Saturday, January 30, 2010

Family Names

Nicknames are a staple in my family. Gumpy seemed to have one for all of us and he had several himself. I will do my best to recount them all, with the stories behind the names I remember.

Elbert. The man himself had many nicknames; including Charlie Tuna, Bird Legs, Slender Pins and Gumpy. Bird Legs and Slender Pins came from his legs. He had a healthy gut perched a top two of the skinniest legs you can imagine, which he loved to show off all summer with his golf shorts.

Dorothy. My grandmother became known as Ema because that is what I called her when I was first learning to speak. Gumpy liked to call her Shapely, which she absolutely hated.

Me. After the best buddy contract, I was Best Buddy and Number One Farm Hand. After my cousin Scott was born; I was promoted to Best Buddy, Number One Farm Hand and General Manager East. After my cousins Adam and Logan were born; I was promoted to Best Buddy, Number One Farm Hand and Vice President of Outside Affairs. Fortunately, this was always shortened to Best Buddy.

Aunt Mary. My Uncle Jim and my mother hung Mary with the nickname of Moose after watching a Listerine commercial. The nickname Moose stuck so well that I howled with laughter when I learned that Moose's name was really Mary. It sounded so plain. Gumpy also liked to call her Pootsie, which harkened back to a nickname my mother hung her with, Pootsie Wootsie Kawkawie of New Jersey Girl. He was the only one who could get away with Pootsie on a regular basis.

Mary's best friend Sarah. Sarah spent enough time with the family that she just became Aunt Sarah, but Gumpy liked to call her Twigs because her maiden name is Terwilliger. Nothing like brevity.

Rebekah. My sister is like Chuck Norris when it comes to nicknames. A nickname looks at her and runs the other way. She really despises being called anything other than Rebekah. Adam, Logan and Gumpy are the only three that have ever been given permission to hang a new moniker on her. Adam and Logan call her Bukah. Gumpy would call her Smoochie.

Vernal. Gumpy's brother was renamed Uncle Friday at some point. I am fuzzy on why we all called him Uncle Friday.

Onalie. I never met Aunt Onie but I know Gumpy use to call her Tizzy Lish. In fact, all of the women in the family were called Tizzy Lish by Gumpy at some point.

Roz. My mother was called Billy Burb occasionally. I have no idea why, but I am quite sure I will find out as soon as she gets over the embarrassment of having her nickname on my blog!

I have noticed my tendancy to assign nicknames to people. It is certainly a learned behavior!

Stolen Socks

If you sat at the kitchen table at the farm long enough, you would hear Gumpy complain that someone had stolen his socks. Since he was a creature of habit, if his socks were not in his shoes under the kitchen table, he would assume they were stolen. When he would bellyache about his socks long enough, Ema would usually exclaim something like, "Elbert! They are in your sock drawer where they belong!"

Before I became a double-digit midget (over 10 years old), I liked to point out absurdities pretty vociferously. I felt pretty important if I could make an adult stop to think through my logic. I felt even more important when they agreed. So, one night after Gumpy declared that someone broke in to the house to steal his dirty socks, I challenged him.

"You mean to tell me they walked past the TV, past the new VCR and past the new microwave just to steal your socks!?!" I exclaimed. Gumpy stared at me for a few seconds and burst out in laughter. Everyone else in the house did too. I figured out pretty quickly that everyone was laughing because I made the great sock burglar theory sound absolutely ridiculous.

The alleged burglar was always Ema. Gumpy habitually took his shoes and socks off at the dinner table, leaving them under the table in front of his spot. This irritated Ema, who likes some semblance of order to her chaos. So, every night she would move his shoes and socks to their bedroom closet.

I do not recall hearing my grandparents say that they loved each other, yet I know they loved each other. It was more in the actions they took toward each other. Even their bickering about socks had a loving tone.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Best Buddy Contract

I first learned of this Best Buddy Contract I signed with Gumpy around the age of 10.  There must have been some conversation I had with him where I was trying to get out of doing something and he told me I was contractually obligated to help him.  Whatever circumstances that surrounded the conversation have been long forgotten, but I will never forget the amount of consternation this caused for me at such a young age.

