By Arthur H. Gunther III
If you are fortunate before you grow up, you’ll get to spend a few years with a patient, somewhat quiet, a bit odd grandfather like I did, who had a knack for fixing almost anything with a pocketknife or a squirt of oil from the old-style cans, made of metal with a long spout. You pressed the bottom, which was made of spring steel, and out came the oil. My grandfather could handle so many household problems with basic tools that it became a metaphor for building confidence.
To this day, the sound of the popped oil can brings me to a place where I did not pay bills, where I was fed without cooking for myself, where I was chauffered in my parents’ car, where I was tucked in at night, where the sunrise and chilled air of spring promised a good day of day-dreaming and hope for the future.
My grandfather did not say much, perhaps because he was raised in a time when you sat at the table with parents and simply ate, speaking only when spoken too. That he came from a Prussian family probably enforced the discipline. Yet he talked a bit at his own table, and certainly went beyond his usual word-thrifty ways when he took time to explain carpentry to me, or a fix for a leaking faucet or to tell me my bike needed oiling. Even if it did not, I would ask him to do so, having ridden the three miles from my home to his for that reason and others.
Out to the garage he would go, an old, wooden structure with “novelty-style” siding the floorboards of which had absorbed so many car leakings that the warming sun produced a woodsy, oil smell which in time would no longer be an odor but a tug at great and warm memory whenever I come upon a similar scent.
So out to the garage my grandfather went, grabbing the copper oiling can from a shelf in the corner, just below markings my father made in the garage when he was my age. The bike would be oiled, as my dad’s bicycle had been, and I would be off on the same streets he rode upon.
That ride home would mostly include a look for friends, or a stop at the small downtown A&P for a plum or two or three at 19 cents a pound, or some thoughts about where I would be in a few years, driving a car, not a bike.
I did not usually think about my grandfather on that ride because I foolishly took him, my grandmother, their fine home and everything then existing for granted. I never thought that all could go away.
Now I know better, which is not a better thing. It is simply reality, so nicely interrupted when I again hear the spring sound from my own oiling can.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is based on an earlier one.