I usually only post once a week, but I inadvertently started a tradition of celebrating a family member’s birthday with a post. In April there was a post about mom’s calling at the worst times. In September, my grandmother’s constant advice, “this too shall pass”, inspired this post on her birthday. Today I want to celebrate my uncle’s birthday. He’s a gifted storyteller. Since I’ve moved back to my hometown, I’ve spent time seeking his stories. Here’s my take on one of his gems. I hope I do it justice…
After high school, I left my hometown for college. I whirled around a few cities and states for law school, my career, marriage and eventually kids. Even though I wanted to come back home, I kept finding something that I deemed more important. That all changed when I had kids.
We wanted our children to learn from their relatives. We wanted them to feel the unconditional love and support of family members. Accordingly, we finally came back home.
Once we moved home the children were not the only ones enjoying more time with their relatives. I was too. One uncle and I established a monthly coffee date. Early in the am we meet and we chat.
He tells me stories about his life. He tells me stories about his grandchildren. He tells me stories about his childhood. He tells me stories about the grandmother I never met. I listen intently, trying to soak up every word about the relatives that came before me.
Blame it on ignorance of my youth, but I never sought these stories until now. Until I had my own children. In my quest to learn more about their family for them, I am learning about my family.
At one meeting, my uncle told me about his grandfather, my great grandfather. An avid gardner and winemaker, my uncle called him Grandpa. Despite the familiar name, my uncle described his grandfather as unapproachable.
My uncle remembers his grandfather spending most of his time watching his bountiful garden. Yet my great grandfather’s nails never shared the secrets and tell-tale signs that most gardeners’ hands shared.
His clothing was tidy and pressed. His wardrobe hung neatly in the closet alongside perfectly polished boots. His tools hung neatly against the house. So shiny they looked more like a display than items used daily.
My uncle also noticed wine barrels lined up in the basement. Four large wine barrels and one small one.
At 14, my uncle mustered the courage to speak to his unapproachable grandfather. “Grandpa, I see you here staring at this beautiful garden, but I never see you working in it. Your tools hang so orderly and clean it’s as if they haven’t been used. And your clothes and boots, they are so polished and pressed, they cannot be the clothes of a man who toils and maintains this abundant garden.”
My great grandfather gazed back, measuring his words before finally speaking. He explained that he works in the garden at four am, before the sunrises, because that is when it is best to work in the garden. He continued that he ends his routine by cleaning his precious tools. He carefully returns them to their resting places to be preserved for the next day’s work.
“I am finished before nine am,” he continued. At which time he showers and changes out of his gardening clothes into his clothes for the day. He then remarked that it would rain that day.
“How do you know it will rain today?” my uncle asked his grandfather.
My great grandfather replied that he watches nature. He advised my uncle to do the same and he would learn.
Pleased by his grandfather’s answers and willingness to converse, my uncle continued his questions, “The wine barrels, you have four large wine barrels and one small wine barrel. What’s the small one for?”
My great grandfather explained the every few years the grapes will make champagne. The small barrel ensures he is prepared for the years when champagne is made.
In a short conversation, my great grandfather passed on to his grandson five lessons that would guide his life:
- Do your work at the opportune time.
- Take care of your tools.
- Wear the appropriate clothes for the occasion.
- Watch and enjoy the small details of nature.
- Be prepared to catch the champagne.
Listening to the story I thought about the garden of my grandfather, my uncle’s father. It filled his backyard; existing years before backyard gardens were hip. Even as he aged into his late 80’s, he worked in it daily. I now understood his garden’s origins and its importance to my grandfather.
As my uncle spoke of his well-dressed grandfather, I pictured my grandfather at Holidays. He was always dapper in a sport coat adorned with a pocket square and often a stylish hat.
I looked across the table at his son sporting a lavender gingham print shirt and khakis. It was early in the morning. Yet he looked sharp and ready to tackle the day.
My uncle, a man who set football records at his high school, graduated first in his class from law school, worked in the Department of the Interior for the first Bush administration, led the initiative to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky, captured moments through beautiful photographs to be shared with others, taught his talent to underprivileged children and finally ended his career as the director of a charitable foundation (all while practicing law) also opened the door to the family members that came before me.
In the back corner of a Heine Brothers’ Coffee a mere quarter mile from where he and my father grew up, I felt the presence of those generations around me. Family members I did not know impacted the relatives I do know. The promise of my children’s lives, and our family’s future generation, drove me to connect with our family’s past generations.
I wanted to share my great grandfather’s wisdom with my children. From my purse, I grabbed my heavy notebook to scribble down my great grandfather’s five lessons. The same heavy notebook that I lug around “just in case I need it.” Because my father (my uncle’s brother) taught me to always be prepared. Likely because his father taught him to be prepared and his father taught him to be prepared. Thanks to the generations passing on the wisdom of the generation before them, I was Catching the Champagne.
xo & Happy Birthday Uncle D,