Three White Horses

Dear S, 
 
Someday this is going to make much more sense to you.  But I want to tell you a story about two men that I love. They're men that you love, too, even if you don't quite understand it...
 
So one day a few years back, I got a call from my parents when my grandpa Leonard (my dad's dad, your grandpa's dad!) was dying. We'd been waiting for the end for a while, but -- as I'm now learning with the birth of my son -- life (and death) care little for our timeframes. Still, he'd taken a turn, and my dad told me that if I wanted to say anything to him in person, this might be my last chance. So I hopped on a Grayhound with two outfits and my laptop in a bag and started off towards Minnesota. 
  • hey Dad, I was in Starbuck's today, working on my dissertation, when this song came up in my Spotify queue...

Fifteen miles or so outside of Chicago I took out my laptop and started thinking: what do I even want to say to him? My grandpa had owned and edited the local newspaper in Henderson MN for many years. He'd be a harsh (but fair) critic. I was nervous that I'd start reading him a letter and he'd look around for a red pen...still, I opened a document.

 

April 21, 2014

Dear Grandpa Leonard,

Here’s what I know about you. When I was young we’d visit you and Grandma in Henderson. The trip felt -- to the three of us kids in the backseat -- like it took a day and a half. Whenever we were within city limits Russell -- my dad, your son -- would look over his shoulder at us and tell us to stop bickering, look out the window at that dike. “They built that up because it used to flood so bad down here,” he’d said. “We’re right in the river valley.” He’d tell us about the time there was water above some of the rooftops. When we’d arrive at your house he’d get out the scrapbooks and show us pictures. One of them was of you, thick glasses, driving a motorboat down mainstreet. “That’s your grandpa,” he would say, pointing at you. I’d always compare. The man in the picture, the one manning the boat, he looked sort of like you. Younger though. And smaller. To me, you were a mystery of time and age. A visitor from the yellowy past of newspaper clippings, living here, in the future, with a new pair of glasses and a grandpa costume. It took me a few years until I finally actually believed that it was you in that picture. This, though, might have had less to do with my underdeveloped conceptions of time and aging, and more to do with something else: I’d learned early on not to trust a Blaschko when he told a story -- not even my own dad.

 

I listened to the song "Three White Horses" by Andrew Bird (above) pretty much on repeat this whole time. My grandfather had been fascinated by horses. He had pictures of horses all over his house. He'd once owned some horses, I think, but his respect for them bordered on reverence. At fourth of July parades, when the horses rode by, he'd grab my shoulder and point them out. 

"Look at them horses," he'd say. And then without looking away: "Beautiful." 

 

There'll be three white horses, all in a line

There'll be three white horses in a line

Three white horses, when you go that way

You will need somebody when you come to die

 

Another story from the past you belonged to -- one that I’d hear about from time to time at holidays when voices started getting louder around the card tables and drinks started disappearing more quickly -- was that you, when you’d hear sirens, would load the kids up the car -- all still in their pajamas -- and chase the firetrucks to some smoldering local disaster. It was the story you were after. A newspaper man, Leonard Blaschko, you had to be first to the scene, had to get the scoop. I can imagine you hunched over at the table, hours later, trying to have final copy done in time for the deadline; your sleepy children waking up and wandering downstairs to the sound of a chattering typewriter. 

 

  • Anyways, the song totally brought me back to those last few days, and it was like somebody'd punched me in the face. I felt the tears welling up. It's sort weird, but I've been getting super emotional lately about fatherhood -- Shayla blames it on my "pregnancy emotions" -- I've been thinking about how grateful I am for all the things you taught me. For how much I looked up to you as a kid, and still do. For how much Grandpa's philosophy of life has carried over into the way that I treat people on a daily basis.

 

We played cards with you for hours, even as kids. Dollar a game, quarter a buck -- though you didn’t always make us pay when we were really young, you’d sometimes hit up our parents -- you own children -- for the balance of our debts. “Gotta learn sometimes,” you say laughing. You were always laughing.

This was, without a doubt, the winner's table... 

This was, without a doubt, the winner's table... 

Come to think of it, you taught me how to play slots, too. On your very own slot machine. Kept the key in it so when we ran out of quarters from the jar you kept on top of it we could open it up and start over. This may have been the single best lesson about gambling I ever learned: “Why,” I remember asking myself, “do I always inevitably run out of quarters?” It’s like the odds are against you when you gamble or something...Well, the odds were always against me. Somehow, and I’ll never quite figure this out, you had a way of bending those odds in your favor. A fact you enjoyed in full everytime you won yet another game of Pfeiffer. “It’s all in the cards,” you’d laugh. But I’ve long suspected otherwise...

