I Didn’t Know Ponds and Cigars Could Do That

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vintage wedding photo
Pardon the crookedness of this photo. I wasn’t planning to publish it. These are my maternal grandparents on their wedding day. I’ve always liked this photo. A lot. (Image/Matthew Fray)

That’s my grandparents on their wedding day about 62 years ago. It’s one of my favorite photos.

The handsome gentleman on the left died last night, just one week after his 85th birthday.

Father of eight. My mom’s the oldest.

Grandfather of 23. I’m the oldest.

Great-grandfather of three. My son is the oldest.

Nearly 40 years ago, my grandparents traveled 400 miles west to be with my young parents at the hospital.

My dad was 23. My mom was 21. My mom had received a college scholarship far from home, and that’s where she met my dad while she was in school.

I was supposed to be dead, according to the doctors and nurses. They told my parents and family to expect the worst.

But then I lived anyway, because I don’t always do what I’m supposed to.

My father handed my grandfather a cigar at the hospital. Wrapped in plastic. Blue ribbon.

It’s a boy.

When I was 3, my grandparents again drove west from Ohio to visit me and my parents.

While someone wasn’t looking, I decided to run off into the woods on the edge of our lot. I wandered those woods for more than an hour.

I came across an elevated storm drain spilling rain runoff into a creek bed.

While it was likely just some nasty corroded old water drainage infrastructure, it looked magical through the prism of a 3-year-old.

I thought it was a waterfall.

Then I wandered some more.

Eventually, I heard my grandpa’s voice cutting through the woods. Calling my name.

He must have been terrified. But he wasn’t angry. Not only wasn’t he angry, but he let me take him by the hand and blindly wander those woods again searching for that shitty waterfall I was so excited to show him.

I never found it again.

He never got angry with me.

Not long before my 5th birthday, my mom and dad divorced and then my mom and I moved into my grandparents’ big farmhouse with them in rural Ohio.

They lived on 43 acres, which felt to me like Oz.

They had a small pond, just a little over an acre in size on the other side of a field, far enough to drive to.

There was a little one-room wooden cabin with an old cast iron wood-burning stove that I never saw anyone light or use. Rustic. Dusty. Bugs. Smelled old.

But we called it “the cottage.” And it was perfect.

There was a weeping willow tree close by—a large one—where you could usually find the empty shells of cicadas stuck to the bark of the tree trunk.

If my grandfather wasn’t taking me on a fishing trip to a large nearby lake, or to watch me fail at fly-fishing in the river, we were catching fish at the private pond.

With his youngest son—my uncle—about to finish high school, it must have been perfect timing having me show up to live with them.

He included me in everything age-appropriate.

Not a huge talker. Not like me. He was a doer.

He didn’t really have to say anything, because what he DID was always so transparent. His actions always told the story.

We’d spend hours along the shore of that pond. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling. Landing a fish. Then releasing it. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling.

Dragonflies would buzz around. Wind would stir the trees and tall grass. Grasshoppers. Crickets. Bullfrogs.

And my grandfather.

There to help me tie a better bass-hook knot if I needed it. There to help me unsnag a hook. There to praise me when I landed another largemouth or catfish.

In a life that sometimes feels too heavy, and with a mind that sometimes feels too busy, that was where everything melted away.

The relative silence of the great wide open. The only nearby machine being that fishing rod and reel providing life-sustaining therapy I never even knew I needed.

I didn’t know fishing in a pond with my grandfather could do that.

Two years ago, my grandparents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, and my son got to be there for that. When my grandparents, both in their 80s took to the dance floor at the reception hall to share a dance in front of everyone, my great-uncle—my grandma’s brother—faux-scolded my grandpa: “Keep your hands off my sister!”

More than 60 years of marriage. Eight children. All the grandkids. Health problems. Friends dying. Watching all of the good and bad things happening to all of the branches on his family tree.

I doubt he thought of himself as the patriarch of the family, the way most of us looked at him, but that’s all I could ever see.

