A Century-Spanning Natural Man

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My grandfather was born in 1898 and died in 1996—just two years short of one hundred years old. It never fails to amaze me that I knew, personally, someone who had lived through World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the invention of the automobile as well as the atom bomb. In touching my grandfather’s hand, I felt I was touching history. He was married to my grandmother the year Abraham Lincoln’s last son died—1927. He used to watch Civil War veterans march in Memorial Day parades. He always said he had lived in two eras—the era of the horse and buggy and the era of automobiles, and life was better under the former.

Going to his mountainside cabin home was like stepping back a century in time. He and my grandmother did things the natural way—growing their own food in the summer, eating the preserves and canned goods they put up themselves throughout the winter, baking their own bread, cooking on a wood-burning stove and gathering the wood themselves. We joked that they were the original hippies! Although they had electricity and a radio, they had no TV and had never watched one. Their small amount of leisure time was spent in rocking chairs that had goatskins on them for softness—goatskins from their own goats. My mother grew up on goats’ milk. The skins of raccoons hung from the white doors of their home. Their doors had no doorknobs—only black wrought iron handles. My grandparents foretold the weather through a blown glass structure on the wall filled with red water.

The tastes and scents of their lifestyle were especially arresting. The fresh vegetables and preserves made from their extensive garden, coupled with homemade bread, made every meal an adventure in robust flavor the like of which I had never tasted, having been raised on modern conveniences like Wonder Bread. They maintained the British tradition of tea in the late afternoon, flavored with wild mint they gathered themselves. To this day, afternoon tea has profound restorative and psychological benefits for me as I maintain the tradition and remember my grandfather presiding with dignity over the white-clothed table. We picked blueberries fresh off their blueberry bushes and ate bowlfuls of them in the mornings. We drank the pure sweet well water that supplied the house.

Grandpa would take us for walks in the woods—he lived on one mountain and owned another, and both were covered in forest. He always stopped to cut us “walking sticks” first. They were for use when the trail got narrow or rough. He never got lost in the woods as I did the first time I went out by myself. I turned around once and wound up seven miles away, having spent an entire day wandering, being stung by horseflies, and fighting off panic until I broke out of the woods onto a road that led down the mountainside. A kindly farmwoman at the bottom of it let me use her phone, and I called my grandpa. Although my parents were extremely worried about me, my grandfather said he had known I was safe all along.

My grandfather believed in psychic power—continually asking me if I received his telepathic messages. When I was lost in the woods, he asked my parents for a possession of mine and he used a pendulum over it, which indicated, through psychic power, that I was lost but safe and that I would get back to them on my own. Their job was to wait until the phone call from me came. When it did, my grandfather drove in his big old black town car to pick me up at the farmwoman’s home, and I was safe.

My grandfather was a dowser, which means he found water through a divining rod. This was part of his interest in psychic phenomena. He had found their well by dowsing for it. He not only used the traditional forked stick, he had brass rods as well that dipped when water was near. My grandmother, whom he claimed had enormous but untapped psychic powers, once held the brass rods over a place they knew had an underground spring. The rods almost flipped out of her hands. The pinched, frightened look on her face showed me she was not faking it and that his assessment of her powers was accurate.

My sister and I, raised, as I said, Wonder bread and I Love Lucy, found our two-week summer visits to my grandfather, his Eastern mountains, and times gone by absolutely fascinating. It was a different world, a slower and more thoughtful world, a world where things remembered their origins. My grandfather wrote to us from his world fairly often, making up for the time and distance between us. Our ancestors on his side had fought in the Revolutionary War—one as a pamphleteer and one as an aide to General Washington. My grandfather wrote of their adventures as if they were his own, bringing the times vividly home to me and making me feel as if I were there. He seemed deeply in touch with Revolutionary times, living out the tradition and preserving it, as he preserved the natural origins of all things he came in contact with.

He inhabited and stewarded a world in tune with the seasons, a world of caring for growing things and treasuring their special natures. He allowed as little technological interference with his world as possible. The tastes, sounds, and smells of that quiet yet robust world still bring me peace when I remember them and when I remember the man who reached out of the past from a mountainside and gave his granddaughters a heritage.

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Comments from Our Readers

  "you sound like one very lucky person to have had such wonderful people in your life, love the story " - jessejean, December 16 2009 - reply

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