The journey home
I was going to write a real estate post to get back into the swing of things, but I decided instead to write about my vacation experience. It was more inspiring for me. I hope you enjoy it.
My grandfather just celebrated his 99th birthday. Based on what I observed, he seems like he still has many more to come. He has clear memories of his life, he recognizes people and interacts, he still has tremendous hand strength, and he comments on how you just have to “keep going.” At 99 I don’t know how many more years he has left, so I try to go back and see him at least once a year.
My wife and son are visiting her family in England, so I went up alone to visit my grandfather. It actually works out much better for him because I can sit and visit with him for hours without worrying about entertaining anyone else.
Each morning I went out to play golf (I played particularly well on this trip), and I would go visit my grandfather for 2 or 3 hours every afternoon. One of the nights, my grandfather, my Aunt and Uncle who still live in town, and I went out to dinner too. For four straight days, I got to spend a lot of time with him.
With 99 years of memories, there is plenty of fodder for conversation. Mostly, he likes to talk about World War II. It was the period in his life when he felt important, like he belonged to something larger than himself or his family. He was sent to France just after D-Day, and he was the company cook for about 180 men. He was caught up in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and he stayed with his unit until just after the German surrender. He was shipped home in August 1945, and he was married by October to my Grandmother Edna.
He was happy to be home.
He has half a dozen pictures of him with pretty girls — the real thing from 70 years ago! Apparently, he was a ladies’ man before he came back to America and married my grandmother. Hot translates through the ages.
Sometimes he will repeat a story, but I know his long-term memory is good because despite not remembering he told the story 20 minutes earlier, he repeats it with the same details strongly suggesting he is recalling the same 70-year old memory.
It’s hard being 99 years old. Everyone he knew growing up is dead. He is the oldest person he knows, and he sees new “old” people enter his home that are 30 years or more younger than he is. He’s outlived the people at his dinner table three or four turnovers.
At 99 years old, the pieces and parts don’t work as well as they used to. Fortunately, he isn’t on any long-term medications — which is likely why he’s lived so long. The eyesight gets poor, and hearing requires more concentration. Conversation is still pretty easy, particularly in a one-on-one setting.
As all of us age, at some point the senses deteriorate so badly that most contact with the outside world is gone. It’s difficult to watch TV when the screen is only partially visible with one eye, and the volume is on 100. Futility sets in, and people quit trying. Each day is like the last. The same routine. Over. And over. And over again.
Though it sounds dull, there is real joy in life at 99, particularly when someone takes a genuine interest in your life and loves you enough to hang out and spend some time. The rest of the time you long for the people you know and love to come back for another visit. With failing senses, you spend hours alone with your mind. Your dreams are of the past, your days are spent in the present, and future holds no further ambitions or distractions. Life at 99 is very simple, perhaps as it should have been all along.
Often we would sit in silence. No radio, no TV, no cell phone, no distractions. Sometimes he feels like he needs to talk to entertain me, but he doesn’t. I was completely comfortable sitting in silence and just being there. In fact, those were some of the sweetest times.
It was wonderful to spend so much time with him on this trip, but it was very sad to leave. At 99 years old, the only thing he has left is the brief visits from his family. When the family leaves, so does the only thing he really cares about. Watching him tear up when I said goodbye sent me into a tailspin. Fortunately, I got out to my car before I broke down and cried.
My favorite picture with him is from five years ago when I had the four-generation photo taken. I hope I get another next year. My son James will be 16, and he will probably be the tallest of the group.
When something is very old, it has a patina that reflects its exposure to the elements. The picture above shows what happens when a rock is exposed for several thousand years. A variety of lush mosses and delicate lichens very slowly creep over the surface. It takes decades for these rare half plant, half fungus cooperatives to grow to the size of a dime. An elaborate patina like the one above reflects tens of thousands of years of exposure and growth.
There is something indelible about seeing and touching a stone that has laid exposed for several millennia. It puts lifetimes into scale against the broad stretch of cosmic history. We make up the briefest glimpse at cosmic time. Being among these rocks inspires you to see your life in the grand scheme of things. These places touch me deeply.
