He’s dressed in green denim overalls, with a straw hat on his head, and a rake or hoe in one hand. On his back is a sack, not of presents, but of soil, or maybe seeds. He has a snowy white beard, and the stereotypical portly figure, and there’s a bird perched on his shoulder. He’s not a person, though, he’s a candle I bought at Big Lots a couple years ago, while adding to my ever-growing collection of Christmas accoutrements, because he reminded me of my grandfather.
My grandfather had the same portly figure, for all the time I knew him, but I never saw him with any more than day-old whiskers that felt like sandpaper against my cheek when I hugged him. He had the softest hair, though, that he washed, for all his life, with whatever sort of bath soap happened to be in the shower. Bar soap. I think his favorite was ivory.
His hands were strong and square when I was young, but by the time I was twenty-one – the year he died – they were cracked and gnarled, their strength much diminished. Where once he was accustomed to kneading bread, puttering with small electronics, or even braiding little girls’ hair, he lost all his dexterity, in the end, and tried to hide his embarrassment at being clumsy.
He used Old Spice. He wore cotton button-down shirts, khaki pants, and suspenders, and work shoes, every day. Even at the beach. If he was doing manual labor, and it was hot, he might concede to the removal of his shirt, to reveal the plain white t-shirt ever-present beneath it. He carried cloth handkerchiefs, that were my job to fold, when I was visiting.
He’s close to me tonight, the night before Epiphany, because I spent time looking at the still-trimmed tree, this evening, planning tomorrow’s adventure in Un-Decorating. I collect Santa Claus ornaments, and am partial to Victorian Santas in heavy robes of fur and velvet, but until tonight, I never realized that I’m drawn to them because they remind me of my grandfather.
He’s close to me, also, as I write this, because he was a geek at heart, the first on the block to have color television, a microwave, cable, a cd player, but he never had a computer. He died before my love of All Things Technological manifested itself, and I miss him whenever I play with a new toy, because I know he’d have gotten a kick out of whatever it is that I have.
He wrote me carefully printed letters once a week, the whole time I was in elementary school.
He taught me how to make the perfect loaf of raisin bread, the most scrumptious Thanksgiving turkey, the most soothing hot toddy. He taught me how to hammer a nail, the difference between phillips and flathead screwdrivers, and how to kill and clean a freshly caught bluefish (though I never enjoyed the cleaning part).
He taught me how to make a telephone out of tin cans and string and how a lever works. He wouldn’t even blink when I asked him to play with me, easing himself onto the floor to direct my adventures with blocks, legos,tinker toys or erector sets (though he required me to lay out an orderly ‘lumberyard’ first).
As much as my mother is responsible for my love of art, crafts, folk music, literature, and political activism, my grandfather is responsible for my love of gardening, baking, tool kits, model trains, and deep-sea fishing.
He never met my husband, but I know they’d have liked each other. And I think he and my father-in-law would have totally bonded.
The “gardener Santa” candle looks nothing like my grandfather, but it stands for him, anyway, and when I see it tucked in a corner of my house each year (part of the family tradition of carrying Christmas throughout the house), I smile, and think that maybe he’s watching over me, after all.