This June my father-in-law would have turned 96.
One of the worst parts of not having him around any more is that my kids never got to really know him. My oldest son was not quite a year and a half when Spike died. I was pregnant with my older daughter when he got what he thought was the flu, and days later died from a massive bacterial infection and heart failure.
So for all their lives my kids have heard about Grandpa Spike. They see pictures of him, hear stories, see his name on Dad’s work truck, as Spike named his business after himself, and it has been our livelihood and his legacy.
I knew my father-in-law, beyond just a name or to recognize his face, longer than I’ve known my husband. Which was a good thing, because he could be very intimidating.
He was a big man, a presence you had to notice. He could also be loud, startling even, when he wanted to make sure you knew he was there.
But for all his blustering, he often was content to just sit and not say much.
I knew him initially as a customer in the restaurant where I had my first “real” job. I had become a waitress and worked some weekend mornings when Spike and his wife would come in for breakfast. I recall the other waitresses would grumble, “there’s that grouch again”, and I would look at it as a challenge.
“He’s just a teddy bear,” I’d say, and march off to serve him his coffee with a handful of creamers (he preferred it black), just to make him yell. But it would soon turn into a chuckle when he realized I was egging him on to get a reaction from him.
It didn’t take long for him to become one of my regulars, and I liked it that way. I wasn’t easily intimidated, and he wasn’t easily won over, so it was a challenge for us both.
So fast-forward about seven years to the second date I went on with my not-yet-husband. After dessert we went to his parent’s house where he lived so that I could balance his checkbook and roll his change, things I loved to do and he never did. And meet his parents.
He warned me that his dad might be a little scary at first, but I assured him I wasn’t worried. I knew what I was in for.
I don’t know if he remembered me from the restaurant, but I had no trouble getting reacquainted with my future father-in-law. We went for cheap dates, so I spent lots of time in their living room. And once we were engaged we were down the road where our house was being built every spare minute, so we often dropped in to eat dinner with them.
Even after we were married and moved into our house, we didn’t have a phone for a few years, so I made a habit of stopping by their house most afternoons to make calls and chat with them. And see if they’d invite us to dinner.
Then when our first son came along, we broke down and got a phone, but the habit of stopping in almost daily stayed with me. Especially since the summer I was pregnant it broke records for the most days over 90 degrees, and I’d sit in front of a fan until I couldn’t stand it, then drive three miles to sit in delicious, cold air.
And since my mother-in-law was not a big talker, and my new husband took after his mom, Spike and I carried the conversations. I loved his stories and jokes and pronouncements on the latest happenings in our world.
One of my absolutely proudest moments came when he showed me how much attention he’d been paying to the things that were important to me. We were out to dinner with them, and walking through the restaurant I was behind him carrying our one-year old son. Spike pointed at the baby and told everyone along the way, “Look at this kid. Look how healthy he is. He hasn’t had a drop of anything but mother’s milk his whole life. Not a drop of water, no juice, no cow’s milk, just mother’s milk. Isn’t that something?”
I never asked him why he was so impressed by this, but he was, and it was the most empowering thing I think anyone had ever said about me to my face.
He’ll never know how, when our second child was born a few months after he died, and I would breastfeed her, I would picture him standing over me, bragging about how healthy she was, and by association what a good mom I was.
It was the same for our other children as they came along, for all the years I nursed them I had Spike’s voice in my head cheering me on.
Some of my children look like him in ways. Others have some of his personality traits. Or maybe I just like to imagine they do, because I got such a kick out of knowing him that I want them to be a little like their ornery grandpa.
And when they did seem to act like him, I’d just say what he always said to his grandkids, “Go outside and get the stink blown off you!”
Spike was a hard worker, proud of a job well done, but also a man who liked to kick back in his recliner and chuckle over a corny joke, especially if he could goad you into laughing with him.
So when my kids are horsing around or lazing after a long day, I like to think that Spike would have loved to sit with them, maybe holler to get their attention, have them pull his finger, or just lean back and smile at the parts of himself he would see in each one.
And that’s the real legacy.