The Old Man and the Tee
Cindy’s grandfather passed away this week.
And by marriage, “Pop-Pop” became my grandfather.
Like many people born before The Great Depression, he was simple and honest. Salt of the earth. A clean your tools when you’re done working kind-of-man. A gardener. A woodworker. There was so much of him in what he brought to life. Cucumbers and tomatoes. Roses and evergreens. Nightstands and bookshelves. His calloused hands birthed many things into the world that, without him, I fear the world will forever fall short of what it once was or will ever be again.
He hosted Thanksgiving dinners. His lawn, always green and trim, was the envy of his suburban neighborhood. For years, he decked his house with so many Christmas lights and ornaments that he was featured in the local papers. And he did all this with an effortless joy that, I suspect, anyone who ever met him secretly envied.
On our wedding night, after a few Crown Royals, he put his arm around me, pulled me close, pointed to Cindy and said, “If you’re good enough for my granddaughter, you’re good enough for me.”
I had this story pinned on my “stories-to-write” list for a while. But writing, like life, is easy to procrastinate. Until the phone rings. Until your wife strains, “No,” through her breath. Until you just sit, in a quiet house, and listen to her cry. Until you feel empty. Until you regret the things you never said. Until you replay stories about a good man in your head and you cry because you know, with bone certainty, the story you’re telling yourself is now a eulogy.
It was the summer of 2006. I was 26. Strong, spry, and still resembling my college soccer playing days. Pop-Pop was 79. He had doorknobs for knees, a degenerative hip, and was legally blind in his right eye. Yet he still golfed five days a week with that effortless joy. Around the clubhouse he was a celebrity. The grounds crew, the other golfers, and the kid in the Cubs hat behind the concession counter knew him by name, George. He had his own golf cart and his own key to that cart. Our morning coffee was always on the house, yet he insisted on paying. It was what I imagine golfing with Arnold Palmer was like.
My golf game was, and still is, wildly inconsistent. According to Pop-Pop, I tried too hard. In those days, I had the youthful propensity to complicate what is a relatively easy game. “Just hit the ball in the hole,” Pop-Pop would shout as I whiffed and thrashed on the fairway turf.
I would hit a shot fit for the PGA tour, but the next shot I would slice deep into the rough. Pop-Pop’s ball somehow always stayed on the fairway. What his shots lacked in speed and distance, he made up for with killer accuracy. His strokes were smooth and effortless, and it seemed like even his golf ball was enjoying itself on a warm summer morning.
My biggest problem on the golf course was driving. I wanted to pound the golf ball into submission. I wanted my back swing to split the world in half. I wanted the romance of a 300 yard drive. I wanted, if he ever wandered onto the course, to impress Arnold Palmer with my drive.
On every hole the following scene played out: I would stride to the tee box with my driver in hand. I would push my tee into the soft turf and top it with my neon green ball. Take a deep breath, straddle the ball with my feet shoulder width apart, fantasize about sending the ball like some neon green comet into the blue morning sky, and then, in the quiet moment before I swung, Pop-Pop would softly say, “You keep your eye on the tee and I’ll watch your ball.”
With my eyes locked on the uprooted tee, I asked, “What?”
“I lost your ball.”
Of course he did. He’s 79. And has one good eye.
Before every hole that summer, Pop-Pop promised to track my ball after every drive and after every drive he lost my ball. Every hole. Every drive.
After a round of golf, which he always firmly beat me, we would sit in the shade of his front porch and look over his well-kept lawn. He would have a tall glass of iced Crown Royal in his hand and I held a can of beer. I would fall into the warmth of his stories about growing up on a farm in Trenton, about climbing up to the crow’s nest of his Merchant Marine ship to shoot gliding seagulls, and about how there would be traffic jams on his street when he finished decorating his house for Christmas. And then after a long, comfortable silence he would say something like, “You know golf is not about strength. It’s about patience.”
Then I would say something like, “Yeah, but how do you make it look so easy?”
And he would say, “I guess, I learned not to try so hard.”
Peace be with you, Pop-Pop.
May your effortless joy find a place in my heart.
If you like this post, you may also like:
Need some encouragement? Some perspective? This hardworking, almost-handsome, suburban soccer dad can help. Subscribe and, like a pizza, get my posts delivered to your door (your email inbox). No spam. Just posts.