.
Not too long before, my Grandpa drank heavily but he wasn’t just any drunk. He was a mean drunk. Surly, cursing, prone to throwing things and people, especially at home.
Grandma used to say he learned to drink in the logging camps and I suspect that is true. He started working as a logger before he was fully grown, dropping out of school, leaving home around age sixteen and heading up to the hills where real money could be made. He learned more than how to cut down huge old growth Douglas Fir trees, skid them down the hills using a team of horses, and then roll them onto waiting wagons to be hauled to the mills. He learned how to live with a group of men who surfaced once or twice a month from the hills to take a bath and maybe go to church with their womenfolk. Mostly he learned how to curse and drink.
He headed home to the farm with muscles and attitude a few years later, and started the process of felling trees there, creating a “stump farm” that was a challenge to work because huge stumps dotted the fields and hills. He slowly worked at blasting them out of the ground so the land could be tilled. It proved more than he had strength and motivation to do, so his fields were never very fruitful, mostly growing hay for his own animals. He went to work in the local saw mill to make ends meet.
He cleaned up some when he met my grandmother, who at eighteen was twelve years younger, and eager to escape her role as chief cook and bottle washer for her widowed father and younger brother. She was devout, lively and full of energy and talked constantly while he, especially when sober, preferred to let others do the talking. It was an unusual match but he liked her cooking and she was ready to escape the drudgery of her father’s household and be wooed.
They settled on the stump farm and began raising a family, trying to eke out what living they could from the land, from the sporadic work he found at the saw mill, and every Sunday, took the wagon a mile down the road to the Bible Church where they both sang with gusto.
He still drank when he had the money, blowing his pay in the local tavern, and stumbling in the back door roaring and burping, falling into bed with his shoes on. Grandma was a teetotaler and yelled into his ruddy face about the wrath of God anytime he drank, their four children hiding when the dishes started to fly, and when he would whip off his belt to hit anyone who looked sideways at him.
When their eldest daughter took sick and died quickly of lymphoma at age eight despite the little doctoring that was available, Grandpa got sober for awhile. He saw it as punishment from God, or at least that is what Grandma told him through her sobs as she struggled to cope with her loss.
Over the years, he relapsed many times, losing fingers in his work at the mill, and losing the respect of his wife, his children and the people in the community. Grandma left with the kids for several months to cook in a boarding house in a neighboring town, simply to be able to feed her family while Grandpa squandered what he had on drink. Reconciled over and over again, Grandma would come back to him, sending their growing son to fetch him from the tavern for the night. My Dad would bicycle to that dark and smoky place, stand Grandpa up and guide him staggering out to their truck for the weaving drive home on country roads. On more than one occasion, Grandpa, belligerent as ever, would resist leaving and throw a punch at his boy, usually missing by a mile.
But once the boy grew taller and strong enough to fight back, managing to knock Grandpa to the ground in self-defense, the punching and resistance stopped. The boozing didn’t.
Grandpa sobered up for good while his boy fought in the war overseas in the forties, striking a bargain with God that his boy would come home safe as long as Grandpa left alcohol alone. It stuck and he stayed sober. His boy came home. Grandpa saw it as a promise kept and became an elder in his Bible Church, taught Sunday School and gave his extra cash to the church rather than the tavern.
Sitting in a Christmas Sunday School program one Christmas Eve, Grandpa leaned toward Grandma and she noticed his face broken out in sweat, his face ashen.
“It’s hot in here, “ he said and collapsed in her lap. He was gone, just like that, and he left the rest of his family behind while sitting in church, sober as can be, on the day before Christmas.
Finally everlastingly forgiven, he headed one more time, not weaving or swerving but on the straight and narrow, home.