I had the pleasure of meeting Don Munson as my Grandpa Don. I've never known him any other way. As Grandfathers go, he's a classic. He has silver hair styled in the air of Carey Grant. He is tall and long and has wise, worn hands. He turns every single moment into a lesson of some sort, from respecting nature, to cleaning up for your mother, to driving a safe distance away from the car ahead of you. He wears plaid pants and has a clip on holly bow tie for Christmas eve and Christmas day. When Grandpa Don said he was proud of you, it was the best kind of pride. It was the kind that made you want to go out and do even better. He is everything a Grandpa should be.
I very rarely went to visit my Grandfather's regular, every-day house. We always saw each other at his home in North Chester, Massachusetts, which is 2 hours from Boston, 40 minutes from a gas station, and 20 minutes from a corner store. The house sits on the top of a mountain in the Berkshires, on a thousand acres, with no indoor plumbing and a history so old that even the wild turkeys can't tell it all anymore. The floor in the living room is scarred with worn edges from when a porcupine got in and ate it for several meals. The wood stove, a Round Oak Duplex, has windows made of micah that reflect hundreds of flames from just one. Grandpa bought this home when he had a very young family and they spent every summer there, evident in the small labels you can still find on trees that say: Garry's path, or Marl's Meadow. My mother and her siblings planted the apple trees in the back when they were small--the same one that and one late summer morning, at a very safe distance, we watched a baby bear eat his fill and shimmy back down the tree, bum first.
As a child, North Chester was a magical place where things were backwards from real life. We didn't need to wear shoes except when we went swimming in the river. Grandpa often woke us up late, late at night and we ate ice cream while everyone slept. We walked for miles, just us kids, with no adults in sight. We wanted to eat fruit because we picked it ourselves. The rules were never contested because they were rules for very important reasons: no candles upstairs. No exceptions. In the middle of the night we peed in chamber pots in the hallway. We were allowed to sit on our parent's laps and steer the car, all the way down to the swimming hole. It snowed in April.
These things changed who I was to be. Today, I squish the spiders. I clean the cat puke. I can saw apart large limbs that fall in our backyard. I know to never leave the house unprepared for anything. I see a stone wall from a country road and know that it will lead to a house. I can build a fire. I love the sounds of floorboards creaking. I eat handfuls of blueberries at a time. I love waking up hearing nothing but the birds.
My Grandfather is slowly ebbing away from us these days. It's a pain so massive that it is hard to prepare for. But his 5 children and 10 grandchildren at least have a factual understanding of what is happening, if not an emotional understanding of the vacuum it will create.
I recently went to North Chester with my husband and baby girl. It was the first time my daughter, Grace, had been there. I watched her run down the dirt road picking up fat sticks and handfuls of leaves with delight. I put her on my shoulders and pointed out all the important things: birch trees, sunshine, outhouse, fire pit, ferns, stove, wood, pine needles, mushrooms, caterpillar, birds. And periodically it was hard not to cry, because I knew, if my Grandpa Don were there, he would be so proud of his home, of his family, of his great granddaughter. And he would tell her so, as he always told me. I can still hear him saying it, his hand tight on my shoulder, his lips pressed firmly with smiles in the corners.
I love you, Grandpa Don. I will always try to make you proud.