I have always loved my grandparents (“Boss” and “Nanny”), but around the time I graduated high school, our relationship transformed into more than just grandparents and grandson – they became two of my dearest friends and mentors. On multiple occasions, their home has served as a place of solitude. They have passed down all sorts of useful hard-won wisdom, supported every venture I’ve tried, and been present with me in good times and bad. One of my fondest memories is Friday night movie nights we shared during my high school and college years, watching terrible B-movies that my Grandmother loves, and eating banana pancakes.
If I have any talent as a writer, it’s because my grandfather’s blood courses through my veins. He was a war correspondent during the Vietnam Conflict and retired from the Birmingham News as a night editor when I was a senior in high school. And if I have learned anything about the sincerity of everyday spirituality, it’s thanks to my grandparents.
For the past three weeks, I watched my grandfather crumble into little more than a pile of flesh in a hospital bed. This giant of mine, who shaped me as a writer and a man more than anyone else, reached the end of his natural life Wednesday night. In his final days, this man, once a powerful physical force, could no longer empty his bladder or recognize his “beloved grandson.” This brute of a man, who laid the rock foundation around the entire floor level of his home and rocked his chimney without assistance could not even lift a spoon to his mouth. He stopped forming coherent sentences. His mind failed him, and his body followed closely behind.
I talked about how to be intentional with your grief in last week’s newsletter. You can read the archive by clicking here (you can also subscribe at the same link).
I’ve told several people lately, that the circle of life sucks. It is no fun to say goodbye to the ones we love dearly. As much as I wanted him to be free of his suffering, a selfish part of me wanted him to get out of that damn hospital bed and live forever. It’s that way with all our heroes, but in the end, we know that the only way heroes live forever, is through our storytelling.
What I choose to do now, is honor Boss’s life with the rest of mine. Nanny wanted me to speak at his funeral, but I just couldn’t do it. I knew it wouldn’t make it past the first three words. Thankfully, my Mom and her brothers did a perfect job at memorializing this giant of a man, so I didn’t have to. I’ll always cherish the memories I made with Boss over the past thirty-five years, but if I had spoken at my grandfather’s funeral, this is what I would have shared:
1) Be your own person. Time and again over the past few days, people referred to him as “unique” or “interesting.” And while those words are accurate, he was so much more than that. My Grandfather was his own man. People either loved him or hated him. He was a wild-eyed man, rarely swayed by the opinions of others. Ben House was brilliant, well-educated, and determined to march to the beat of his own drum. He taught me to never be afraid to go against the flow if I felt strongly about something
2) Faith is personal. I could count on one hand the number of times my Granddad went to a church service in my lifetime. He felt strongly about organized religion, and his opinions weren’t particularly positive. But he knew the Bible better than just about anyone, and he lived a very genuine faith in front of me, every single day. Two my knowledge, his two favorite verses were Numbers 6:24-26, and the 23rd Psalm.
3) Take care of your responsibilities. My Granddad had the best work ethic around. Countless times during my childhood, he had to miss Thanksgiving or Christmas gatherings, because he was scheduled to work. He believed in living up to your responsibilities and never leaving your work for someone else to do.
4) Say what you mean, and mean what you say. I mentioned earlier that people either loved him or hated him. It’s because Boss always spoke his mind. He could be gruff and cantankerous, but he still told you his version of the truth. It’s why I went to him with any significant life decision. Even if he said what I didn’t want to hear, he would tell me the truth. And I sincerely respected him for that.
5) You can tell a lot about a person by their hands. Part of his work as a newspaperman, especially in the earlier years, required him to serve as a photographer. When I was coming up, and beginning to experiment with the camera, he would always urge me to “notice the hands.” Rough hands, soft hands, hands with dirt under the nails, bruised hands, black hands, white hands, you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.
6) Crop out any space that doesn’t contribute to the story. Another lesson from the old newspaperman. He loved closeups. Whether I showed him a photograph of a face or a fencepost, it was never quite close enough to his liking. He always found a little extra “noise” that could be culled from the picture. Whether he was acting as a photographer, a writer, or a family man, Boss always knew how to say exactly what he meant. I couldn’t begin to count the times he would say, “Steve, let’s get it right down where the goats can eat it.” Say what you mean, remember? Crop out the distractions. Get right down to what is most important and let all the other stuff fall away. Always keep the story moving forward.
7) Saucer and blow it. Coffee is a staple at my grandparent’s home, consumed from dawn until dusk. It’s an entirely acceptable beverage for a human from the time they can walk. Black coffee as thick as motor oil has fueled conversation in our family for as long as I can remember. One of the most significant lessons I learned from Boss and Nanny is to “saucer and blow it.”
I’m not sure if this happens anywhere else, but at my grandparents, if the coffee is too hot, and you just can’t wait another moment to drink it, there’s a simple fix, but it requires a little patience. You pour it out of the mug and into the saucer, blow on it for a few seconds, and slurp it down. Saucer and blow it.
Nanny has listening down to an art, and Boss has never steered me wrong. These two best friends of mine have always chosen to be present with me in whatever struggle I faced. Anytime I had a difficult decision, I just picked up the phone and called Boss and Nanny. Nine times out of ten, my grandparents would say, “Stevie, it sounds like you just need to saucer and blow it.”
Whether it was giving up a college scholarship, breaking up with a girl, becoming an interpreter, starting a photography business, or recovering from a suicide attempt, the best advice I’ve ever received is this: take a deep breath and slow down long enough for things to cool down. Saucer and blow it, in essence, means, don’t rush through hard times and miss the transformative lessons they have to offer.
In Memory of Benjamin Norris House, Sr.
May the Lord bless you and keep you,
Make His face shine upon you,
Be gracious to you,
And give you peace.