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Attaboy

7 February, 2014 (07:19) | Family

I can still hear his voice.

My grandfather at 85 standing at the top of Breckenridge in all his gear.

“Attaboy,” he would say with a deep throaty laugh. He would say it with quiet pride, as if the words welled up from his center and he was simply letting them slip out because they would build up inside otherwise.

At his 90th birthday a few weeks ago, my grandfather was still lucid and functional. I couldn’t, without compunction, say he had clarity, but he sat at the end of the table, conversing lightly with each of us in turn. The rest of the table talked and laughed and enjoyed the meal with him, with each other, sharing food and wine and company.

And ultimately, regardless of the wonderful riches of his life, that’s what my grandfather taught me: the greatest joy is great experiences with good people.

My grandfather died last night.

Images of his smiling, laughing face float across my mind unabated. In all of them, he’s surrounded by people who love and respect him. It wasn’t always clear to me why, but it was always clear that the love and respect came honestly.

A few years ago, after my grandmother had died, my grandfather and I found ourselves lost and aimlessly wandering. For me, it was a more literal aimlessness. I traveled around the world as an attempt to change my life, to find out whom I was and of what I was capable, to figure out what I truly wanted to do with my life. In part it succeeded. I came back different in small ways, more secure in certain ones, and with many questions I didn’t know how to answer.

And yet, I was still aimless.

My grandfather, on the other hand, was planted in his home in Littleton, the same house at which I had spent numerous Thanksgivings and visits. He was tied to his routine, waking, watching the markets, visiting with friends, family and neighbors, and dealing with his finances and business. When Winter rolled around, despite being blind in one eye, he would escape his home and flee to the Mountains each week, staying in his condo in Frisco, visiting with old friends who came in for the Winter, and reminiscing and retelling stories that peppered his life with flavor.

And, despite his aging body, despite his failing sight, despite his deep longing for friends and lovers now gone, he would ski.

I didn’t want to come back to Boulder. My travels had extricated myself so thoroughly that I felt returning would be giving up. I needed change. I needed to be someplace else. I needed something completely different that would grant me a more certain path in life.

After graduating college, I had stubbornly sat unemployed for months, my ego and pride telling me I had earned the jobs I wasn’t getting, that I was qualified to work in my field that wasn’t yet my field. The interview I had at the University of Denver went so well that they strung me along, telling me to wait, making me feel I had the job if only I were patient. And then I was the second choice who didn’t get it. CBS gave me a good interview as an editor, but I was trained on newer technology, and, despite coming highly recommended and being one of four candidates to interview, the oafish way in which I twisted the knobs wasn’t good enough to break through and get the job. Suddenly, without realizing what was happening, I took a seasonal job at Barnes & Noble that spiraled into a year and half, and before I knew it, I was going through the motions, trapped.

Traveling was my exodus, my diaspora, my escape.

I returned without a home, a job or a direction. I spent time at my parents’ house in Boston trying to mull my options. My parents had moved to a new house while I was in college, and though the guest room was comfortable, it wasn’t my room. I returned to Colorado for our annual Thanksgiving dinner, the one holiday we celebrated as a large family. My mom suggested I ask if I could stay with my grandfather while I found a job.

Though I was skeptical and worried he would be put upon, I relented and asked.

My grandfather had converted his downstairs office into a bedroom for my grandmother when her health was failing and stairs had become difficult. In exchange, the upstairs guest room I used to stay in had become his office. I moved into the little bedroom downstairs, set up my computer, and began the search.

In the mornings, I would go for a short run, determined to keep off the weight I had accidentally lost over the course of my travels. My grandfather would have coffee and some breakfast waiting for me when I returned. He would sit in front of the TV, watching the market, and then disappear upstairs to do paperwork or read emails. I would hide in my room, trolling job applications, reading and writing, playing games in the downtime.

At dinner, we’d either cook up something, my grandfather carefully showing me the cooking tricks he knew for the dishes he had mastered. They were simple dishes that used simple tricks. I played chauffeur when we went out to dinner or shopping, his one-eye blindness allowing me the chance to repay his hospitality in at least one small fashion.

And we’d talk, as he drank his after dinner cocktails.

The stories he told me echo through my mind, but time and emotion make them muddled and unclear.

