Things My Grandfather Taught Me: Everything in nature is fascinating.


The cabin, complete with outhouse!

The cabin, complete with outhouse!

The only family vacation we took together (aside from the time Gramma and Grampa took us to Disneyland!) was to a little cabin in the woods in Northern California.  Gramma and Grampa had friends with a cabin, and we happily sat through the seemingly endless three hour drive to get there.  The roads ran along the walls of steep canyons, the bottoms of which tumbled with fast-running streams.  A small one-shop town was the final pit-stop before weaving our way to our temporary home.

I loved the shop.  Pickle barrel in the corner, ice cream freezer near the till, icy cool drinks in glass bottles dotted with perspiration lining the fridge shelves.  And row upon row of shelves crammed with everything and nothing.  Just the smell of that wooden-floored emporium put me in a holiday mood.

No television.  No radio.  No phones.  No electricity.  Whatever were we to do for a week? With Grampa around there was no need to worry about entertainment.  Every day we would go on at least one long walk (“long” denoting time and not distance) where Grampa would find countless things to point-out and explain.  Ant lions, blue jays, rattlesnakes.  Grampa took time to point out how fascinating every thing in creation is. And we would follow him, walking sticks in hand (me with a hippie “sweatband” across my forehead) trying to traverse the woods with as much stealth as possible.

Grampa awakened in each of us a love for and interest in nature.

Off we went, dutifully following our guide and nature-expert.

Off we went to explore the great outdoors.

Things My Grandfather Taught Me: “Treat everybody with respect.”

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Grampa loved people.  Whether he was at the grocery store buying milk (non-fat milk powder) or strolling to the mail box with a letter or attending his own retirement party, he was always delighted to engage others and listen to their stories.

I remember once on our way home from Lucky Supermarket (ice cream was on sale), Grampa mentioned that the check-out girl had been unusually curt.  He thought this was rather out of character for her and hoped that everything was okay. Most people, in my experience, would have complained about having been treated so rudely.  Grampa was genuinely concerned for the young lady’s welfare. He once told me that you can’t judge others until you’ve walked in their shoes (a proverb I’ve heard many times since then).


Things My Grandfather Taught Me: “It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about enjoying the company around the table.”

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Gramma and Grampa enjoyed getting together with their friends over weekends and playing card games.  We were thrown into the fun the few times my sisters and I happened to be staying with them during summer vacations.  We weren’t allowed to play, but we helped prepare the snacks (Chex mix, anybody?) and decorate the game room (AKA the dining room).  We could watch the first few hands of pinochle, but then we moved off to another room to play Old Maid or Go Fish.

Often, when it was just family, we would play poker, Nickel Knock or Kings in the Corner.  Sometimes we would break out the Tri-ominoes (like dominoes, but the playing pieces are triangular with three numbers on each token).  And Scrabble was a gaming staple.

But by far, my favourite was Cribbage, an old card game which is said to have been adapted from an older game known as Noddy.  A small board with pegs is used to keep track of points scored.  First player to 120 wins.  Grampa told me that it was a favourite game of sailors, used to fill uneventful hours crossing the vast seas.  I am sure passengers would play!  (My friend Donna and I filled the hours waiting in queues at Disneyland by playing Cribbage!)

Grampa educated me in all of his strategies.  But what he really taught me, most powerfully through his example, was that we play games to have fun, not to win. Grampa enjoyed every single game he played, whether he lost or won. He’d play his hardest (and probably won a lot more times than he lost), but his purpose was clear:  he was there to have fun and enjoy the company.

Anyone up for a game of Cribbage?

Things My Grampa Taught Me: Make time in each day for a little playfulness.

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Mine was a serious childhood.
I’m not sure why.
For whatever reason, I took it upon myself from a young age to be the responsible one.  I carried around a massive weight, thinking that if I worked hard enough I could make everything in my family right.
It didn’t work.  Things never got “right.”

However there were a few times in my youth when I laid the burden down, and for a short while felt light and carefree. It was Grampa who set the tone and gave us permission to be silly for a brief season.

Once, while at our grandparents’ house, we were listening to Grampa’s old records.  One
of these was called “Cool Water.” Grampa explained the lyrics: a man and his donkey (named Dan) are traveling through the desert and they run out of water.  They keep seeing  clear, crystal springs, but these are merely mirages.  Grampa started dancing with us and we got really silly. I don’t think I ever laughed so hard before in my life.

Grampa wasn’t always giddy and playful; he could be as serious and responsible as the next grown-up.  However he knew when a little levity was in order and could kick up his heels better than anyone I knew. Grampa lived by the adage “Laughter is the best medicine.”  He made time in every day for a bit of fun and invited those he loved along for the ride.

