Believe it or not, this post is the reason I stopped blogging in the summer of 2014. I felt that, until I was able to make a coherent goodbye to this man, I really had no right to keep on writing. I brushed people aside with “It’s not time yet” (without them knowing what exactly I was waiting for) every time they’d ask about my blog. Well, last week I cheated and threw together a few posts. Then the time was right. Then I finally wrote it. So, here they are, two years late, but written today: my memories of Grandpa Carpenter.
For years–As long as I’d known him, really–he was in a wheelchair due to an accident in the early 1950s where his cervical spine was broken. I’d hate to say that a guy in a wheelchair is defined by his wheels, but for me it kind of was. I was seven, having just left California. Just seeing a man in a chair kind of does a thing to you. Grandpa could walk, if slowly and staggering, early on. But by the time I was headed to college 10 years later, he was almost completely stuck in his chair.
I didn’t know him in 1950 of course. But when we’d met, his accident was about 25 years in the past. He was constantly in lots of pain. He self-medicated until the 1990s. His speech was garbled, and he was almost impossible to understand at times–the spinal injury was way up in his neck. His hands and limbs worked only barely, and the drinking made it even worse. He could have quite a temper.
They lived in a double wide trailer next door, although this being rural Southern Oregon, “next door” was about 300 yards from our woodshed. Sometimes when things got bad you could hear him shouting at grandma. Still, they stayed married right up until the end. It wasn’t all bad. It was certainly unique, and tough to process when I was young.
Every time I’d remind myself that the guy was in constant pain for decades, I’d find I’d developed a kind of respect for him. He saw his fit body deteriorate. He was a state champion high jumper in high school, 20 years before the advent of the Fosbury flop, which meant he basically jumped face first over a pole into a pit filled with wood chips and hay. He tried to teach me, from his wheelchair, the proper angle to really nail a jump, back when I was trying it back in Junior high school. I never cleared five feet, even though I was over six feet tall. He was working in the woods as a logger until the late 1960s/early 1970s when it became simply too hard to move. He was raised in the town of Carpenterville, founded by his father and (I believe) his uncles, just a couple miles south of our home. He had an excellent vocabulary, and according to my stepfather, “[my] Dad was the one in the family who could spell. None of the rest of us were any good at it. Dad could spell anything.” It was at his home I first heard the songs “Barney Google” and “Big Wig in the Wig Wam,” which wouldn’t get out of my head for weeks afterward. He had a small collection of about 100 records: country, big band, I don’t know what else. I wish now I’d been able to listen to each one of them. According to Grandma, in the 40s he used to play the hawaiian guitar at local dances.
As if his body was mocking him, when I knew Grandpa, he was forced to write with a novelty pencil. You know what I’m talking about–the kinds that are 2 feet tall, and the the diameter of a big man’s thumb, that you buy at a beachside resort. He loved fishing, hunting, my mom’s pie, a good pot of beans, venison stew, and salty snacks. Every once in awhile , we’d hear a blast from next door. It was grandpa, “Shooting at the goddamn blue jays,” he’d announce with a frown when I used to go over to visit.
Every year we had Christmas eve at their house, with the whole family (he had six kids, including my dad), enjoying a family potluck and presents. The place was always packed with family coming and leaving, dropping off presents. A few times, friends of Grandpa’s would drop by to “share a bottle with Charles.” Every Christmas, his mother (My Great Grandma Pauline) would buy him a good, thick set of shirts, the long-sleeved kind with buttons down the front. But every year–whether Great Grandma was in defiance of his injuries, or just forgetfulness, we will certainly never know–those shirts would go home with someone else in the family, because his hands wouldn’t allow him to work the buttons and his pride wouldn’t allow somebody else to do the buttoning for him. Some Christmases, the kids would get together to buy him something big: one year they called in a roofing contractor to build a sturdier roof for them. Another, they’d supplied him with satellite television.
I remember him roaring with laughter at the television show Alf (here’s no accounting for taste, I guess). He loved his little dog Daisy, the fattest wiener dog ever to exist. She had run of the house. Later, he also loved to have cockatiels, who were never in their cages, and which he accidentally ran over in his wheel chair more than once. The cockatiels loved him, and they’d follow him as he rolled around the house like he was their mother.
For me, he always had an enormous smile and a hearty greeting whenever I came over. He never shouted at me, except that one time, very early on, when he caught me hanging outside on his clothesline (with that act, I got my first-ever Oregon spanking). Even though he didn’t have much, he’d always offer me something to eat. They usually seemed to have Planter’s nuts, and Hickory Farms sitting around.
From the very beginning, even though I was his step-grandson, he never treated me as anything other than as if I were his own. When he died he had eleven grandchildren, 17 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. He loved us all, and was very proud of us. I think we all knew it by his smile. I’ll probably miss that the most. Thanks, Grandpa, for for giving us so much good family, and also Barney Google. It took me 20 more years, and the invention of the Internet to find out who the world he was. But I still think of you with fondness.