Our initial conversation, and several others afterward, always went something like this:

"Well, where is the contract," I would say.
"It's in a safety deposit box up town," Gumpy would reply.
"Let's go get it," I would retort.
"It's Saturday.  The bank's closed."
"Fine, when did I sign it?"
"When you were six months old."
"You put your X on it!"

At this point in the conversation, I had usually gone off the deep end while Gumpy would be howling with laughter.  He was the consumate bullshitter and I had only begun to build my bull shit detection skills.   They were primative and I was prone to being easily manipulated by a persistant story.

While there never was a physical document, in time we were able to joke about the alleged contract.  In fact, our pact turned out to be deeper than any piece of paper could ever capture.  There were the countless hours on the golf course he would spend with me when I know he would have rather hit the links with his friends.  When we moved to Traverse City, there were a few trips to talk with me for just a few hours before making the four hour trek home.  There were trips to Idaho to visit family and trips to Washington, DC.  All of these things were done at a time in my life where I was very angry with the world.  Gumpy had a hair trigger temper too and only lost his with me once that entire time.

In college, I was fortunate enough to be able to go back to the farm at least once a week when Ema and Gumpy were in Vermontville.  We did a ton of chores together, breaking concrete in the barn or sawing down a tree.  We were always fixing something together then driving to Nashville to play a little cow pasture pool at Mulberry Fore.

Since we spent a lot of time togther during those days, I heard many stories about years as a young adult as he tried to relate to me.  There was a culvert on the drive to Bird Lake where he and his two best friends would hide their beer to keep it cold.  There was the bar fight in Toledo.  There were tons of baseball stories and stories of his brother Vernal.  I learned about how much he loved his sister and how my grandparents struggled to help her raise her kids when her husband refused to try.  I learned about my grandfather as a friend and as a man.  The Best Buddy Contract turned from a noose around my neck to the best gift I could have ever recieved.

He stood next to me at my first wedding as my best man and he stood by me when I went through my divorce.  While it seemed that almost everyone in my life was busy condeming me, he told me he loved me and that I would get through this.  He loved me as a grandfather loves a grandson, as a father loves a son and as a best friend loves his best friend.

After his cancer diagnosis, I realized that it was my turn in the Best Buddy Contract to start doing things for him.  There were the few times I helped him shower.  There were several trips to hospitals.  In time, I learned his medical history well enough to give Ema a break when the hospital staff started with the questions.  There were trips to resturants for pie when Ema was not around because he just wanted something that tasted good.  There was the trip home from Florida the year after his diagnosis.  There were a few times I would hug him and let him know his fight was not in vein.  I had been given a chance to show Gumpy just how much I appreciated everything he had ever done for me and I tried not to waste an opportunity.

May 29, 2009 was the last time I was able to talk with Gumpy.  I reiterated my pledge to take care of Ema, my mom and my sister.  I was able spend a few hours with him telling him all of my favorite stories of our time together.  He would squeeze my hand at certain parts of stories, so I know that he heard me despite being in a pain medication induced haze.  Before Gladys and I left that night, I told him I was glad he made me sign that Best Buddy Contract and I was proud to have the opportunity to help him just as he had helped me.  I will always be his best buddy.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Gumpy's Hole-In-One

Among the many memories I have of playing cow pasture pool (Gumpy's favorite term for golf) with my grandfather, one of the most exciting was the day he hit a hole-in-one.  It was a somewhat cloudy day, just warm enough for shorts but cool enough to keep us moving.  In the early days, we always walked the course so the little exercise we got walking was enough to keep us warm.

We arrived at the ninth hole of the original nine at Centenial Acres in Sunfield, MI.  My memory of the exact time of day this happened is a little fuzzy given it has been over 20 years since he hit the shot heard around Vermontville.  Since the grounds keeper was still mowing the greens, I am assuming it was still fairly early.

