An achievement unlocked.
It’s amazing how clear a someone’s personality is by the time they reach eighty years old. Time must be the great sifter, washing out the pieces that are smaller, and of less importance. When you reach heights like these, all that remains are what truly matters to you.
This weekend I attended an eightieth birthday party. Obviously, I know my grandfather fairly well, but I like to to think that even if I didn’t, I could have told you who he was just by walking into the room. Family, friends — people of all ages, many making eight or nine hour drives, crowded into the back section of a restaurant, all to see just one man. As one of those guests, I have to say, not only was it incredibly worth it, but terribly well deserved.
My grandfather is a quiet man. “The Rock” my cousins and I call him. A calm center to every thirty-plus people family-gathering storm. At least once annually we all get together, me, my family, my aunts, uncles, and twelve cousins, some with children. We crowd into one three-bedroom house, the young kids sitting on the floor, dogs kept on leases indoors, six conversations flowing at once in any given room. Somehow he weathers it all in stride, smiling bemused at us all and speaking to each in turn, one at a time.
When my grandmother told us we were going to come for a party to surprise him this weekend, we all agreed without question. Vacation time was used, cars were fueled up, and hotels booked.
Honestly, I’m surprised one look at the parking lot didn’t give the surprise away.
I said before that I believe what is most important to my grandfather is his family. I do, truly I believe that. I think you would too, if you’d wandered into the restaurant on Saturday, just looking for something to eat and ending up with a show as well. I can imagine what you’d think, on the outside looking in. The cheers when he arrived, the seat saved for him at the center of the room, the short speech a quiet man reluctantly gave to an overwhelmingly favorable audience. Trying to get a picture with him was my favorite part, thirty-eight people related by marriage or direct blood trying to get into one shot. There probably isn’t one perfect version of that picture, everyone unfocused and laughing at different moments. But it will be one of many, many pictures hanging in my grandparents’ home.
My grandfather has led a long and storied life. Plenty of things have been important to him along the way. He was in the navy, for instance, and then a prominent engineer with more stories that any one of us have been able to hear so far. I remember his retirement party, many years ago, but I can’t say the years after his retirement looked that much different than the ones before it. His work was important to him, so he kept at it as long as he could. I find that impressive, myself. Not everyone finds what they’re meant to or enjoy doing in this world.
But at the end of the day, family is what mattered to him. You could see it on his face, and all around the room yesterday. At the age of eighty, it’s only become clearer. Family is what was important to him.
So family is what he got.