Tuesday, June 17, 2014
My grandfather would have been 105 this coming week, had he lived. His name was Claude Ellsworth Redman. The people who knew him the longest called him, Claudie. He and I were very close. I was always very tight with my siblings, but in fact, up until he died, he was the person I was closest to in my family. We had a special relationship. My mother was an only child and I think in some ways, though he loved all his grandchildren and shared his affection for them equally, because I was the oldest boy, he thought of me as the son he never had. He was the person I called when anything bad or good happened in my life.
Whenever he came to visit us or I visited him, we were inseparable. We would go and do things that none of the other kids did. We would steal off on adventures. We would go fishing, visit where he lived as a boy, have strange camp outs in canvass sleeping bags, or just sit together and watch the rain. He taught me how to eat an onion or a tomato with a little salt like an apple.
My grandfather was an interesting man with an interesting history. He grew up on a farm and then after his mother died they moved into the town in Indiana where my mother was raised. They lived with his father who went to work for the railroad. I still have one of Fred’s lanterns. When Claude got older he went to the University of Indiana for a bit and studied English, but he couldn’t stay. After he got married he saved up enough to open a flower shop in town. It seems like it was a real nice place. I know that because one Christmas my older sister and her husband, my friend, gave me a framed black-and-white photo of him standing in the middle of it. I love that picture. Unfortunately, he lost his shop during the Depression. He loved that place, and I think losing it ruined him emotionally. Still he was successful. He became the personnel director for a large canned vegetable company and mostly hired, managed and befriended the migrant workers who came in to pick and live in the rustic cabins on the grounds. When anything happened at the camp he was who they called.
My grandfather was an amazingly talented man. He was adept at drawing, drafting, and woodworking. Many of the pieces of furniture in his and my grandmother’s house were beautiful and hand-made by him. He could play the harmonica. He was also an expert at card and sleight of hand tricks, which we loved when he would do them for us. At dusk we would listen to the radio in his cozy corner of the kitchen. He would line up Pall Malls in the fold-up table and smoke them one off the other. Later on we would go out on the porch and he would let fall asleep on his lap while poorly singing bastardized Irish lullabies.
One time when I was quite young we stayed with my grandparents while my mother and father were on a trip. My grandfather was working all day. When he came home one night I ran out to greet him, tripped, and cracked my head open on the sidewalk leading up to their porch. My grandmother got a towel, told my grandfather that she would make a call, and that he needed to take me to the doctor. It was the same doctor who had delivered my mother.
When we got to Dr. Hitchcock’s office he rubbed my head with a bar of soap, applied some topical anesthetic, and told my grandfather to hold my head still. He started stitching me across the forehead. I was doing my best not to cry, but it hurt so it was hard. At one point he stopped and said, “For God sakes, man, buck up.” I thought at first that he was talking to me but then I felt little drops of water falling on me and I knew that he wasn’t.
I had a lot of more great times with my grandfather after that until I turned twelve. We were my grandparents and at one point my parents had us go to visit our cousins. When we left and got home to Chicago, my father pulled me aside in our garage. He said to me, “I’m sorry, Tom, but you’re not going to be able to see your grandfather for awhile.” I asked why that was. “Because he is a serious alcoholic and lately he’s been getting worse. He saying things to your grandmother that hurt her and we need to do something.”
I was crushed for a number of reasons. My grandfather and I wrote letters to each other, but I did not see him for a long time. Then one winter day he fell on the back stairs and broke his hip so the rules were broken too. We went to see him at the hospital. My mother went up to his room and my father stayed down with us. We made big cards on construction paper and waved to him when he came to the window. After that we went to see him whenever we could. He didn’t stop drinking, and at a certain point, as he got older his doctor decided that if he did try to quit it would probably kill him. Therefore, my grandmother would go on occasional mornings to Roe’s Tavern. They would sell her a pint of something out of the back door so she wouldn’t be embarrassed, and so that Claudie could have something to sip on, when he wasn’t in bed.
When I was a freshman in college, and Claudie was 73, he started to fail. My mom and my sister, Stacia, would go down to give my grandmother some respite and help taking care of him. Stacia was great with him. She got him to the bathroom, and turned him over in his bed. I chose to ignore the whole thing; tried very hard to not to think that he might be getting ready to die.
One night my older sister, Melissa, who was at that time still at Illinois, came to my dorm room. She said she needed a book and started looking through the stacks I had on the shelves I had above my bed. The phone rang. I answered it. It was my father. Melissa ushered my roommate out of the room and closed the door. My father said “I don’t know how to tell you this, T.S., but Claudie died tonight.” I burst into tears and threw phone receiver across the room, breaking it. Melissa came back into the room and just held me.
At my grandfather’s funeral, after all the people had left the parlor to form a car procession to the cemetery, my family stood around his casket and said our last good-byes. My grandmother kissed him for the last time and told him how much she loved him. She took off his wedding ring and she handed it to me. She said into my ear, “This is for when you get married. He would want that.” My grandfather’s wedding ring is the ring my wife slid on my finger that September day, six years later, when we were wed. It was made of Depression gold, and has since shattered but I still keep the pieces in a plastic bag in my desk.
When we went back to the house after the burial, after talking with his friends and members of our family, I went down to his workshop. I found my grandmother there. She was sitting on the stool I always sat on when I watched my grandpa work and we’d talk. She was staring out into space. I could tell she had been crying. I said, “Are you alright, Grandma?” “She shook her head. “No, I’m not alright. I lost my man.”
I walked around the shop picking up tools. I said, “You know it’s sad that he didn’t believe in anything.” My grandmother wiped her nose on her handkerchief and said “What do mean? Your grandfather believed in a lot of things.” I said, “Well, I know he had opinions on politics, but otherwise… I don’t even know if he believed in God. He never went to church.” She sighed and said, “He very much believed in God and Jesus and they had a lot of conversations. He just didn’t believe God welcomed drinkers into his house. He believed in books and art. He believed in flowers because he knew what joy they brought to people. He believed in helping others. He believed in his family, especially you, because you were his son he never had. Unfortunately, the only thing he didn’t believe in was himself Keep that ring and believe in yourself."”
When I think about my grandfather I think about the importance of believing in you. Otherwise you go down some slippery slope. I am fortunate that my kids all have healthy egos so I don’t have to spend a lot of time communicating the importance of this message to them. Sometimes I have to remind myself though, and I suppose everyone has to sometimes. What’s necessary is that you do. I learned a lot from my grandfather but the most important thing I learned is that belief in yourself is critical.