My grandfather Fred Goff was an Iowa farmer who didn’t talk much. He taught me how to shoot a rifle and drive a tractor. Grandpa Goff was always kind to me, my brother, and my sister, but Mom told us that, if riled, he could spit out a creative string of curses. I never saw that side of him. No, unfortunately, what I remember is that he often stared out the farmhouse kitchen window when he wasn’t in the fields. They didn’t have any money and I imagine he often worried about making do. He and my grandmother Hazel did manage to send three of his kids, including my mother, to college, the first of their generation. But it couldn’t have been easy. Grandpa didn’t even own his farm. He rented it from a fellow in Chicago. After Grandma died, Grandpa occasionally came to visit us in the Chicago suburbs. He often sat on the sofa, paging through magazines, a man out of place who I now think was just biding his time, waiting to join Grandma. But there’s one series of memories I have of my grandfather that tickles me. He could do chin-ups, even in his 70s. From the time I was a little kid through high school, when we went to the farm, Mom would occasionally egg Grandpa into showing off for us. He’d give a little smile, grab the branch of an apple tree, and pump off 10 chin-ups in a few seconds.
Another relative of that generation was my great-aunt Evelyn who always had a smile on her face. She and her husband, my great-uncle Eldo, ran the old Templar Lodge on Spirit Lake, Iowa. Eldo oversaw the huge complex, and Evelyn operated the kitchen. They had a cabin nearby and we often had family reunions there. I learned to fish at Spirit Lake from my older cousin Dick and we have photographic evidence of our skills at this sport – long stringers of perch, bluegills, and bullheads. Our beds were on the porch and we’d fall asleep to the rhythm of the waves. Evelyn and Eldo eventually retired and moved to Evening Shade, Arkansas, in the Ozarks. She was in her 70s and still showing us the skills she acquired at Spirit Lake: water-skiing. I loved watching her gracefully slalom side to side over the little boat wakes like she was a teen.
As impressed as I was by the youthful physical-ness of those two beloved relatives, what blew my mind is when my aunt Jean jumped out of an airplane on her 80th birthday. Jean jumped out of a plane in Arizona with her husband, Bob, watching proudly below. She was inspired by President George Herbert Walker who did the same thing for his 80th birthday. Not only did Jean and Bob make all of the arrangements for the jump, but a photo of her doing the big deed made its way to the Times Square jumbotron in New York.
I’m inspired by all three and love to brag about them. And it makes me think about my own grandkids, nieces, and nephews. I’m now close to that senior age where I wonder if anything I do makes an impression on them. Sure, they can say Grandpa/Uncle Rob told corny jokes and spent hours in his office writing, hogging the computer. The only extreme sports I practice are inadvertent, mostly dealing with ice on the driveway. Should I work on a new impressive feat of strength for my legacy? Perhaps buy a skateboard and learn how to ollie off a curb? Snowboard down from the tower at Hoffman Hills? Stick my head in a lion’s mouth at a circus?
I wonder if bragging about their elders is even – or will be – on their radar. They are so immersed in technology that maybe something that seems normal to me is unique to them. Maybe the memories of reading books together, telling bad jokes, gathering for holidays, and taking short hikes in the wilderness will be fond enough – something they can brag about after I’m gone. Maybe these are indeed my feats of strength.
I hope so, because I’m not jumping out of any planes. Never. For no one. Not even the young’uns.