His death was pretty ordinary. Heart attack, Alzheimer’s, age 87. But his life? Now, there’s a story. I never gave him his due, but I’m starting to appreciate him.
First, a couple stories to explain why it’s taken me so long.
We were playing Rook, a card game with bidding, tricks, trump, and a kitty that is played with a deck of cards having colors (yellow, black, green, and red) rather than suits. We’d won the bid. That isn’t surprising, because he didn’t like to lose bids. He’d collected his kitty and tossed the four cards he thought least valuable, and play began. My uncle Carl, a handsome guy with a rakish wink, was first to lead, and his team took the first trick, but I took the second. That meant it was now my lead, and whatever it was that I played that regrettable afternoon, it was not the right thing to play.
He started yelling at me. Why would I lead yellow when Carl had already invited yellow?! That was perfectly ridiculous—I knew that Carl had the 12 and his partner had the 10, and of course my partner couldn’t play trump because…
Well, who can remember? I sure didn’t know why my move was such a blunder. But he knew after the bidding, sorting out his kitty, and two tricks what everybody else had in their hands—or at least all the cards that mattered, anyway. He knew who held those cards. And he expected me to know, also. After all, it was perfectly obvious. So he was yelling.
When my mom tells this story, her comment is always, “She was his partner! Why would he be yelling at his partner?!”
But I can defend him on that point. Why would you yell at the other guys? You want them to make mistakes, right? You don’t get angry when the other guys do something stupid. You get angry when your partner screws up. So, okay, I screwed up, and he was yelling at me—that part makes sense. How I’d screwed up? That was entirely unclear.
Except that in his yelling, he was walking me through, step by step, everything I should have known and why—and why, therefore, the card I’d led was the most stupid of all possible moves. I had to choke back tears, but I actually understood what he was yelling. I hadn’t known any of it, but he was right that I could have. So I was ashamed that I hadn’t.
I was maybe seven.
I learned to count cards.
In the years to follow, Grampa and I won a lot of games of Rook together.
He played cards like he lived: aggressively, taking plenty of risks, but always knowing the score and who held the important cards. He came over from Norway in 1917. He was seventeen years old and had $35 to his name, according to the ship’s manifest recorded at Ellis Island. He left Norway because the farm he’d already been working on for years wasn’t ever going to make him rich. It wouldn’t even make him respectably poor—just tired.
He’d started chewing snus at the age of 13 while working those fields, because an older boy—farmhand, not even family—had told him it would give him energy. He said all it ever gave him was a habit. He never forgave that boy, he said, firing an enormous brown spit glob with great accuracy at a dandelion a few feet away.
Copenhagen or Skoal. He kept both around. He rarely spat, because that wasn’t polite—Gramma never would have put up with it—so he swallowed, all day and all evening. Never mind what it did to his guts. He occasionally spat for emphasis, though, and it was effective. I don’t remember ever hearing him swear. He didn’t need to. He spat.
So he came over from Norway in 1917, with his $35. The next twenty years or so are fuzzy to me. He did carpentry in New York—tall buildings. He was a lumberjack in Wisconsin. Some farm work somewhere. Probably several somewheres. More carpentry. He was one of those guys who could drive a big nail with one tap of the hammer to set the nail and one decisive stroke to finish the job. And after a few decades, he’d learned how to speak a version of English and managed to buy his own hog farm in southeastern Minnesota, near a wee town called Zumbrota. Twenty-two years after immigrating with basically nothing, he had a farm with field corn, alfalfa, hogs, a house, a wife, and two sons born in that farmhouse.
Who by the time they’d left home wanted nothing more to do with shoveling hog shit. They’d both had plenty of that. Neither of them wanted to inherit the farm Grampa had worked so hard to pull together. One of them—my dad—went to college, the first in the family to do so, and had a civil service career. “Ungrateful wretch,” you might imagine my grampa muttering, but there is no evidence of that having ever been his attitude. No, from what I’ve heard, he was quietly, sternly proud that Dad had fled the farm, gone to college, and gotten a career at a desk.
