How A 35-Year-Old Letter Connected My Son To The Grandfather He Never Knew

Photo Credit Jim Higley
Photo Credit Jim Higley

“Was I really like Grandpa?”

The question morphed out of thin air. I was sitting at my computer with my 20-year-old son a few feet away from me sprawled out on the couch multi-tasking his phone and the television.

I wondered what prompted the question. “What?” I asked as I tried to focus on what may have triggered the inquiry. “Was I really like him? I have absolutely no memory of him.” I paused and looked confused.

“Dad,” he continued, “Grandpa died when I was one. Was I really like him?”

I closed my laptop. And just stared at this boy-turned-man. The more years that pass, the more the storyline of life becomes blurred. But this storyline – the one about a child who never knew his grandfather needed my attention.

“You are remarkably like him, Drew,” I started. “Grandpa was funny. He was the kindest man I knew. He had an enormous heart and was super-passionate about helping people in need. Driven. Focused. And a tad impatient.” I stopped. And paused. Thinking that would be enough.

“I don’t remember his voice,” Drew said. “Do you have any videos or movies with Grandpa?”

His question prompted me to think about a project I began several years ago – but never finished. I was, back then, committed to transferring all of our family movies – including several from my own childhood – to digital. I never finished. Truth is I barely began. And I have a big box in my storage unit full of VHS tapes and even some old Super-8 movies to prove it.

“Dad? Movies?” I felt guilty. I didn’t want to tell Drew the truth. But I remembered a box in my bedroom closet that contained a mishmash of memories I’ve kept over the years. Handmade cards from the kids. Newspaper clippings. Obituaries. And – I hoped – some letters that I had saved from my father over the years.

“Hold on,” I told him. “I might have something,” as I exited to my bedroom and found the box exactly where I had left it a long time ago. Rummaging through the box was like an archeological dig. Grade school report cards. Mine. Not the kids. Children’s art. Cards that – for various reasons – I couldn’t bare to toss. But nothing from my dad.

There was, however, something. And it made me stop dead in my going-down-memory-lane track.

It was a letter. But this letter was written by me. I wrote it on my 21st birthday and then mailed it to my father. I was away at college. Away just long enough, I suppose, to begin to realize the incredible, caring man my father was. He had raised me alone from the time I was 14 after my mother died. Any physical or emotional void in my life he filled so wonderfully with his love. And I remember, as a 21-year-old boy, that I wanted him to know who he was to me.

“Dad…” And with that one word, I launched into an eight page, handwritten letter, that described to my father just who he was to me. In vivid, real, only-a-son-can-share detail.

I sat on my bed, allowing myself to go back and embrace the emotions behind those words – written 35 years ago – as tears dripped steadily from my cheek onto my lap.

I cried, mainly, because I had forgotten the way my father made me feel every day of my life.

I had forgotten how I found safety, comfort, joy and happiness in the smallest of things that were him. But my words brought those feelings back to life.

I had found that letter in my father’s desk after he passed away. He kept it in a drawer all that time. Protecting it throughout the 16 years before he died. No video or movie could describe who this man was to me more than the words on those eight pages.

I walked in the other room where Drew was still multi-tasking. “You should read this,” I said to him as I handed the letter to Drew. “What is it?”And I told him the story of the letter as he pulled the aged sheets from inside the envelope, placed his phone on the table, and began to read.

Photo by Jim Higley
Photo by Jim Higley

When he finished, he said nothing. Nor did I.

“That,” he began as he broke the silence. “That was really moving, Dad. Grandpa must have loved this letter.”

My son detests me crying – but this was a moment I had no control over the tears filling my eyes.

“I wanted him to know who he was to me, Drew. Because, truly, he was everything.”

Drew looked at me. Quiet. The beginning of a peaceful grin. And for the first time, I think, he understood what it means when I say that he’s just like his Grandfather. Sure, it’s a little about his quick wit. His passion. His compassion and drive.

But now he knows, when I tell him that he’s just like his Grandfather, that I’m telling him how he makes me feel.

Photo by Jim Higley My son, at the age of one, and my dad. The only picture of them we have.
Photo by Jim Higley
My son, at the age of one, and my dad. The only picture of them we have.
TC mark

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