He told me of growing up in Cicero outside of Chicago. He told me of his desire to hang out with the other Czech boys, and of his father’s insistence that he not become one of those “goddamn Bohunks.” He told me of his accidental enlistment in World War II, and of his time running searchlights for air raids, learning French, and getting frostbite on his toes. He told me of the joy and elation he felt when his family found a way to send him to the state basketball championships the year his high school made it. He told me of his wooden-wheeled bicycle, of collecting arrowheads from the muck around the lake he visited in the summers. He told me of visiting Rhodesia, of waiting in the cold outside the door in Norway, of skiing the Swiss Alps by train. He told me how he broke his ribs skiing when someone crashed into him in a couloir. He told me stories of my mom and uncles, of his friends and coworkers, and of his parents and family.

It soon became apparent that my living with my grandfather wasn’t a simple favor to me, the grandchild in need. I certainly got the lion’s share of the benefit: a free place to live, good food and company, use of a vehicle when I needed it or felt like escaping to Boulder for a few days. But my grandfather got a night-time chauffeur, ever more important as the winter sunlight waned, and more regular company. My uncles who lived nearby felt like they could spend a little more time with their families and a little less checking up on my grandfather. And for all of us, the situation was, in many ways, more piece of mind.

As the snows rolled in, he would tell me when we were leaving for the mountains, when friends were arriving, and when the Caterpillar Overseas crew were reuniting in Summit county. While there, we would ski.

His friends, like him, lived well. Some had retired to large houses in the mountains nearby, drawn by my grandfather and the beauty and snows. Others lived far away, renting cabins or condos for weeks or months as my granfather’s extended family came together for their Winter shenanigans. I joined in the festivities, eating, drinking, and discussing. Most of all, though, I listened.

My grandfather’s stories had counterparts from all his friends. We would break out wine and small tin cups at the lodge at lunch time, talking of grappa and ankle-warmers, of ski trips that can’t be done anymore. We would sit around the fire and hear stories of adventures traveling, of office politics, and of the trials and tribulations of raising children.

And through all of it, my grandfather’s eyes would sparkle with excitement and unadulterated love.

Each of his friends would go out of their way to hug him goodbye at the end of the evening. Each of them would make sure he knew how important he was to their lives. And each would joyously reminisce with him or about him and their travels and experiences.

I was at once grateful for being included and envious of what my grandfather had built over the years.

The Winter I lived with him was my grandfather’s last skiing. I moved out in the Spring without a job, heading back to Boulder to surround myself with my friends, trying to build the same sort of lasting relationships I had seen. Over the summer, my grandfather sold his house and moved in with my aunt and uncle in Erie. In the Winter, I took a job as a ski instructor at Eldora.

“Attaboy,” my grandfather would say when I told him stories of the mountain.

My grandfather told me he first skied when he was in the Army in Europe. He took up the sport more thoroughly when he was living in Geneva working for Caterpillar. My mom and her brothers were skiers growing up, and my cousins and I were all on snow at an early age.

But it all started with my grandfather.

Skiing, in many ways, has become my life. My teaching skies are my granfather’s last skies, a pair of Volants from 2003. My poles are his vintage Ramy ski poles from the late 60s. My passion for the sport is directly due to his passion for it. And I regularly tell people with pride that my grandfather skied until he was 85, and I hope to do the same.

When I collected his poles from storage in the mountains, the leather straps were dried and cracking. They snapped in the first few weeks I used them. I tracked down a leather worker in Ward early this Winter and got her to replace them, keeping them in the traditional style. At his birthday, I held back tears as I tried to explain why this was so important to me.

Being a ski instructor is less about what I can do on snow and more about the relationships I build each and every day. I look at my students and I see the amazing possibilities and opportunities they have. I teach them to overcome fear, to get past their mental and emotional blocks and obstacles, and to rise to the occasion. These are all things my grandfather taught me through the way he lived his life and the stories he told.

Every day that I step on the snow carrying his poles, I bring a little bit of my grandfather with me. I take the history, the stories, and experiences with me. I take the love that he passed on to me and to the rest of the family. I take the care and skill with which he navigated the world. And I take his verve and intelligence, his strength and his passion.

“I know they’re just poles,” I said to him as I crouched down next to him at his birthday dinner, “but they mean a lot to me. After all, I wouldn’t be where I am without you.”

“Attaboy,” he replied one last time.

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