On the evening of December 12th, just a few days after what would have been my grandparents 71st wedding anniversary, we had a final Happy Hour for my Grandpa Bill. My Grandpa and Grandma had lived in the same house, the house he built, since the early fifties. There they built their life with their 2 young daughters and began to invite community in. For decades the La Cresta house was open to the world at 5pm every Friday.
As I’ve grown into adulthood I started to realize that this was something special. Flipping through pictures of happy hours gone past I can see the story of an entire lifetime of what happens when we welcome people in, when we create a place to gather, when we make sure that people know they’re always welcome. There are pictures of neighbors who have all become close family friends, pictures of relatives and friends, pictures of their daughters and their husbands and children. But there are also pictures of ex-boyfriends, ex-wives, and ex-husbands. People who in another family might have disappeared in the sands of time. After my Aunt Kelly and her first husband Werner divorced he continued to be friends with my grandparents, come to dinner, and eventually returned to happy hour after a respectful break. He even brought his new wife who is just as much family now too even after my uncle has passed.
Sometimes people would show up 20 years later, I guess remembering the tradition and coming home to it after a long wander out in the world. Some people were regulars for a long time, and then moved away, sometimes people traveled from across the country to come once a year, people came in and went out over the years. But always the gathering around the little wooden counter in their kitchen, or sometimes in the living room if we overflowed their tiny kitchen, drinking cheap wine or champagne, and catching up on life and the news of the day.
Maybe it was just so normal for all of us that we didn’t even realize the place it had at the center of our lives until it was gone… or maybe others realized. But I know that as I contemplated his passing as I rushed to the airport that day it was the feeling of communal loss that hit me hardest. I have loved all of my grandparents equally, I don’t think love works by ranking who we love the most. But I have felt his loss perhaps more deeply as I can feel it rippling through so many people to whom he was dear, and for whom he played a pivotal role in their lives. There was this domestic inviting people in, but he also introduced a lot of people to the wilderness, taking people backpacking, biking, skiing, skin-diving, kayaking, and more. He was always trying to get new people out. He wanted to share his joy of adventure and the wilderness with as many people as possible, especially children. In addition to the neighborhood kids he also guided trips for girl scouts and other groups of kids.
So at Bill’s last happy hour on December 12th there were almost 100 people, including 7 who had video-conferenced in from other parts of the country. There wasn’t much of a plan except for my dad to share some words and open up the floor to stories about Grandpa from his life with us. There was no microphone, no planning, no order to it- just a simple open place to stand and share whatever happened to move inside us of the love we felt for him and the lives we all wove together. I was amazed that the stories didn’t stop for 2 hours.
We heard stories of off-trail misadventures with neighbor kids, parties with moonshine from his old farm still, skiing and kayaking trips with friends of his. He kept adventuring until he was about 85 so at some point he went out with friends of my dad and uncle as many of his friends weren’t able anymore, or had passed. There were stories of kindness and generosity, stories from people who felt adopted by him and my grandma, stories of mischief and falling drunken into a cactus with a smile on his face. I really wish we could find the photo of that… stories of fun and wildness.
Before this night I had no idea just how much I longed for these stories, longed longed longed for them. I was nourished so deeply. Because I didn’t know how long the stories would go on for each one touched me more deeply than the last, each one deepened my sense that I was witnessing his ripple, witnessing his life reflected back to me through the words and hearts of others. As I felt his impact living on in all the people who were gathered I also felt a growing and profound sense of pride in him. He acted like he was just a normal guy, but as I listened I kind of got it that he was spectacular in a humble way. I am feeling to inspired to be more like him- to help more people get outside, to find a way to make my home a home for others, to love others more and better.
By the time I was a teenager, old enough to start appreciating these things about him he was already in his late 70s. But I still remember him coming to join us at the La Jolla cove on Sunday morning in his short wetsuit, putting on his mask and snorkel and swimming out to the quarter or half mile buoy. He didn’t wait for us, he just got in and started swimming. He was slow and used the snorkel so he could keep his face in the whole time he swam. He just plugged away and sometimes we’d meet up at the buoy if the timing worked out, but we’d always meet up at the Pannekin for coffee and bagels after. It was our church. I learned that night that this was another tradition he started, dragging my Aunt Mary out with him to slap down the masses of kelp floating at the surface on that inaugural swim.
I remember taking him out to tea a few years ago, before his stroke, and asking him if he had any advice, or if there was anything really important he’d learned in his life. He said to me “just love people” and nodded. I could see it in his eyes. He added “People are all the same, want and need the same things.”
I remember how he would always ask me to come over for dinner and a visit when I was in town and we would talk politics, school, and all of what had been going on in our lives. I will always remember that he asked and really listened. He asked questions. He engaged deeply. He was curious what other people thought about and were learning.
Back at our last Happy Hour for him the stories continued right up until the day he died, with the caregivers getting up to share that the week before he passed he rose from his wheelchair to ask my grandma to help him get to the store and buy wine for happy hour. He didn’t remember that my grandma didn’t drive anymore, or that many of us brought our own beverages now. Ever the host, the welcomer of all, he wanted to provide something for whoever might show up. No one knew it would be his last happy hour, he stopped eating a few days later and passed almost a week later on Thursday, curled up on his bed holding hands with my grandma.
My grandpa was both grand and humble, a badass and a sweetheart. He wasn’t a perfect man, made mistakes, and hurt the people closest to him sometimes. And still the main thing he was concerned about especially as he approached his door was making sure his wife and daughters knew he loved them, and how much. God grant that we are forgiven our mistakes and can be remembered for the love we felt and wanted to share. God grant that the imperfections are less important than how we try. He told us frequently that he loved us, and he asked his caregivers if they thought we knew. We know grandpa. We know because your whole life was an expression of this.
I will always remember that as his memory failed and he lost track of how old he was or what his physical capacities were he often spoke of taking up new sports, new hobbies, getting a dog, going backpacking with me… his identity never revised to someone who was tired of life or ready to be done. He was engaged until the last. I hope I’m like him. And I really wish he was coming backpacking with me this summer. I think he’ll be there with us.
Maybe this is cheesy, or seems obvious to y’all, but I feel in my bones now that by living a good life, caring for people, sharing what we know, and doing something as simple as opening our door once a week to our friends and neighbors, we can make an actual difference in the lives of people. It feels like a message from the past, from rural Georgia maybe, or from that time of history. But it’s a message I’m hungry for, and maybe you are too.
There are so many stories that live on in me, as the months go on I forget the last years of his life where we were already losing him and remember more of the tapestry of our history, the longer line of our lives together when he was still pouring wine, asking questions and engaging in politics, walking to the gym every day. I am feeling the loss more deeply. I miss him. I wish I had more time with him.
But I guess this is always the way, if we’re lucky, that we’d wish for more. It’s time now, or sometime soon, for me to create in the world what I am missing in him, to step ready or not into his shoes in the way I feel inspired to. Be on the look out for happy hours and hikes in 2019.
In this new year may we all find ways small and large to live into what we desire, long for, and need. May we invite each other in, may we love each other well, may we forgive everything, may we strive for something meaningful to us and do what we love, may we live every single day so fully, may we keep our faith in humble efforts, may we give of our hearts… may this year see all of you so well, surrounded by love and people who inspire you.