A man who loved and served. Steadily. For 20 years longer than I’ve even been alive.

Last summer, my family flew in from all over the country for a family reunion at my grandparents’ house. My grandpa’s last one. Everyone knew it.

I was outside talking to everyone. Someone sent word that my grandpa was asking me to come inside. He had something he wanted to give me.

His kidneys were failing. He was going through dialysis. Painfully. And he didn’t want to. But my grandmother didn’t want to say goodbye to him no matter how in love with Liam Neeson she might be.

So he persevered. Because that’s what you do when you love someone.

I sat on the couch nearest his easy chair. The man was tired. Physically weaker than I’d ever seen him.

But his eyes were clear. And so was his mind.

He asked how I was. He asked about my father hundreds of miles away. He always asked about my father.

He handed me a cigar.

Wrapped in plastic. Blue ribbon. It’s a boy.

I’d never seen it before and thought it was strange that my non-smoking grandfather was handing me a tobacco product.

“Your dad gave that to me in the hospital the day you were born. I thought you should have it,” he said.

I stared at it for a moment, digesting the implications. It looked almost new.

it's a boy cigar
This is the one. It’s resting on my bedroom nightstand. I didn’t know a little thing could be worth so much. (Image/Matthew Fray)

My father—long-divorced from his oldest daughter—had handed him a cigar nearly 40 years earlier celebrating my birth.

Then my grandpa raised eight children. Entertained hundreds of friends and family members in that old farmhouse through the decades. Ran a business. Moved to a smaller house nearby 10-15 years ago.

And throughout all of that, he took care of a cigar.

Just some crappy cigar.

Because it mattered, I suppose. Because it represented the grandson who lived when he wasn’t supposed to. The grandson he found in the woods. The one he must have thought would be somewhat of a stranger to him growing up, but was then granted an entire childhood with because of life circumstances no one ever saw coming.

I didn’t know cigars could do that.

The last thing my grandfather did was fight to stay alive as long as he could because my grandmother wanted him to.

He didn’t have to spin any stories. He’d just hand you a cigar, and you knew.

He didn’t have to tell everyone how much they were loved—particularly my grandmother.

Because he gave his last breath living it.

And if you’re guessing that’s something I can latch onto and feel proud of today, you couldn’t be more right.

30 thoughts on “I Didn’t Know Ponds and Cigars Could Do That”

  1. Wow. You’re having a lot of moments as of late.
    Just listen, feel, (all of that)… it can be bittersweet, but it’s what makes life meaningful and rich.
    ❤️ To you today.

  2. That generation – the men and women who came of age during WWII – is remarkable. My wife’s parents sound the same and from the same area (and likely, same county – Darke). They were amazing and the stuff they had to deal with and live through pale in comparison to our generation. I learned a lot from them and I am thankful for their love and friendship. As I read your post, I said a prayer for you your family as your mourn his passing. Know that you are blessed with his memory. Peace.

    1. We’ve talked about this before, I think. Yes. Darke County. Unassuming to anyone not from Ohio. About four hours from me now. But still home to my favorite outdoor spot on earth. I’ll need to stop there while I’m home for the services.

      Thank you so much for this note.

      1. You are welcome. I know your pain. There is a certain character to the men and women of their generation who call that place home and through them, we call it home. We can learn much from their character and sacrifice.

  3. So beautiful. Great man. Your grandfather. Great heart – yours – to ponder all those tender memories.

  4. Very touching. What a great legacy your grandfather leaves behind. If I had ever known my grandfather, I would wish for him to be like that man.