The ninth hole was always a little deceptive.  I say was because the course added a third nine several years ago, changing the original links I learned to play on.  It was a par 3, approximately 160 yards to the pin depending on placement.  The green followed the natural contour of the hill that climbed up around the creek that ran through the middle of the course.  The tee box was at the base of the hill, so when Gumpy hit his drive and we lost track of the ball, nothing seemed unusual.

I hit my drive and it did not go far.  Sometimes I would try to muscle the ball up to the hole, instead of taking a nice, relaxed swing which always resulted in frustration.  I aimed for the east side of the green at the top of the hill so my ball might roll toward the hole.  I put the shot a little short of the green, on the surface Gumpy called the frog hair.  He went looking for his ball while I chipped onto the green.

Gumpy could not find the ball anywhere.  After my chip shot, I started to help him look.  It did not make sense that the ball would have gone into the woods because it did not seem like Gumpy hit it hard enough for the ball to make it to the woods.  There was a little sand trap, but the ball was not there either.  The grounds keeper had stopped mowing and was waiting for us to finish up, so Gumpy decided to drop another ball and take the penelty.  I went to pull the flag for his putt.

I do not recall exactly what I said, but what ever I said Gumpy came running.  The grounds keeper came off his mower to congratulate him.  He stayed on the mower because he wanted to see the surprise on our faces.  Trust me, we were both surprised!  After a few minutes of hootin' and hollerin' I putted out and we went to the clubhouse with the grounds keeper to register the hole in one.

Gumpy saved that ball.  It is with the Hole-In-One trophy he recieved to commemorate the occasion.  His picture appeared in the newspaper too.  Gumpy was normally a pretty happy guy, but I do not remember a time where he was quite so jubulant!  

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why I Golf

My grandfather loved golfing.  I think the impetus of his retirement was rooted deeply in the idea that he would have more time to golf more than it was the idea of no longer punching a time clock every day.  He observed that a lot of business was conducted on the golf course, so he encouraged all of us to learn the game.  This observation lead to my mom, her siblings, my grandmother, my sister and I to all learn at least the basics of the game.

For my Aunt Mary, this turned out to be a fairly useful skill while she worked for a law firm in Lansing.  It seems that she was just good enough to be a ringer for some ones winning foursome, earning her prizes at the annual company golf outing.  I ended up winning a few trophies in a youth league and played on the golf team my freshman year of high school.  As a family, our claim to fame was that we never completely embarrassed ourselves on the links.

My golfing education started when I was eight.  Gumpy had a set of clubs cut down for me.  He would take my sister and me to the driving range at Centennial Acres in Sunfield, MI to knock out a bucket of range balls.  Lessons came soon afterward but the game only held a slight interest for me for several more years.

Golf did not really make sense for me until the summer my dad left.  I was 13, confused about why dad left and angry.  I was pissed off at the world to be more accurate.  Gumpy had retired that February and had recognized I needed him to take a big role in my life.  My uncle Jim had moved to Idaho with his family by then, a move that devastated my grandfather.  I refuse to say I filled Jim's shoes, but Gumpy might have needed me just as much as I needed him at that point in our lives together.  That was the summer we started to regularly play golf together.

For the next few summers, he bought me a junior membership at Centennial Acres.  We were excited when they added the second nine holes on the east side of Dow Road because the original nine was in a flood plain.  Having the last few holes flooded out for parts of the season left a little to be desired.  

Gumpy and I played almost every day, Monday through Friday, when school was out of session.  We would play as long as my attitude would allow, with the ultimate goal being to make it through at least nine holes.  His rules were simple, play according to the rules.  If I threw a temper tantrum, he would start walking off the course.  I would follow because I needed the ride home.  The way the second nine holes were laid out left an easy walk back to the car after the second and seventh holes.  I know that well because we often left at those points in our game.  

Those few summers taught me so many things about being a kind, decent, respectful and loving man.  The patience my grandfather showed me every time we walked off the course after just two holes was incredible given his strong love of the game.  On the days we finished nine holes, he would treat to a snack at the clubhouse where I observed just how he treated friends and strangers, along with the good treatment he received in kind.  

