Had he lived another year my Grandpa Dale would now be 86 years old. He died a year ago last Sunday, November 10th, 2012. Had he been alive this past April we would’ve celebrated his birthday the same way we have celebrated his birthday for the last 10 years, and that would be with a simple email. He moved to Florida a couple years after he had his stroke. His farm and those harsh Northeast Indiana winters were too hard on his body; while looking out at all his acres of land that he owned and loved to explore on his old International Harvester tractor was too hard on his heart. Florida seemed to be the best place for him and his wife to move. They bought some land and a manufactured home was put there.
To the best of my knowledge he had a pretty good life down there, as I never saw him again after they moved. Not being someone that ever had enough money lying around to take the whole family down to Florida we never went. But even if we had money saved and could have made the trek, I’m not sure we would’ve. Dale was a pretty private person. He loved his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, but he wasn’t much for company anymore. Hell, even when my mom and dad went down a couple years ago to visit he was done talking after a couple hours. By 6pm he was gonna turn into a pumpkin if he wasn’t in bed. That, and Dale had the knack for pushing people’s buttons, even his own childrens’ buttons. Especially their buttons. It was a pleasant visit till Dale decided he was bored or was getting tired, then he’d start talking politics, religion, or whatever he thought would get you in a huff. But if you didn’t walk into his house expecting it, then it was your own damn fault.
For me, my relationship with my Grandpa Dale was a unique one. As a really little kid, I thought he was the greatest. He’d come over on Sunday mornings sometimes and pick up my brother and I. We’d go out for breakfast and he’d let me talk on the CB radio in his truck, once even letting me get yelled at by a truck driver who didn’t care for little kids messing on the radio. He got a good laugh out of that. Once, him and his wife Gloria took my brother and I to a state park on a Sunday afternoon. They sat in the truck cab while my brother and I sat in the back in the truck bed with an air mattress and blankets. The truck had a topper, so it wasn’t like we were being bombarded with wind, rain, and snow. It was a blast. But what I remember most was going to their house in Nappanee, IN and staying during winter. He had a wood stove in the back room and I always loved the smell of burning wood as he put more logs inside the stove’s red hot belly. I’d comment to him about how that must be what Hell looks like. Dale would just look at me and laugh.
But once I got older, I noticed a change in Dale. Maybe it was his wife(my mom’s stepmom)pushing him to become a man of God. His visits got less and less frequent, while he spent more time with his wife’s kids and grandkids. I knew it hurt my mom, but she put up a good front. My family didn’t go to church. My dad may have voted Republican till 1984, but he was always more of a liberal when it came to religion and social issues. We had our own relationship with God and we didn’t need the church to help us with that, so that and the fact my parents liked to drink beer and smoke and watch R-rated movies and didn’t base their opinions of others by their skin color, religion, or who they voted for was an ever-growing gap between my family and my grandpa Dale.
Such is life, I suppose. You still love your family, regardless if you like them or not. That’s got nothing to do with Jesus, a Pastor, and Sunday morning sermons. That’s just human nature. That’s just how that sort of stuff needs to be. But one Christmas in particular was where that familial bond got frayed in my mind. I was a teenager, maybe 15 years old, and my mom had invited my grandpa and his wife over for Christmas dinner. This was monumental as they never came over. Her kids and grandkids were the cat’s pajamas, while my mom, aunt, and uncles, along with my brother and cousins(and myself)were just the “step” side of the family. So my mom was thrilled to have them over, to say the least. Christmas Eve day Dale calls and says they can’t make it. Not sure if there was an excuse or not, but they weren’t coming. My mom hung up the phone and broke down. Now, something about my mom, she’s tough as nails. She gets that from Dale AND her mom. She’s short, but she’s a spitfire. When I saw my mom break down like that it was heartbreaking to me, and I had suddenly made my grandpa enemy number uno. How dare he do that. Who the hell did he think he was? That rotten son of a bitch broke my mom’s heart. Not only my mom’s heart, but his own daughter’s heart. That son of a bitch.
From that moment on till I was a father myself I was indifferent to Dale. I didn’t really like him, and I wasn’t even sure if I loved him. He was a selfish man that couldn’t stand up to a tyrant of a wife. Yet, he was also the same tough bastard that used to get drunk on whiskey as a young guy and get into bar fights just for fun. In his youth he was a cross between Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Mack in Cannery Row. He was one of the only people that ever put actual fear into my dad’s 6’4″ frame, and that’s saying a lot. So how could he not tell his wife “Hey, I need to spend time with MY kids.” I just didn’t get it. Now, if you wanted to make the trek to Wyatt, IN and to his farm then sure he’d see you. But those invitations to come to our home were never really met with much excitement. Mom surely forgave her dad, but I was always on the fence from that point on.
So life moved on and I got older, married, heavier, lighter, and started having kids. Dale met my oldest I’m sure of, but I can’t recall if he ever met my second daughter. He never met my son. By the time my son was born Dale and his wife had moved to Florida, land of retirement and Disney. But a strange thing happened when he moved: we became closer. While the rest of his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids seemed to feel hurt and abandoned somewhat by his move to the Sunshine state, I saw it as his chance for a life that he could enjoy, for whatever time he had left. The stroke he had in November of 2001 left him with a limp and the cold air of November through March here in Northeast Indiana was harsh on his body. Florida was a place he could feel good again, and I understood that. He began emailing me(my mom gave him my email address)pictures of their new home. He’d tell me about what he’d been doing; people he’d met and liked(and didn’t like.) He’d email me the temperature “It’s 82 degrees and sunny here” as I’d look out the back window at work and saw a foot of snow. Then we’d start talking about the family and things he did as a kid. He talked lovingly about his own parents; and told me about the time him and his buddies took the train from South Bend to Chicago so they could sneak into a burlesque show. They were booted out not long after they got in, so they headed over to the Chicago Theater and watched a young Frank Sinatra sing. This was the most I’d spoken to my grandpa Dale since I was 10 years old.
When he died I hadn’t heard from him in months. He just wasn’t up to talking anymore. He was in pain and would sometimes get confused, once trying to leave the house in his pajamas at 2 in the morning. I knew he wasn’t long for this earth, but when my mom called I still was a little surprised. No more emails from Dale. No more emails from grandpa.
I looked at that picture above and for some weird reason I thought of my grandpa Dale. I thought about for the last 10 or so years he never saw the seasons change. He never saw the green go to gold; then brown. I wondered if he ever missed that change. More than likely he didn’t really think about that sort of stuff. He wasn’t much of a ponderer like I am. He was a face value kind of guy, while I like to muck things up with theories and existential yammering. So I’ll end this here:
I’m glad those random emails allowed me to like my grandpa Dale again, and allowed me love him more than I ever had before.
Dale Gaut, my grandpa, and Steinbeck’s long lost Joad.