Things My Grampa Taught Me: “If you put things away where they go when you are finished using them, you won’t waste time searching for them next time you need them.”

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org tools

My grandparents lived in the same beautiful house my whole life.
It was nestled on Trestle Glen Road, built on the undulating ground of Oakland.
While their front door was on the street level, the property sloped so that their bedrooms in the back of the house were on the second level. Then, in their tiny backyard, the ground suddenly rose again, higher this time than the roof.  The hill was covered with vegetation and sometimes (Grampa told us) deer and racoon would come down to feed.  He especially had problems when he planted a vegetable garden; his beans were a particular hit with the local wildlife.

My favourite part of the house was the basement.  (I have never lived in a house with a basement.)  It was situated under the bedrooms and was accessed by climbing down three small steps on the side of the house.  It was dark, cool and earthy-smelling.  The clothes washer and drier lived down there.  The raw beams supporting the floor of the house ran in parallel lines above one’s head.  Grampa had covered most of them with high-density foam, as he continually bumped his forehead walking from one side of the basement to the other.

Wooden cupboards were filled with home-canned preserves, jams and jellies.  The food freezer, which was like an enormous treasure chest and filled with all sorts of ice creams, also resided in the basement.

Grampa had a workbench down there, and he would spend hours each day (when he was retired) tinkering with odd bits of wood and metal.  I once helped him make a wooden puzzle.  He had hundreds of tools which he’d acquired throughout the years.  And he kept them all neatly displayed on a peg board.  Various sizes of jars were filled with nails and screws.  Grampa would take down a tool, use it and then put it right back where it lived.  He said to me, “If you put things away where they go when you are finished using them, you won’t waste time looking for them when you next need them.

This is a lesson I am still learning today.
(Now where did I put those keys?)

hoto credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhest09/8413472121/“>roberthest</a> via <a

Things My Grandfather Taught Me: “Chew your food slowly and thoroughly.”

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slow down

Some of my favourite memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas took place at Gramma and Grampa’s house, especially around the dinner table.  Years when the whole family was gathered – cousins, aunts and uncles – the grown-ups feasted in style in the dining room, while the kids were relegated to the kitchen.  We made our own kind of fun (like adorning our fingertips with pitted olives), but each of us waited impatiently for the year when we would finally graduate to the china-clad, big-people table.

I got the honour of sitting next to Grampa my first year with the adults.  He always sat at the far end of the table, near the cuckoo clock; Gramma would sit at the other end of the table, near the kitchen door.  The pre-meal privileges included helping in the kitchen, and I joined Grampa as he sliced the meat.  He wielded the carving knife with skill and explained why he cut the turkey the way he did — thin slices of the basted breast and thick wedges of succulent thigh.

When all were assembled we would pause and Grampa would express thanks for the gathered clan. And then the dishes, piled high with fragrant annual indulgences, would be passed from person to person around the table in a clock-wise direction — turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, beans, salad, rolls, sliced pickles and black olives.

When the plates were no longer visible beneath the festive food, we would dig in.  Before groaning and pushing back our chairs, each person would give in to the temptation of seconds.  I remember clearly that year, as I finished my second potato portion, Grampa was still finishing up his first helping.  I half jokingly told him that he’d better hurry up or there would be nothing left for him.  He smiled and told me that  he’d get there.  He explained that he chewed each mouthful as much as possible and that eating slowly was good for the digestion.

However there was more to it than just good dietary practice.  Grampa savoured every bite.  He celebrated the flavour of every mouthful.  And he ate in the same manner in which he did almost everything in his life — slowly, carefully and meticulously.

There’s something in me that has difficulty slowing down.  I take life two stairs at a time.  I have to remind myself on a daily basis what Grampa taught me so long ago:  taste and enjoy the food that is in your mouth (and swallow!) before you raise the next forkful to your lips.

Things My Grandfather Taught Me: “Give praise where praise is due.”

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grampa cribbage

My grandfather’s name was Charles Douglas Johnston. He was an amazing man and an incredible role model.  Seven children had the privilege of calling him Grampa — Grampa Charlie.  And I was the eldest of those seven fortunate ones.

Tomorrow (1 February) Grampa would have turned 98.  He missed celebrating his birthday by 26 days.

To honour this humble man, I am going to spend his birthday month sharing some of the wisdom Grampa modelled, some of what I learned from him.  He taught me to give praise where praise is due.  He always applauded deeds well done and encouraged spirited tries.  These posts are to offer “praise where praise is due.”

Thank you, Grampa, for the love you gave us, for the life you joyfully lived with us, for imparting your wisdom to us (in word and deed), for giving so sacrificially — for your laughter, your smile, your sense of fun.

Hamba kahle, Mkhulu. Ngithanda wena!


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