One of the afternoons, I went out to the Mount Repose cemetery where most of my family is laid to rest. Three sets of great grandparents are here. Note the patina of lichens that grows up after 90 years of exposure on my mother’s grandfather’s headstone.
My grandfather’s parents are here. My great grandmother lived to be 99.
My father’s mother’s parents are here too.
My grandfather still enjoys the journey.
As I stood there among the graves of my ancestors, I contemplated my visits with my 99-year old grandfather, and I wondered what it’s all for.
I climbed the Friendship mound to commune among the rocks, rocks much older than I am, rocks that watched my ancestors live, prosper, and die.
I felt both very small and part of something very large at the same time.
I didn’t come up with any answers. I reveled in the wonder.
In the past I would grasp at some meaningful conclusion, but over the years I’ve come to believe that those that find an answer are lost. It’s the quest, the wonder, the Mystery that matters.
I need these trips back to my old rural hometown. It keeps me grounded in reality, the basics. I feel my deepest connection to land and community when I go up there, partly for my ancestors, and partly for my good memories and associations with growing up there.
Climbing the Friendship mound is akin to a trip to Mecca for me. The exertion from the climb raises my endorphin levels and gets my blood pumping. At the top, I ponder life perched on ancient exposed rock outcrops. I enjoy a great view of the countryside where my family’s ancestors all lived. It’s a deeply spiritual experience.
I first played golf forty years ago at Mound View Country Club in Friendship, Wisconsin. By the time I was in high school, I was a respectable player, and I could shoot near par on this golf course — but par eluded me for many years. One day, when I was 18 years old, I was one under par going into the last hole. I thought I would finally break through. I double-bogeyed the last home to shoot one over par.
Mound View is entertaining because it’s a nine-hole course with two sets of tees that you play as an 18-hole course. When I play there on vacation, I go in the afternoon, and I have the golf course to myself. I play two balls (or more if I see an interesting shot to try). It’s a great way to be out in nature without any pressures.
I like to play this golf course every year. It reminds me of times long ago. I finally equaled par there a few years ago, and I was playing golf well going into this trip. I had high hopes of shooting a good score, and I managed a two under par 69. The best part was finishing birdie-birdie going into the wind on the final two holes with perfectly executed iron shots landing close to the flag.
On this trip I went out to a rock formation known as Quincy Bluff. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently bought a lot of land with these rock outcroppings. The longer you stare at these rock formations the more things you see in them. (What do you see in the vertical stone on the left side beneath the leaning tree?)
I thought the DNR purposely cleared this area to expose these rocks, but I later found out a tornado cleared this area and left only the rocks. The area is slowly recovering. The bur oaks and jack pines, the pioneer trees, are tall as bushes. In thirty years, the grasses you see in the photo will probably be grown over with trees. This area is the subject of many essays in Aldo Leopolds classic, A Sand County Almanac.
Removing the tree cover exposes these rocks to the sunlight and makes for some dramatic photos that otherwise get trapped in shade or shadow. I went back on two occasions: once in the morning to catch the low east sun, and late in the evening to catch the low west sun. The lower the sun the more the colors get pulled out of these rocks. (Do you see a profile in the vertical rock on the right?)
Click any of the images for a high resolution version. The details make the pictures engrossing. iPhone quality is remarkable. Someday, I would like to capture these rocks with a better camera.
It was a good trip. I hope to do it again next year.
Do you see the face of a Native American warrior peering through the tree branches in the upper left corner of the image above? Zoom in on the large version, and you might see him.
Also zoom on the distant mound to see the stone sentinel standing guard on the left side of the rock fortress.
(remote hiking in Wisconsin Dells area below)
Note the mosses and ferns that dominate the wet drainages. Sandstone erodes quickly, so these rocks shift and move often.
Capturing the filtered light on the water was a nice chance effect.
Back to real estate writing on Monday. Have a great weekend!