One thing Grampa was passionate about was fishing. Dad tells how Grampa was frustrated that he couldn’t fish in Norway; he said the King of England owned all the rivers. In the US, though, the laws about public water rights meant that even a humble farm boy could go fishing, and by god Grampa did just that. I’m not sure fishing was even fun to him, it was so sacred. The ritual—and I know this because I was dragged along a bunch of times—involved stopping at the corner grocery on the way out of town at minus oh dark hundred to pick up a six-pack of beer and a box of donuts. So there I’d be, standing along the Cannon River at the cold crack of dawn with my stomach cramping from the earliness of the hour, and Grampa would offer me a cold, stale convenience store donut—and of course I’d take it. My stomach still cramps at the memory of it. For himself and for Dad, that donut would be washed down with a can of beer. Grain Belt, or Hamm’s. At the crack of dawn.
Because that’s what men do when they go fishing.
Dad wasn’t so fond of the dawn’s early beer, either, so he’d set his can down on a rock nearby and make polite sipping motions from time to time.
My brother and I, though… well, we both liked beer. And we didn’t much care what time of day it was. So we’d help ourselves to a snitch of Dad’s beer when he wasn’t looking, and another, and another, and eventually when Grampa wandered over to get his second can of beer, he’d lift Dad’s, find that it was empty, and open another for him, too. Which my brother and I would slowly drink. We must have gotten pretty tipsy.
I was maybe four or five.
I still love beer, so by now a sensible reader might be wondering why this wasn’t my favorite guy in the world. Because in a way, he’d earned it, right? Counting cards? Beer and donuts? What’s not to love?
He was a dour guy. Grumpy. I don’t remember him smiling, ever. Can’t even imagine it.
He terrorized me during our annual dutiful visits. Gramma died when I was six or so—another story, I promise—and Grampa reverted to Bachelor Farmer ways the likes of which Garrison Keillor himself couldn’t describe. He was usually up by five, making the first percolator of coffee from a giant scoop of Folgers and breakfasting on last night’s leftovers reheated in a frypan before heading outside for the first round of chores. He’d come back inside in his overalls smelling to high heaven—hog shit and snus, remember?—and get breakfast started. We’re talking seven a.m., maybe. My folks wouldn’t be up for several more hours, or my brother, and I was all alone sleeping out on the living room couch—the sacrificial young one, left to defend herself. He’d look over at me with a scowl, unable to believe anyone was still asleep at such a late hour, and I’d squeeze my eyes shut hoping not to get caught awake and be forced to eat, all alone, without my parents to protect me.
A few hours later, when my folks and brother were up, it would finally be time for breakfast, and Grampa would shake the plate of scrambled eggs and bacon at us. He’d been keeping them warm for several hours, mind, so they weren’t exactly appetizing. There was no refusing when Grampa shook plates at you, though, and there was no leaving anything on your plate, either—not if you ever wanted to leave the table. There’d also be a stack of sliced Wonder bread on a plate and toaster on the sideboard, and those weird little “snack pack” boxes of cereal and the obligatory big pitcher of fresh milk, but none of these were things I recognized as food.
These breakfasts were ordeals. At least when we got up before dawn to go fishing, there was beer.
Lunches and dinners were even worse, but I won’t go into that.
Remember that pot of coffee? Well, it was gone by the time he started making our breakfast, so he’d add another scoop of Folgers and more water, and he’d do that a bunch more times throughout the day, so that by after dinner when we were playing cards and the adults were having coffee, the percolator was filled at least halfway with the day’s accumulation of grounds. It was not weak dishwater, that coffee.
I went to college not far from Zumbrota, so whenever my folks came for a visit, they’d stay with Grampa, and I’d have to make an appearance. My first visit was at dinner time, and when he offered coffee after dinner, I said yes, please. My dad gave me a funny look, which I dismissed with a wave of, “I drink coffee now—you know that!”
Grampa brought me a cup of brown sludge so strong it wouldn’t just have stood the spoon up, it would have eaten through the spoon.
I took a sip. It was toxic.
Suddenly I remembered how Grampa made his coffee, all day long adding another scoop and more water to the percolator, and I knew why Dad had given me that funny look.
I hissed at him, when Grampa was out of the room, “You could have warned me!”
“You won’t again.”