 

When I got to the hospital room you looked worn. You were skinny. You spoke with difficulty, but I could understand you. But you still laughed. Every time you asked the nurses to turn the blanket that covered your legs around. "Hor-ses up!" You'd say. The blanket, covered in pictures of horses in full gallop, had to be right-side up. "They can't run," you said -- laughing -- when they gave you a hard time about being picky.

Here's something I'll never forget, though. Your breaths were labored. It was hard for you to talk, but you made the effort. I read this letter to you. You cried. I cried. You held me close. You told me, "I don't want to go yet. You're all just having so much fun. I don't want you to have all the fun without me." 

For grandpa life was a party. A beautiful celebration, with laughter and food and drink and games and -- most of all -- family. Who would want to leave a party like that? 

 

  • Anyways, I was quickly packing up so that I didn't lose it in front of the barista and everyone, but then this line came up:

 

Don't dismiss it like it's easy

Tell me what's so easy'

Bout coming to say goodbye

You're gonna miss her in the evening

You know I won't be needing

Somebody when you come to die

 

  • And I just couldn't help myself. Tears streaming down my face as I quietly made my way to the bathroom. I miss Grandpa so much. I'm so sad that my son will never miss him. Tearing up again in the library, just writing this email to you.

 

You taught me how to drink, too. I had my first sip of coffee at your house; a tablespoon of the black, bitter liquid was enough to get the reaction you were looking for on my face. You laughed as I stuck out my tongue and hacked. A few years later it was the same old trick, this time with a beer. Looking back, I can understand why someone might have said you weren’t the “best influence” on us grandkids -- but, honestly, they’d be wrong. You were always right there, smiling, laughing, teaching us temperance in lessons that were as fun for you as they were memorable for us.

You’d take us fishing. God bless you for that. You certainly couldn’t have enjoyed it. I remember you tried to convince me once, to stop moving from the front to the back of the boat. “The fish,” you’d said. “They can hear your footsteps -- they’ll all hide on the bottom of the lake!” I never told you, but this just made me stomp more heavily. Secretly, I never wanted you to catch any fish. I was afraid you’d hang it down on your line in front of my face and tell me to “Grab that squirming thing like a man, with your fingers right around the fins.” I never learned how to grab fish like a man, or to bait my own hook. Once you stopped doing it for me, I got Russell to do it for me. When he quit, embarrassed to bait a hook for his grown son, I got married. Now Shayla baits my hook and takes the fish off. I have to give you credit for trying, but Jesus Christ himself couldn’t get me to touch one of those slimy panfish if he walked across the lake with the promise of eternal life if I took just one fish off the hook. I would have done to him what I used to do to you in that situation: shield myself behind one of your unused worm towels and squeal like a little girl until you figured it wasn’t worth the additional fish I was scaring off. There’s only so much a grandpa can do.

 

There'll be three white horses in a line

There'll be three white horses in a line

There'll be three white horses when you go that way

You will need somebody when you come to die

It's not desperation that we're breeding

It's just a need we're feeding

Before we say goodbye

 

  • Anyways. I made it to the bathroom. Found a stall. Sobbed for a good 5 minutes.
    And I just wanted to share this with someone. Facebook was the natural inclination, but it felt too personal for that. I wanted someone who understood. Who would miss Grandpa when they heard the song, too. So, anyways, I just decided to email you.

 

I have your name, Grandpa. I’m proud as hell of that. It used to embarrass me, I’ll admit. “Leonard,” is a name that sort of sticks out in a generation of Zacks, Hunters, and Dustins -- but now, I wouldn’t trade that name for the world. I wear it like a badge and when people ask me my middle name nowadays I whip out my license to prove it. “It’s Leonard,” I tell them. “After my paternal grandfather. He was sort of a sonofabitch, but also a helluva man.” (Did I mention you also taught me how to curse?) Sometimes I start laughing, too, when I think of all these memories. I love you Grandpa -- and I’ll always carry you with me. Your name, your laugh, and your big, smiling face.

Love always -- your grandson,

Paul Leonard Blaschko

 

 You're gonna miss me in the evenings

You know I won't be needing

Somebody when you come to die

Yeah, I won't be needing

Somebody when you come to die

 

  • I miss Leonard. I miss you guys. I can't wait for you to meet my son, and for me to introduce him to his Grandpa. Deacon-Grandpa Russell. I can't wait to tell him all about where he came from and to share this song with him. Tearing up again so I'm going to cut it off :) Love you! Your son, Paul

 

All my love.

Your father,

Paul