  5. I don’t think I could possibly love this any more than I do. What a beautiful tribute to a man who said so little and yet did so much for you. I am happy to say that I have similar memories of my own grandpa, and have carried them with me since his death more than thirty years ago. I know that you will–most gratefully–be able to do the same. <3

  6. My deepest condolences Matt. The courage wisdom and strength that I pray daily for myself is exactly what you grandfather emulated naturally. You have been blessed beyond words. Our youngest son can relate to your experience as he and my father in law were kindered spirits. Many of the values he learned from Anne and me were reinforced by the times spent fishing and whittling with “Pop”. Christopher also had seen the face of courage from my father as he too suffered with kidney failure and dialysis. Christopher is a great partner as he is empathetic, caring , selfless, a good listener and an active participant. He learned from the best. For you and your family I will light a candle in you grandfather’s memory at mass this week. Blessings always

  7. I’m sorry about your loss. He sounds fantastic in the way that only grandparents can be. I love this piece as it’s a beautiful eulogy as to the kind of man your grandfather was and also a lesson in how to adult. I know you will miss him very much but I also clearly see that he lives on in the influence that he had on you and the rest of your family. Blessings.

  8. Damn. You made me cry my own tears.
    That was profoundly moving, and epic, and proof that it’s the people that show up with actions that are something special. I’m sorry about your awesome grandpa, but man.. were you lucky to have him.
    Fist bumps to great PopPop’s across the globe.

  9. Loved this piece.
    I love the way you see things and interpret them.
    Everytime I read one of your articles I cannot help thinking you are a pretty special person.

  10. Awww Matt. I’m sorry for your loss. You illustrated your relationship with your grandpa, and his relationship with his family, so beautifully. It sounds like he was a shining example of a good man. And you showed so clearly in your writing of him what it means to be a good man, and the gentle integrity your grandpa lived.

    I lost my maternal grandpa seven years ago. He was my last grandparent. Like you, after my parents divorced very early in my life, my mother and I moved into her parents’ home, where her only brother was still in high school.

    When I was little, my grandfather was my hero. The sun rose and set behind him. He built things and tinkered in his shop. To keep his little shadow out of his hair as much as for any other reason, when I was around 5, he handed me scraps of wood, and tools, and let me build things while he built his things.

    He also used to take me to work with him on weekends – he repaired pool tables, jukeboxes, and pinball machines. He’d turn on a couple of machines and let me play while he worked. And he gave me the records when he’d change out the jukeboxes.

    He took me night skiiing with him, and let me ride up front on his motorcycle with him. All that makes for a pretty special bond between a grandfather and granddaughter. And it gave me an appreciation for music, and for how things worked. It meant I wasn’t afraid when the need arose to build or fix something, or tackle changing a clutch or rebuilding an engine.

    I know how hard it is losing that kind of relative. Because of family dynamics, I was his caregiver at the end. Even though he lived to nearly 91, even though he was so very ready to leave by then, it was still so hard losing him.

    Thank you for sharing with us who your grandpa was. And for sparking my memories of mine. I wish you gentle healing, Matt, with the quiet joy of your memories of your grandpa, who was a rare gem of a man.

  11. I am sorry for your loss.
    Also, that is one stunningly good-looking couple in that photo!

  12. Your description of your grandpa brought me to tears. My great uncle was that kind of man. Never met anyone else like him. It’s true….certain men of that generation were just beyond measure in their patience and ability to share their world with quiet enthusiasm. So sorry for your loss.

  13. Great piece and GREAT memories of your Grandpa.

    My grandpa suffered a stroke in December 2011. I thought for sure that was it for him. He fought back. He lived just shy of 2 months in a nursing home, suffering a presumed secondary stroke, and dying barely able to speak.

    His last words to be, on February 13th, were “I Love you Mary”. His last breath came on February 15, 2012.

    My grandmother joined him on February 12, 2016.

    I’ve always admired their love story, and was horribly saddened by not getting to dance with this man at my wedding (in October 2012).

    I wonder what he would have to say to me now, 6 years later, facing divorce?

    Maybe nothing at all. Maybe everything.

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Matt. He sounded like a wonderful inspiration to you.

  14. Pingback: Should We Get Married? (Part 1) | Must Be This Tall To Ride

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Matt Fray

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