Grandpa was a difficult man. He was kind and loving on his own terms, but not at all forbearant with people, places, and things that he did not understand. My wife and her family didn’t regard him as odd in the least—well, that’s not true. They had simply grown accustomed to his idiosyncrasies and each foible was thought to be rather dear as opposed to maddening, as was my perception.
Along about 1992, I was three-years sober and going to two meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous every week, and on one particular Sunday morning as I was preparing to leave for a meeting he said, “I just don’t understand it. Why do you continue to go to these meetings when everything is going so great?”
I had continued to go to A.A. precisely because everything was going so well, but like so many things in A.A., would not hold up to the scrutiny of logic. Instead of answering his question I smiled thinly, nodded my head, and went out our front door.
Grandma and Grandpa lived on the road. They had a recreational vehicle—a series of them, really, and from 1985 to 2000 they crisscrossed the country three times. When the holidays came, they spent every other Christmas in Minnesota with the Talbot Family. In the off years, they went to Virginia to be with Jan’s sister’s family the Mallmanns. But often, in the summers, they would come for extended visits to Minnesota. Sometimes these visits would last for two or more months and when this happened I would tell my A.A. friends. When they would hear that my in-laws were coming for a two-month visit a lament of sorts, aimed at comforting me, would go up. I didn’t feel that way at all. I loved them and wanted them to stay for as long as possible. Sometimes I would protest to the in-laws that a two-month visit wasn’t long enough insisting that it be extended to three months. It was never enough for me and everybody else in the family felt this way, too. My wealth in family caused me to look at some of my friends and feel sorry for the poverty of their situations.
It was during these extended visits that Grandpa got to see and to live the routines of the family and our quotidian comings and goings. It was during these visits that he saw me leave home every Friday night for a small group meeting and every Sunday morning for a Big Book meeting. Still, he never understood just why I would want to go and how it was that I could leave my family for these short times.
In late November of 1995, my sixth year in recovery, heavy snows had come and travel was ill advised. Still, there was a Sunday morning meeting to attend I began to dig out the driveway to Idaho Avenue. I had had a hip replacement surgery the month before and so slowly, gingerly I worked away at the berm of snow left newly deposited by the county plows at the foot of the drive. I was trapped in thought thinking how grateful I was that I could stand again and attend to the routine winter chores of home when Grandpa appeared at my side. Having thrown a coat over his shoulders, he had come to give me something far more precious than help. He had come to give me his opinion: “You know, you’re a damn fool for going out. Nobody’s going to be at this meeting of yours.” I shrugged my shoulders and went back to digging.
Later I went back inside to warm myself and get a cup of coffee. Grandpa cornered me in the kitchen and asked again the same question he had asked three years before.
He said, “I don’t understand why you are doing this. You’re all better now. Why?”
This time, fool that I was, I answered his question. I explained to Gib that my reprieve from alcoholism was contingent upon a daily surrender to God; that He alone would lift from me a burden that I could not bear, that weekly meetings were indispensable to maintaining daily freedom, that A.A. was not so much about stopping the drink as it was about starting the life that God had intended for me all along.
Back then, I wasn’t accomplished at being able to read a man’s face to know when I should stop talking. I said too much and when I was finished he looked at me with pity in his eyes that I could so grossly misunderstand my very situation. And with a twist of his head he lowered his eyes and walked away.
I didn’t know exactly what he was thinking then but three years later, he came back to me a third time with the very same question. Again, we were standing in the kitchen and again I was preparing to go to yet another meeting.
“Why do you do this?” he asked. “You’re like a man who had a broken leg—okay, I understand that. And you’ve gone to these meetings like a crutch—I get it. But you’re all better now. And I’ll tell you this,” he added sternly, “You are taking time away from your family.”
Firm and to the point, he had told me what he thought.
Standing by the sink I turned and stepping close I looked into his eyes. I paused only a little then said, “Do you mean to tell me that you have never understood me?”
He bit down on the stem of his pipe and nodding said, “No.”
I went on: “And for the last nine years you have seen me come and go and never understood why I did what I did?”
Withdrawing his pipe he said, “No—never!”
His tone indicated relief that at last, he was getting through to me.
I stared more deeply into his eyes and said, “And despite all this, despite the not understanding, despite the confusion and pain of it all, despite everything, you have still loved me? You have loved me just like you love your very own son?”
His chin suddenly puckered, his lower lip trembled and the tears rimming his eyes escaped streaking down his cheeks. We held each other gently and said nothing more. A moment later, I left for my meeting.
Grandpa was a difficult man. He was kind and loving on his own terms and because he loved me on these, his own terms, I have missed him sorely every day since he left us five years ago.
Richard Talbot is a columnist and freelance nonfiction journalist living in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
This post was originally published in the January/February 2013 issue.