Friday, November 10, 2006

The Life of a Great Man

Ed Bradley passed away yesterday after a long battle with Leukemia that he kept secret from the world. Watching his CBS co-hosts being interviewed last night, it was clear that they were stunned, and will miss him greatly. I will too, even though I never met him.

By the time Mr. Bradley joined 60 Minutes in 1981, I had been watching the show for most of my teen-aged life; it was a requirement of life growing up in my grandfather's house that the TV would play 60 Minutes at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. It was his favorite program then, and it probably still is. Over the years, my interest in watching the show has come and gone, but even after 25 years, I somehow thought of Bradley as "one of the new guys" on the show. Still, I've always thought that if, for some wild reason, 60 Minutes was going to interview me, I'd want it to be Ed Bradley asking the questions. He always seemed like the kind of guy that was just having a conversation with his subject rather than poking a spotlight into the dark places in their lives (I think Mike Wallace is an outstanding journalist, but I would feel very uncomfortable being interviewed by him). Now, it seems, no matter how famous I might become, someone else will have to interview me.

That was yesterday, and this is today. Today is the day my grandfather, 38-year fan of 60 Minutes, starts what hospice calls "comfort care" that will last the rest of his life, which will be another few weeks. He's been dying of cancer for the last several months (it was too advanced by the time it was discovered to fight it), and now, two weeks before his 88th birthday, it seems the end is near.

I'm sad for my grandfather's passing. It's a selfish sadness, because I don't fear for him and what is to come, but for me and how I'll live my life without him. For better or worse, he made me the man I am, and I'm happy with that. That, by the way, is something I've never told him. I have to do that soon, as there's a tradition of things not going unsaid between us and time is short.

I'd like to take a little time to tell you some things about him, much like an abstract sketch of a very rich and well-lived life. He was born Alonzo Debs Leland Winters, third child and only son to Ivan and Melinda Winters, in 1918. His two sisters, Velda and Marie, nicknamed him "Deelee," a name mostly used to keep their much-younger brother in line ("Deelee! Come here!" or "Deelee! Stop that!").

At the age of 17, just after his mother's passing, Alonzo "Deelee" Winters joined his father, a cook on a Merchant Marine ship, as the cook's mate. A couple years later, he joined the U.S. Army and went off to fight World War II. At enlistment, knowing that having a name like Alonzo Debs Leland Winters would bring more grief than it was worth, he legally changed his name to Dee Lee Winters. Years later, my mom would name her first born son James after her brother and Dee after her father.

It's my understanding that, shortly after I was born, my grandfather saw me in the hospital, the first of his nine grandchildren, and said, "That's a Zeke if I ever saw one." From that day forward, I was "Little Zeke" to his "Big Zeke." That lasted until I was in high school when, hearing me call him "Zeke," the neighborhood kids thought that was his name and started using it. Not wanting intruders in our exclusive club, I decided that I would rather not use the nickname than share it with anyone. After all those years of calling him "Zeke", I couldn't just start calling him "Grandpa;" I had to come up with something else. After mulling it over for some time, I landed on "Pappy," a nickname that has stuck ever since.

In 1951, Dee Lee Winters, a young body and fender man and divorced father of three, met and married Dorothy Louise Day, widowed mother of two (his "older woman" by a whole eight months). The two struggled to make ends meet their entire lives, sometimes living in a travel trailer with the two kids they had custody of, sometimes both working to pay the bills. They always had a garden, for the love of the Earth and the low cost of the harvested produce, and there was always food on the table. Family came first, always.

One day when I was a teen, a call came from his sister Velda that her husband had passed away. She found herself mired in a collection of junk (or "junque" as Pappy likes to write, for its association with "antique") from which she had no way of digging herself out. "I'll be there this weekend," Pappy said as he hung up the phone. Seeing the import of the situation in his eyes, sensing an adventure, I said, "I want to go," not even knowing where or what was happening. That weekend, we spent three days at hard labor sorting out a lifetime of pack-ratting (an affliction that affects our entire family), tucked away at night in the spare bedroom in Aunt Velda's attic. For him it was somber duty, helping pick up the pieces left after a sudden death in the family. For me, it was a grand adventure for a hero and his sidekick, spiced up with an opportunity to peek into a storehouse of family history.