Another year I made my visit on a Saturday. I arrived late morning, and Grampa offered me coffee.
Dad was right, I didn’t forget again. I said, “No, thank you.”
He offered me tea. I remembered my mom’s warning that the hot water came from a coffee pot. I said, “No, thank you.”
He offered eggs and bacon. No!! Pancakes. No, thank you. Pie. Eww. Cake. Fruit soup. Jell-O. Bananas. M&Ms. Ice cream.
The list was starting to get ridiculous.
That’s when I remembered the rule: Norwegians offer you refreshments when you enter their homes. They keep offering until you accept something.
A glass of wine?
It was 11am. Where would it go from here?
I couldn’t risk it. I accepted a glass of wine. At 11am.
Dad had been silent the whole time, hiding behind his newspaper, but now I noticed the newspaper was jiggling. He was laughing. He let a corner droop and peered over it at me with a crooked grin.
I hissed, “You could have warned me!”
“You won’t again.”
I didn’t get another chance. That had been my senior year at college, and the next year I was in Illinois, at grad school, when Grampa finally had the heart attack that ended his long, hard-working life.
And now a few of the things that I usually forget to tell about Grampa.
He was endlessly resourceful. After his several lifetimes’ worth of jobs, there weren’t a lot of skills that had eluded him—other than cooking. And driving. Uff da—riding in his car was harrowing.
He grew the sweetest strawberries around, and he grew lots of them. Strawberries are a lot of work. If you want any kind of yield, you have to do all kinds of cutting and replanting and weeding and fertilizing, and I don’t even want to know what else goes into it, but it’s not easy, and it’s not straightforward. He did it year after year, and thanks to that, there were always walls of quart Mason jars filled with strawberries in his basement, and they showed up yearround on the table—for ice cream, in pies, in the ubiquitous fruit soup, on cake, in the Jell-O (“Yell-O,” he called it).
He could do all the carpentry he ever needed, and he even made some furniture out of scraps that he picked up at nearby lumber mills. I inherited a music cabinet he made for my gramma, who was a piano teacher. It wasn’t the most refined cabinetry work you’ve ever seen, but it was designed well for the job and was even pretty in its way. A few years ago I passed it along to my nieces.
I’m not sure when he found time for wood-carving, but he learned that, too. He learned how to do the ultimate woodcarver’s trick, shaping a solid, linked chain out of a chunk of wood, and he made lots of puzzles and random gewgaws as well as useful household objects. None of them were all that pretty, but just being able to make them was impressive enough.
His lumberjack years weren’t for nought. I remember as a kid staring out the window one afternoon when I was supposed to be napping, watching him throw an axe. It was the dead of winter and probably ten below zero, but he was stripped down to his long-johns and dripping sweat, and by the end of my naptime he had a cord of wood split and stacked.
He did pretty well as a farmer, too—in fact, he was quite progressive, always reading the latest agricultural science and heeding the call of progress, plowing the alfalfa under, or letting a field sit fallow, when everybody around him thought that was just foolishness.
For one reason or another, there wasn’t going to be a big inheritance to pass along. But he did have a little money after he retired and sold the farm, and he wanted to take care of his nine grandkids. He’d decided that the little bit there was wouldn’t make much of a difference to us whenever he’d get around to dying and we were all grown—that it would matter to us more on the cusp of our twenties—so he let it be known that a modest sum would be available to each of us as we edged into adulthood.
When I was a junior in college, I had an opportunity to upgrade to a seriously good horn. I was a music performance major and planning my career as an orchestral horn player, and I had a chance to buy a hand-made, custom-made professional model horn of a sort that I’d tried once and found amazing. I talked to my folks, who checked in with Grampa, and a few weeks later, I’d spent my inheritance. That horn got me into a top grad school, won me quite a few auditions, and has seen me through several decades as a freelancer. I’m still using and loving that horn today, and it’s heard here on most of the daily Kaddishim.
Grampa was right. When he died a few years later, that money would have been nice, but it wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much as the money that bought me the horn that got me into grad school and gave me a career.
I guess he didn’t forget arriving in the New World as a teenager with $35.
A kaddish for my grumpy grampa, Henry Vang, b. Norway 1900, d. Minnesota 1987.