Sandwiches Cut Diagonally: Memories of My Grandfather

The only grandfather I knew passed away in 1978 when I wasn’t quite 4-years-old. As with most people’s childhood memories, I have doubt as to whether what I remember of him is true or whether I fabricated him from the family stories I’ve heard.

I am confident I attended his funeral. I was too young to understand what was happening, but I remember my mother sobbing next to me; I’d never seen her so upset. I grabbed a tissue from my tiny suit jacket and offered it to her. She smiled sadly as she took it. That smile told me what I needed to know to feel safe again.

Memories of Grandpa that I’m not sure about:

  • Grandpa sitting in his recliner near the living room window reading a newspaper. Lawrence Welk waved his baton on the tv, his trademark bubbles falling diagonally across the screen. Grandma was shouting accusations at him about not cleaning up after himself. She did not see him roll his eyes, turn down his hearing aid, smirk at me, and go back to reading.
  • I was spinning around on a merry-go-round in the park near their little house with the car port in town. My brother was eating an enormous scoop of ice cream that was seconds from falling into the dirt. Years later, my brother confirmed that Grandpa took us to the park after church most Sundays as an excuse to buy us ice cream cones without my mother knowing. Mom didn’t like us to have sweets.
  • Grandpa and Grandma in their kitchen arguing over whether my brothers and I wanted pickles with our peanut butter sandwiches: Grandpa for, Grandma against. He cut our sandwiches on the diagonal and used a brand of peanut butter that had a logo of a boy with a pompadour and freckles. I still cut my sandwiches diagonally in his honor.

These memories probably make Grandpa sound more mischievous than he was. Grandpa was a quiet, humble man most of the time. His parents owned a farm just outside my hometown in Michigan where they grew flowers for florist shops. Before the 12 of them immigrated across the St. Clair River in 1919 my great-grandfather owned another flower farm near Hensall, Ontario. Flowers were the family business until auto factories in the area started hiring in droves.

Mom loved visiting her grandparents’ (my great-grandparents’) farm. She remembers watching the fish in the man-made pond at the side of the house. She loved the sight of the differently colored flowers in the fields.

Every fall, Grandpa dug up his dahlias— his favorite flowers— in the small garden at the back of the house in town and stored them for winter, and every spring he’d bring them back out and replant them. Grandma would see mud tracks leading through the house and out the back door and she’d be livid, yelling that he wouldn’t rest that night until every speck of fertilizer was scrubbed out of her carpet.

James Nelson Harburn left us at the ripe age of 77, but, being his youngest grandchild, I only got 3 years and some odd months with him: not enough time for me to know him well or vice versa. His 114th birthday just passed. Happy birthday, Grandpa! You are remembered and loved.

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13 thoughts on “Sandwiches Cut Diagonally: Memories of My Grandfather

  1. I enjoyed reading your memories of your grandfather and I am sure that we both get our ability to remember events of when we were very young from the Harburn side of the family. My grandmother, Gladdys Harburn, very unfortunately developed alzheimers in the late 1970’s, but i did have my grandfather until 1987 when he passed at the age of almost 90 years.

  2. What lovely memories you have given us, Nate, written in a style that took me back with you.

    I only ever knew one of my Grandparents, as the others all left us before I was born, but I have found happy memories of the Grandmother I did know and have written a few posts about her and those memories. I often think she is my guardian angel, making sure I don’t fall down the potholes of life.

  3. Lovely Nate. I am lucky enough that I managed to copy some digital photos my Mum had used to create books about her parents (my Mum has been compiling Genealogy since I can remember, as she is now 79). I love looking at my Nan, which is the only Grandparent I really knew, as all the others died when I was young. The styles and her young face could tell stories of another woman that the Nan I knew. You have inspired me to start a post with those pictures. Happy day.

  4. It’s an interesting point, how long you get to know your grandparents. I was the oldest of our brood and my grandparents on both sides have lived for a very long time. I feel lucky to have gotten to know them and feel like I understand a great deal of how our family got to where it is and what I myself have to look forward to (good and bad) health-wise in my future. It comes at a cost, too. You see enough to see the negatives too. Not only the darker sides of one’s nature, but also watching people lose themselves as their memory and personality deteriorates.

  5. No matter how these memories formed, they are lovely ones to have. Three out of four of my grandparents passed away when i was too young to have many lasting memories either.

  6. I loved your sweet memories, especially the one about turning down his hearing aid–ha! I used to watch Lawrence Welk with my Gram. Soul Train too.

  7. Aww. What a sweet family tree! I like how, even though you didn’t have the opportunity to know him well, you still collected memories and tried to get to know who he was. And that you attempted to record them so his memory wouldn’t be forgotten.

    I also appreciate how you included how he had a farm growing flowers. These days farmers in America are the minority because everything is industrialized, processed, franchised, marketed, etc and they have been put out of business by large companies that monopolize the market. So I enjoyed reading about your family farm and learning about where your roots are. =)

    1. Thanks, sfs. Two of my Grandpa’s siblings went on to own flower shops. So they had a little monopoly of their own for a while! My nephew is interested in genealogy, so I kinda wrote these down for him.

  8. Aw, this is such a sweet and wonderful post. I’m sorry you didn’t know your grandpa. I can barely remember one of mine, who died when I was 5, but was lucky to have the other until I was 31.

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