Grandpa was a farmer, and for the first part of his life, so was my father. His side of the family is pure Czech farming stock, through and through. And the town in South Dakota where they lived was populated by families just like theirs, lots of them directly and indirectly related.
By the time I was born, my father had moved away from the farm and into a significantly different life, from the Air Force to college to an engineering job and finally to marriage and four kids. By the time he had a growing family in Colorado, he didn't have the time or resources to visit South Dakota much. I specifically remember visiting there just twice -- once when I was very young and still focused on finding the sole toy box in the farmhouse (hidden in a closet up at the top of the stairs, out of sight until the rare occasions that we grandkids visited), and once when I was probably twelve or thirteen, a trip my father and I made without my mom or siblings, just to check up on Grandpa.
By the time of that second visit, Grandpa was living alone. His wife had died in the late '70s, leaving him to run the farm and house by himself. Dad was worried about him all the time, but not so much because he couldn't do the hard stuff, but because he wouldn't do the easy stuff. He'd grow the crops, fix the equipment, manage the grounds and all that, but he probably didn't cook well for himself, and he probably didn't pay enough attention to his hygiene or his health.
That second trip stands out in my mind because I had decided to cook a full meal for my dad and grandfather one evening. I planned for fried chicken, rice, gravy, and fresh green beans. I had made all of those things at one time or another at my own house, and I felt confident I could pull it off without Mom's help. The only part of the menu I'd never made on my own was the gravy, but I remember watching Mom mix flour and milk, stir it into the pan after the chicken had been removed to cool, and season it as it warmed and thickened.
I told Grandpa and Dad to hang tight and let me put everything on the table. It all seemed to be going smoothly -- chicken brown and crispy, cooling on a platter, the rice perfectly cooked and pulled off the heat to serve, and the beans warm and still firm, waiting in a bowl. The gravy seemed to be coming along, too. As I called Grandpa and Dad in to the kitchen for dinner, I was stirring it in the pan, watching the swirls grow more solid as the color turned deeper beige. When it seemed right, I ladled it into a bowl of its own and served it.
At dinner, we all dug in, loading our plates. I felt so proud at having put it all together by myself, proving a little bit to the two men I most admired. But as the gravy came around to my side of the table, I noticed that it had changed. As it cooled, a thick layer of fat on the top had congealed. It no longer looked like gravy at all, but rather something you'd find in your kitchen drainpipe. I couldn't believe I'd forgotten to skim the grease from the chicken pan. I quickly told them not to eat the gravy, that I'd really messed it up, but Grandpa, who had already covered his food in it, told me there wasn't anything wrong with it. I was completely embarrassed, but he dove right in and told me it was perfect. I knew otherwise, but still he made me feel like I had done him the favor.
That's the last real visit I remember with Grandpa, although I know that at some point I saw him again, when he had moved from the farm to a nursing home after a fall broke his hip. Any memories I have of that are vague and too fuzzy to pull any details from.
No matter how I recall Grandpa from those last visits, he's always in my mind the way I saw him when I was just a child. His face was all bones -- jaw, nose, forehead -- and his creaky Czech accent was foreign but, at the same time, the most friendly sound in the world. I don't think I can imagine him wearing anything but the gray cotton shirt and dusty dark pants he always wore, and even when he was relaxing in his living room, he sported the polished black shoes that went on when his work boots came off.
Since Grandpa died, more than fifteen years ago now, I haven't thought much about him, except to smile when I see how much my own dad resembles him, how much he still carries with him from the South Dakota fields.
But this Father's Day, when I called to offer my best wishes to Dad, he brought up Grandpa. He mentioned that the two of them had never been really expressive or emotional. After all, when you're a farmer, there's work to be done. The seasons come and go, you make the most of what the weather brings, animals live and animals die, and there's not much to be done about any of it, but to move forward. So Dad had left home knowing how much he loved Grandpa and knowing how much he was loved. As Dad put it, "No one said it, but we just knew. It wasn't something you had to say." When Dad's kids were born he discovered, as he told me, how much more love he had inside him than he ever imagined. The longer he raised us, the bigger his love became, and he regretted not having said "I love you" or hugging his own dad before then.
On one of his trips back to South Dakota after his mother had died, Dad said he remembered driving in through the nearby small town, then through the smaller town closer to the farm, then finally off the highway onto the dirt road that cut between the fields. He got nearer the old house and saw Grandpa in the field by himself, working the land on a tractor, still a quarter mile or more away from home. Rather than drive to the farmhouse and wait, Dad said he pulled over at a spot close to the field, hopped the fence and flagged down Grandpa. When Grandpa climbed down off the equipment, Dad just hugged him and said, "I love you." He said Grandpa was shocked, completely unsure of what to do. But it wasn't really about what Grandpa needed to do, but what Dad needed to do.
I don't expect I'll ever be so far from Dad as he was from his dad. But when he told me the story on Father's Day, it didn't take me but a second to tell him I loved him. And when I wished him a final "Happy Father's Day" before hanging up, he laughed and said he could never have done it without his kids.
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