Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Sighing Thing

"Oh, God!" he sighed, heavily. So heavily I thought he and the ancient, paint-stained,  ladder back chair he was sitting in were going to sink through the scraped and scratched wooden plank floor to the soil beneath. I waited for the thunk! -- it never came. His eyes were closed, but he wasn't sleeping. Nor was he being profane.  

"It's all right, Beggar, he's just praying," my grandmother said, overhearing him. I wondered if she knew how many times I'd heard him before. So many I'd lost count.

I looked at her and smothered a smile. Did she really believe that or was she trying to preserve my youthful innocence, the very thing my grandfather -- her husband -- had done his best to turn into good judgment, something he considered eminently more practical.  

He did the "sighing thing," as I came to think of it, mostly while sitting in the shade near our bunkhouse door. It wasn't really a bunkhouse, but we called it that, just the same. It was a detached single car garage that had never housed a car, at least in my memory. My father converted it into a saddle shop at one point and I've written about cutting firewood for his stove. Summers, it was the bunkhouse where my grandfather stayed. Those months, I've realized since, were a journey in character development.

"If you absolutely have to point a gun at someone to protect yourself or your family," he said once, "it's too late for threats. Indecision at a time like that can be deadly." He spoke from experience. Another summer night, years before, he stared down a neighbor who had the nasty habit of occasionally firing his gun in the general direction of my grandfather. "The man's crazy," he said, refusing to get dragged into something he knew he'd have to finish, "and besides, he can't shoot worth a damn." Only this particular evening, it was different. The man had shot at my father who was about my age and I was thirteen. 

Why not call the police or sheriff, I imagine you're thinking. That would have been the thing to do, if they'd had a phone. Forty miles into barely civilized northwestern Colorado, the ranch was a two or three hour drive by Model A Ford from the nearest town. There were no phones, nor were there corner stores or gas stations. I'm not even sure there was electricity. It wasn't that you took the law into your own hands, there just wasn't anyone else who could take it into theirs.   

So, father and son rode out to address the situation. Watching the scene unfold, my father was fearful, certain he was going to witness my grandfather meet out justice just as his father had fifty years earlier. In my imagination, reliving those long seconds, I see my grandfather with a look in his eye that left no doubt, as his hand strayed to the pistol at his side, that he fully intended to use it. The neighbor must have seen that look, too, because he backed down and that was the end of it.

Grandchildren are a second chance for parents to get it right. Those summers, I was my grandfather's trusty teen sidekick, Cowboy Toby to his Roy Rogers (photo). I listened, learned, and hopefully digested far more than I actually remember. I've never forgotten the "sighing thing," though, nor the day I finally asked him what it meant.

I'd really been hoping he'd tell me himself when he was good and ready. That's how things usually went between us, though I never knew from day to day where his mind would lead. But it was nearing the end of summer and he'd said nothing, so I screwed up the courage one day and asked what was he thinking about when he sighed so deeply. He was surprised I'd noticed. How could I not? 

"You live as long as I have, Beggar, you're going to make a few mistakes. Don't be afraid, everybody makes a few and so will you. Some, maybe most, don't matter, least not as much as we give them credit for. People who know you, forgive like you forgive them. Some mistakes do matter -- maybe more than they should, but that doesn't change the fact. Problem is, you either don't realize it or you're too stubborn to admit it, until it's too late. I think about those."

"So you don't make the same ones again, right?" 

"No, because I made them the first time." 

I was too young to understand regret. Sorry, wish I hadn't said or done this or that, oh yes -- plenty. Regret was something else, something -- I don't know -- bigger, something I hadn't lived long enough to become acquainted with. Something that only comes about with experience, with trying to do what you think is right even though you don't and can't know everything but you have to try anyway because it's all you can do and it's really all anyone can do. Don't worry, we all make mistakes, so will you. It's okay. My grandfather said so.

Happy Thanksgiving.

(Creative Commons image by vintagecobweb,com via Flickr)
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