To say that I am still a golfer is a bit of a stretch.  My golf clubs are currently sitting across the dining room in my apartment from me and it is probably the most time I have spent in the same general area with them since Gumpy went in for his last heart valve surgery.  I still call myself a golfer though because I know I will pick it up again.  I hope that I will be a dad soon, with a few little ones who will need time with me to learn how a respectful father and husband should act.  I plan to take them to a golf course with me when they are ready so they can learn from my grandfather too.      

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Florida Room

Heating the farmhouse was always an interesting challenge.  The Ben Franklin wood-stove that was in the living room was installed because it was suppose to help heat the house.  While it probably was a great idea, it had the effect of just heating one room to the point of boiling while the bedrooms were shockingly brisk.  Extra insulation was added to the house in an attempt to help cut down the heating bills, but the alure of cheap heat from the 40 acres of woods Ema and Gumpy had proved to be too tempting to ignore.

Eventually, the old Ben Franklin stove was replaced with the wood burning furnace in the basement.  It was hooked up to the blower for the gas furnace so the heat of the fire could be circulated evenly throughout the house.  With the exception of the basement, which is where the wood burning furnace was located.  The basement quickly became known as the Florida Room.

Keep in mind that the farmhouse was built in the 1870's.  The stone walls of the basement have long since been mortared with cement.  The floor is a combination of hard packed dirt with some cement slab thrown in.  That part of the foundation is only under the original half of the house.  The kitchen as we know it was expanded several years after the house was built and the sun porch was converted to a family room when my mom was a little kid.  Both additions sit on a very short crawlspace,  which has to make a mouse feel clostrophobic.  Most of the ceiling in the basement is so short that as an adult, I can only stand straight in a few select areas.  It is now dark, dingy and usually damp.

The Florida Room was where you would find Gumpy most winter nights because it was so toasty.  He kept a few lawn chairs down there for comfortable seating while he unthawed from various chores around the farm or dodged another of Ema's admonishments.  As a kid, I loved spending time down there with the adults.  My dad and Gumpy would sometimes have grown-up conversations that I didn't get chased from in the Florida Room.  While I hear tales of the wine he use to keep down there, I never witnessed any drinking.  Knowing Gumpy, he absolutely had at least one bottle of something hidden down there!

One winter, my Aunt Mary was unemployed and to earn money for smokes, Gumpy had her splitting wood for the furnace.  I know she was in the best shape of her life because I was in great shape for being a scrawny little kid.  Gumpy would give me a little cash just for stacking wood.  I remember thinking I must be stacking wood to the ceiling althought I'm now sure I got the many stacks at least four feet high.  After I finished my work, he would put me in charge of keeping the fire going for a few minutes.  It was a duty I always undertook with the utmost care.

The wood burning has long since been sold.  After retiring, my grandparents started going to Florida every winter, so the Florida Room was no longer a necessity.  I have not split or stacked firewood in years.  The only reason I go into the basement anymore is to make sure the sump pump works in the summer and the pipes are drained in the winter.  Cobwebs abound in the basement.  I duck everytime I go down the stairs leading from the bathroom so I do not hit my head on the wood support at the base of the stairs.  Gumpy isn't there either.  But the memory of being there with him has not faded one bit.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Meeting Gladys

Gumpy was spending a few days at my Mom's while Ema was taking a much deserved weekend off.  It was about 17 months into his treatment for pancreatic cancer, so he was fairly weak and unable to do too much without assistance.  Since I had a flexible schedule, I decided to take a few hours off and get the old boy out of the apartment while Mom was at work.

We decided that going to the Original Pancake House for some fresh buckwheat pancakes and a cup of black coffee sounded like the ideal afternoon, so Gumpy hopped in the shower to get ready.  This tended to be a laborious chore since he was unsteady but he seemed to have a lot more energy than usual, so I just sat outside the door to make sure I was close if he fell.

Our late lunch was delicious as usual.  One topic of conversation was about this new woman I was dating.  He asked a few questions about her and I asked if he was feeling up to meeting her.  When he said sure, I was pretty excited.  After my divorce, I dated a little and no other woman met my grandparents because I just did not feel introductions were necessary.

