I lie on my side, stretched out, watching television, hardly aware of my mother and stepfather in the background, so I am startled when Jack bends down behind me, yardstick in hand. He places it on the floor next to my butt and exclaims, “Holy shit, look how big that thing is.”
My mother says nothing. I am livid. I jump up screaming, “I hate you. You are such a jack-ass.” I storm down the stairs to my room and slam the door. Twice.
My mother married Jack in 1969. I was 13. I hated him for a lot of reasons.
Clearly he had no clue about the sensibilities of a 13-year-old girl. Measuring my ass happened on more than one occasion, so he wasn’t quick to catch on, either.
I held him responsible for changing my life.
Because of him, I had to leave my dream home on Church Street, move to a new home, miles away, attend a new school, and leave all my friends behind.
That was only the beginning.
What my mother saw in a man who swore a blue streak, as my grandmother use to say, and whose idea of fun was to drag you to a log yard half way across New England to listen to other old men swear, was beyond me.
I couldn’t go out in public with Jack. While it might be cool for teens to swear once in awhile, when he was in a store with you and greeted an acquaintance with “God Damn, Fred, long time no see. How the fuck are ya’?” it was humiliating.
I’ll never forget the time we were vacationing in Florida and had just left a restaurant. As we walked down the street to our car, Jack took his dentures out of his mouth to pick at them. My entire family, at seeing this display, raced ahead of him to give the illusion that we did not know this uncouth man.
Somehow, I managed to survive while living with him. I never did lose all my friends, I got through high school with only a few log yard trips to keep him company, and with constant chiding by my mother, his swearing became a rarity.
Before long, he had limited it to “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” as he shook his head back and forth in dismay. We all came to expect this whenever we had done something disappointing. It became a family joke. My sister would ask, “What do you think Jack’s going to say when we come in late?”
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” we’d laugh, imitating him.
And so he did. Sometimes he would offer the simplest words of wisdom — “Life is precious, don’t waste it,” or, “Your mother worries, remember that” — just enough to make us think, but never a lecture. We knew that “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” was his prayer for us, though he wasn’t a religious man.
When I went to college in 1974, he drove me to Maine and told me he’d miss me. He was the one who called unexpectedly to see if I was free for lunch or a visit as he passed through town, traveling from log yard to log yard.
He was the one I could call for a ride home on the weekend, or ask directions when I was traveling on my own.
And when I was 21, single, and pregnant he was the one who said, “Never be embarrassed about the choices you make. Hold your head high and do the best you can.”
Over the next 20 years, he was the only grandfather my two boys had. In all those years, I don’t think they ever missed not having a second grandfather.
Jack took them walking in the woods, and to the log yards, teaching them about trees, the land, and ecology.
He took them to camp, where he taught them to fish and hunt and to look out for one another. And he was there for every birthday, every sporting event, and every disappointment, just as he had been for me.
I hold him responsible for changing my life.
Without him I might not have learned that you don’t judge a person by what you see on the outside, by their words or their habits.
You look deeper. And when you do, you find someone who is not embarrassed by his choices and does the best he can.
And you realize that wisdom comes in unexpected ways, and you say, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”