My grandfather seemed to be the complete opposite of granny when it came to their individuality; granny was loud and grandpa was reserved. My grandfather was born on October 5, 1917 and was named Raymond Lester Johnson, but everyone called him Ray. I have the pleasure of honoring my grandfather, as I was named after him… Jackie Rae. Grandpa was the kindest, gentlest and most loving grandfather that a grandchild could ever have. He was soft spoken and, at times, a man of few words. Even though Grandpa was quiet on the outside, he always seemed to have so much to say from within. He had a way of expressing himself trough his eyes and smile. Grandpa spoke with his eyes, watching me with so much intent, absorbing everything I had to say, as if to recognize that my day was just as important as his. His smile was soft and approving, listening to every word that I spoke, as if I was telling the most fascinating story. In the end though, it was his heart that he expressed the most. He was never short on hugs, kisses, or the words, I love you. Just like my grandmother’s, I can still remember my grandfather’s kiss, as well. Thin lipped, dry, with just enough pucker, grandpa would kiss you softly goodnight, as you felt his mustache tickled against your nose.
As gentle and kindhearted as grandpa was on the inside, he showed courageous strength, determination and was a very hard working man on the outside. Although grandpa had a soft spot in his heart, he was also stern with rules and behavior and made sure Steve and I followed them both with manners and respect. While grandpa’s eyes expressed mostly praise, his eyes, on occasion, would express dissatisfaction. Perhaps fighting with my brother or getting into something I wasn’t supposed to, grandpa’s smile would slowly leave his face, letting me know that it was time for business. When getting into trouble, Grandma had Steve and I sit on the couch until grandpa got home from work. It was then that grandma shared with grandpa our negative actions. Grandpa would then slowly enter the living room as his eyes would lock onto ours. With a stern look, he stared directly at us, watching us over the top of his horn rim glasses, while at the same time raising his left eyebrow, as if studying us and deciphering our misbehavior. Grandpa never raised his voice or raised his hand to us. His disheartened look was punishment enough, but it was us who was disappointed in the end. It hurt us more knowing that we had let down our favorite grandpa. After apologies were said, and meant, grandpa offered a few words of encouragement, along with a shake of the head that always made us feel better, acknowledging that what was said is now in the past and behind us.
My grandfather was one hundred percent Norwegian. There was even a time when grandpa tried to teach me Norwegian. Sitting in the yard at the picnic table under the giant oak tree, he would speak to me in Norwegian. I loved how the sound flowingly rolled off his tongue, asking me questions that I obviously didn’t understand. Years later, grandpa wrote me a letter in Norwegian, with the English translation following behind. It was during the time when he was deteriorating from colon cancer, where grandma said it was a struggle for him to write and remember the Norwegian words. He asked what I wanted for Christmas, offering me ten dollars so that I could go buy what I wanted. But, what I wanted for Christmas was the impossible. I wanted my grandfather to be healthy, cancer free and to live a very long life.
Grandpa was a roofer by trade and working on the roof tops, it always left him with a perfect deep golden tan. He had superb carpentry skills and it reflected in his work when he built miniature barns, dollhouses, or garden wishing wells. We would take rides through town and I would hear him and granny comment on all the roofs that grandpa had shingled or what carpentry he did on the house. Amazingly, there were quite a few buildings. I would step into the garage while grandpa was cutting wood for a project and loved smelling the saw dust that lay upon the floor. I knew it was the result of him creating something beautiful. Grandpa was tall and muscular, always wearing dago tees, broken in blue jeans and construction boots; the same outfit that he would occasionally go jogging in as he made several laps around the farm. He enjoyed his Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, playing the accordion, and smoking non-filtered Camel cigarettes.
Saturday evenings were an enjoyable time, as grandpa would start to play songs on his accordion. We would all gather in the breezeway, which was a room just off the garage. The room held a couch and a coffee table, with a jukebox in the corner. With minimal furniture, the room was destined for dancing and entertaining. The evening was warm, with the scent of the countryside traveling through the screened in porch and, occasionally, we would catch a breeze. The night was silent except for the musical notes that grandpa was pushing through the air. Taking in a deep breath, one couldn’t help but to feel the euphoria that was settling in the room. Grandpa takes a couple of test notes on his accordion and the excitement begins. One of grandpa’s favorite pieces to play was the Blue Skirt Waltz. As grandpa punched away at the keys, Steve and I would dance around the room, pretending to polka, twirling each other around by our arms. Grandpa would play two or three songs and then we would start up the jukebox. Grandma selecting a polka on the juke box, it was grandpa and my turn to dance around the dance floor. With grandpa being so much bigger than me, I would have to stand on the top of his roofing boots, hang on, and try not to fall off. My feet would try to stay glued to the top of grandpa’s boots, as he picked up speed to keep in time with the music and dance steps … step, hop, hop… step hop, hop, as he twirled me around, hitting every corner of the room. I felt like I was on a carnival ride. As the polka came to an end and we took our final bows, we ended the evening with smiles on our faces and tickles in our bellies.
Flowers of Wishing Well
To wish on a wishing well you need a few,
Pennies of old to make your wishes come true.
But here I stand with flowers of kind,
By the flowers of wishing well, dreams I wish to be mine.
I close my eyes to think a few,
Before I pick my wishes of true.
If I had a wish, a wish I had,
I’d wish to back on the Farm of Eden,
Dancing with my Granddad.
For you to swing me around with sweet loving grace,
To have you hold me in your arms again,
To kiss your sweet gentle face.
Reality has departed, but remembrance I know,
How I miss your presence eternally so.
So I pick a dream, a memory, through a Canterbury Bell,
To hold close to my heart by the flowers of wishing well.
Jackie (Lambert) Morin
For all the years that I lived with my grandparents, I never once felt unsafe or frightened and, most importantly, I never felt unloved. Our home was never occupied with hatred, shouting or any form of abuse; a complete opposite from the home I came from in Chicago. As the summer always did, it was coming to an end, and it was apparent that school was soon to begin. It would be time to go back to Chicago… back home to our other life, the life that did consist of hatred and abuse. I felt I had a Cinderella life.
While living on the farm with my grandparents, I don’t believe there was a day that went by that grandpa didn’t shower Steve and I with wild fun that, at times, took our limits to the edge; something granny usually went defensively crazy over. I can still hear granny saying, “Raymond, we have to bring these kids back to Chicago and to their mother in one piece!” Sending us a wink, he looked at granny and said, “Oh Esther, just let them be kids!”
And for three months, during our summer vacation, that’s what we were… just kids.