WordsDay: My grandfather's good advice, as remembered on his birthday

“You don’t want to be a ditch-digger when you grow up,” my grandfather used to tell me.

Well, I don’t know if he ever said that or not, to be honest, but it somehow sticks in my mind that he did. It’s the kind of thing he would’ve said.

Ditch digging is honorable work—but it’s also a hard way to make a living.

He spoke from the experience that physical labor will give a man. For most of his life, he served as a postman in the small town of Eldred, Pa., sorting and shuffling mail, slipping letters into P.O. boxes, making small-talk with customers from behind the counter. The building smelled of envelopes and stamp adhesive. It was a pretty easy gig.

But in his youth, he worked in the area’s oil fields with his father and his father’s brothers, all hewn of rough Irish stock. They drilled and blasted wells. On their days off, they fished, and some of them drank, and on Sundays, their combined families filled half the church. My grandfather might’ve grown into that same adulthood had the war not come.

Yet the war almost passed him by. He couldn’t pass the physical because of his eyes. Still, he somehow talked his way into a job in the quartermaster’s department. When they shipped him to France, he worked behind the lines, shuffling supplies, moving mail, and flirting with pretty French girls he couldn’t understand.

But His Girl, my grandmother, waited for him stateside, and he couldn’t wait to get back to her. When he did, his job in the army helped get him a job with the postal service. No more oil fields for him.

And no oil fields for his kids, either. He and my grandmother shipped all three of their kids off to college. Their son became a lawyer. Their oldest daughter became a college professor. Their youngest daughter became my mother, and thirteen months later, my brother came along, as well. No more college for mom—but no oil fields, either.

My brother and I became my grandfather’s favorites. Being first and being close had its advantages, after all. He would bundle us up in our buggy and stroll us up and down the streets of Eldred, showing us off to everyone he knew—which was everyone, of course, since he was postman.

“I just want to see those boys make it through school,” he would tell my grandmother.

As we got older, my grandfather’s health got poorer. He had a chronic circulatory problem that sapped the life out of him. It took twenty slow years. He hung on, my grandmother once told me, because he wanted to see my brother and me get through school. If we could just get through school, he knew we’d be okay, that we’d be able to make it in the world.

When I graduated from high school, the tears in my grandfather’s eyes said what his quivering smile and choked voice could not.

He didn’t make it to see my college graduation. He passed away just a couple months before I began my senior year. But he knew I was on my way to a good career, and he knew I wouldn’t have to spend my life digging ditches.

The irony was not lost on me the other day, then, as I leaned against my pick-ax and wiped the sweat from my brow. I was digging a drainage ditch in front of our horse barn when my grandfather’s words came back to me.

I realized how blessed I am to lead the kind of life that lets me dig ditches instead of one that forces me to.

It’s ironic, too, that I’m still in school—albeit as the professor instead of the student. I’ve liked school so much I’ve never wanted to leave, I guess. My brother is a teacher, too.

My grandfather’s other grandchildren, my cousins, have likewise all done well for themselves. We have more lawyers and teachers in the family. We have a flight attendant, a retailer, and a manager of a successful medical practice.

And we all still have my grandmother, the other half of the partnership that made sure we all got our educations.

Last month was my grandfather’s birthday. He would’ve been ninety-two.

It was also my sixteenth wedding anniversary. One reason my wife and I chose the date was because it was my grandfather’s birthday. On the day of the wedding, my uncle gave to me as a wedding gift my grandfather’s ring. “Because you loved him,” my uncle told me. While the ring is too fragile for regular wear, I still slip it on in the evenings and wear it as I write. I have it on now.

For my grandfather’s birthday last week, I went to the cemetery to visit him. I brushed away the few early-fall leaves that covered part of his footstone, and then, from the graveside, I called my grandmother on my cellphone. I wanted to share the moment with both of them. I wanted to tell them thanks.

I sure had a lot of other help along the way, particularly from my folks and my dad’s folks and my brother.

But on this day, my Grandpa Cawley’s birthday, I wanted he and my grandmother to both know how thankful I was.

I’m thankful that I’ve been able to make my way in the world, thankful that everything turned out okay, thankful that I still enjoy school.

I’m thankful I can be a ditch digger, after all—because I can be a ditch digger on my own terms.

Categories: Education, Scroguely Works

5 replies »

  1. I was raised by my grandparents, and I think my story and yours have a lot in common. They wanted a better life for me than what they had, although in all honesty I’m not sure they even had a firm way of articulating what “better life” meant. But they’d have had no way of imagining that I’d earn a PhD and eventually become a college professor. Or that once I attained that lofty height that I’d leave it.

    The thing they knew, though – KNEW – was that whatever hope I was to have in life hinged on education. So they pushed that, and there was never a moment as I was growing up where I didn’t have that as part of my basic assumption about life. Might as well have been encoded in the DNA.

    My grandfather’s birthday is on May 24, and I hope I can remember his memory as elegantly as you have remembered Grandpa Cawley’s.

  2. You guys are lucky. Neither my parents nor the mediocre schools I attended impressed upon me the importance of education. My brothers either — not one of the three of us graduated from college or became professionals.

    File that under “Opportunity missed.”