The trip to Stanwood was just one of many adventures we had over the years. Another year we decided to take an early fishing trip over to Eastern Oregon to one of our favorite spots, Paulina Lake. We figured to get there early before all the good ones were caught; just one quick weekend away from the distractions of small-town living. We got there Friday night after a long drive, got camp set up and the boat in the water, then bundled up in our sleeping bags in the back of the truck. Our decision to make an early trip showed its folly as we shivered all night with the cold. The next morning, happy to be up and moving and looking forward to the rising sun, we found Pappy's denture cup frozen solid, his teeth suspended in a giant ice cube. "What now?" I asked, wondering how he was going to get through breakfast. Always the innovator, he whipped out a saucepan, fired up the gas stove, and got some water boiling. After a few minutes the teeth were free of their binding. With a toothless, yet triumphant grin, he fished the plates out of the pot and popped them in his mouth. As quick as they went in, they came out again. It seems they got hotter than he'd thought in the pan, and his cold fingers didn't register the temperature when he picked them up. His gums sure did, though. With a hoot of laughter that comes out when he catches himself (or someone else) doing something silly, he set the teeth down to cool on the picnic table and went about making breakfast. I don't remember whether we caught any fish or not that trip, or anything else about it. But I've retained the important bits. Funny how those things go.

I could go on for hours, recounting every adventure we had together, as well as most of the adventures he had growing up during the Great Depression or during World War II. I listened with rapt attention as he told each story over the years. He got his dentures as a young man, the result of a case of trenchmouth he caught in Burma during the war. His first car was one he and his buddies built out of parts salvaged from the junkyard. They drove it all over, causing mischief until the car fell apart and was returned to the junkyard where it was born. Once we bought 50 Sequoia redwood saplings at an auction and planted them around the perimeter of the five-acre hobby farm, Barefoot Acres, we lived on for a time. One happened to be right over a spring, and it grew at twice the rate the others did. It was well on its way to being a towering giant by the time my grandparents sold the farm and moved to Salem.

My grandfather spent over 20 years in the auto body repair business, with short stints running bicycle shops and a lawnmower repair shop, and has crafted more wind chimes and wooden gizmos than most people have seen. He raised five children, has nine grandchildren, and I've lost count of the great-grandchildren. Everywhere he's lived, the Earth has been enriched by his hand, and those around him by his heart. His regrets in life have been few, and, if you count the people that love him, his successes have been many.

I'm going to miss him when he's gone, my Big Zeke. Jen and I hope to adopt children one day, and I just pray that I do as well with them as he did with my mom and my uncle, and in later years with my sister and I. I'm sad to think that my children won't know him, except in whatever way he is reflected in me. I can tell them stories, but hours of stories just won't impart what five minutes of talking to him will. He has that way with people.

I'm going to see him tomorrow. I'll print this essay and take it along to show him. I hope he doesn't want me to read it to him, as I'll just end up crying. But like I said, the tears aren't for him, but for me. Selfish, aren't I?

Update: On December 9th, 2006, Dee Lee Winters passed from this world to the next, two weeks past his 88th birthday. A week prior, I was at his side and said my goodbyes. The drugs and the cancer had put him in a mental state where he couldn't track well enough to either read my essay or hear it read. I told him the important parts, though. "You made me the man I am, and I'm pleased with what I've become," I said, words so simple that took so much strength to impart because of their finality. He paused for a second, contemplating. I could see in his eyes that he was going to object, then decide that it wasn't the time for frivolity or false modesty. At last he nodded. Still not willing to take all the credit, he said, "You've got a good soul. You've done well by yourself and your family." Everything after that is a blur now, except the wordless final goodbye as I knelt by his bedside and held his hand. Neither of us was willng to admit that it was the last time we'd see each other, but we both knew. We also knew that there were no words large enough to be useful. So, with a squeeze of his hand, still massive after the rest of him had wasted away, leathery and course and warm and loving all at the same time, I rose, took my jacket and walked away.

Now, three and a half months later, two weeks past my 40th birthday, I've not yet cried. What I'm waiting for I couldn't tell you, I'm just waiting. I miss him so much. My grandmother, my last remaining grandparent, puts on a brave face and tries to live from one day to the next. I don't think things get easier for her as time passes, she just gets better at carrying the burden. She's a strong woman, though, and will make a life for herself without her mate.

My life goes on. Spring is coming, life blossoms around me fresh and new. I think this year I'll plant a garden, albeit a small one. And I'm going to try and go fishing with my dad. One thing I need to do for sure, though, is watch more 60 Minutes.

5 comments:

Katy Jack said...

James Dee, thank you for sharing this story of your grandfather - a man of many names. His affect on you, your life, your ways is clear. Through your words I feel that I know your granfather's spirit a little bit better... and know yours with a greater depth than ever before. My thoughts will be with you both in the weeks ahead. Love, Kate

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