We had only been dating a month and I knew there was something special about Gladys.  She is the most intelligent woman I had ever dated.  She was (and still is) well read, modest, well spoken, polite, beautiful and understood just how important Gumpy was in my life.  She had taken care of her mother before moving to Detroit for grad school, so she could relate to the way I felt about Gumpy's health.

When we got to the Starbucks, Gumpy was already a little tired.  The chemotherapy treatments really wore him down but he was determined to meet Gladys.  He was also not one for coffee shops, his idea of the perfect place for a cup of coffee was at Ken's Standard Station in Vermontville because the coffee was cheap and the conversation was decent.  I truly expected to just stay a few minutes, especially considering how busy and loud the place was that day.

What I witnessed was my grandfather giving a great performance.  He  worked hard to be entertaining.  He flirted a little, he complemented when appropriate and told a few good stories without hesitation.  He was completely himself despite being out of his element.

An hour later, we got back in the car and headed to Farmington Hills.  Gumpy was exhausted.  When I stated that we could have left earlier and he didn't have to work so hard, he said that he knew Gladys was special to me and he just wanted to help me.  I am still grateful he just wanted to help me!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Gumpy's Birthday

My grandfather would have been 85 years old today.  He liked to joke that he had done pretty well for someone who was born with just three belly bands to his name.  I would say he was pretty accurate in that assessment, given how poor his parents were and how much he accomplished.  He was full of sayings like that, so this post starts a listing of my favorite Elbert Carpenter sayings.

"He wouldn't be happy if he were hung by a brand new rope."  This was coined by his father after someone in Waldron had committed suicide.  Despite it's macabre origins, it became a way for the family to describe someone who is never satisfied or happy.  

"Can you hand me my watchie?"  Gumpy could never remember the name of anything.  Ever.  In time, I came to learn exactly what he was looking for.  

"Well, I'll be jiggered!"  Always an expression of mild surprise.

"That will make you a man before your mother."  "That will put hair on your chest."  Both were used when he was trying to cajole someone into doing something.  He would say them to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

"Oh, BALLS!"  Ema will blush when she hears I put this out for public consumption.  Instead of swearing using the typical epitaphs, he would holler "Oh, Balls!"

"That's slicker than the hair on a schoolmarm's leg!"  Once, I used this phrase in front of him and he began question what I knew about schoolmarms since he was the authority.  

"I'm so hungry, I could eat the ass hide off a skunk!"  A phrase only used once and he did not remember saying it.  Early in his treatment for pancriatic cancer, he was rushed to the emergency room and was fairly well medicated for pain.  He had been in and out of consciousness for several hours when he sat straigh up in bed and made his very clear declaration of how hungry he was.  He then laid right back down without another peep for a few more hours.  I do have witnesses that will corroborate my story.

I hope you laugh a little with me today as I remember my best buddy!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Wedding Day

A good friend of mine (who also happens to be my wife's best friend) got married a few days ago.  Gladys and Alicia did an incredible amount of work to get the church set perfectly for Alicia's wedding.  I got in on the typical duties of a man, carrying and lifting heavy things.  There was enough to do to keep me distracted, until it was time to get ready to leave for the church.

A lot of memories of Gumpy came flooding back to me while I was getting my clothes ready.  He use to harass Ema for a Turkish towel if they were going to a wedding so he could mop up his tears.  He would tell her he was crying because another poor man was loosing his freedom.  While it was a funny joke, it was also a little ironic because he never stopped being in love with my grandmother.

I remembered how proud I was at my first wedding because he was my best man.  Just two years before, he had undergone a quadruple bypass, so his stamina did not allow him to be as active as he wanted to be.  But it was great to have my best friend standing next to me, smiling because he was genuinely happy for me.  Gumpy and Ema left our reception soon after he gave his toast because he was exhausted, yet it meant the world to me that he was there.

I know my mom and my aunt have great pictures of him at their weddings with that same smile.  The one that acknowledged he was happy for us.  There was no mourning in that smile, or sadness for that matter.  Just pure joy that we were happy and love for each of us.  I will always miss that smile.