The offerings have been pretty sparse from these parts over the past week or so, and there’s a reason for that. Last Sunday night, Delbert Crawford, my grandfather, died at a little after 11 o’clock, at 102 years of age.
My earliest memories of him are of his hands. Holding some toy or other we were showing him, they turned it over, examining it slowly, deliberately. They were strong then, and rough, so rough that they would catch on a sweater if you were wearing one.
The morning of the day he died, I held his hand and it was as soft as a dream. A final memory.
In between there is much, too much to set down here.
But this is how it works. At a Senior PGA event the mind wandered to the accomplishments of old men. At Churchill Downs, it sprinted to him telling about riding his horse, Buck, to school, and of how the horse would take off when he had barely gotten onto him. He wanted to be a jockey for a time, but outgrew it. These are the tracks your thoughts gallop onto even when you need them to go elsewhere.
So tonight, a full stop to look back. I have written about him before in this space, particularly on his one-hundredth birthday, but also when I missed his one hundred second birthday party, and at other times.
He was born in the latter days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, at the tail of the horse-and-buggy era, when this country had probably fewer than twenty miles of paved roads. Several months before he was born the Wright Brothers made headlines for keeping a plane in the air for more than an hour. Several months after his birth, Commander Robert E. Peary was hailed as the first person to reach the North Pole. Six months after his birth, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for its first race – of hot air balloons. Gas was six cents a gallon.
I have written about how my grandfather went west prospecting for gold as a young man, and worked herding sheep after that venture didn’t pan out.
What I haven’t written about is what kind of man he was, the kind of man, who, as my father, Byron Crawford, related about him in remarks at his funeral, refused a handicap parking tag when my grandmother brought up the subject after he underwent hip surgery at age 99. The kind of man who walked to the hospital the day his son was born because the snow was too deep for driving – but walked off the road, in the woods, so no one would think he needed a ride. The kind of man who, at age 97 when his wife took him to Lowe’s to pick out new kitchen linoleum, listened to the salesman talk about a floor with a 30-year guarantee, then a 20-year, before piping up and asking, “Do you have any with a 5-year guarantee?”
On his next-to-last night, I went back back to the house with my grandmother, Lucille Crawford, his wife of 67 years who truly is the major reason he enjoyed such longevity, and who attended him virtually round-the-clock in his final years. She pulled off a shelf his dictionary, and I leafed through it. It was worn with a duct-tape spine. He would spend hours trying to work “Scramble” word puzzles out of the newspaper, and had placed a mark next to every word he ever looked up. He wrote lists on pages, as if putting down markers for his memory – a list of places he’d lived and worked in Arizona and New Mexico. A list of his brothers and sisters, with numerals beside each name to mark their birth order. The names of great-grandchildren and the spouses of grandchildren.
After he died, my dad fished out a number of notes and letters his father had written to him after he took a job writing for the newspaper, long, thoughtful pages from those same hands.
I won’t be able to quote my dad exactly, and I wonder even if he remembers the exact words he said at the funeral service, except to note that these pages, just days before, had been mere thoughts Delbert Crawford had written down. But today, for us, they are treasures.
In his last days, he had trouble communicating at times, struggling to form the words. Who would have thought in death he would speak so eloquently?
I’m afraid there’s no tidy conclusion here, just a period on the sentence. As a young man, he worked in a movie theater, and said those cowboy movies helped inspire him to head west toward adventure, that trek in a Model-T Ford to search for gold, and later to herd sheep on the southern fringe of the Rocky Mountains. He told of getting lost one day, and of getting plenty nervous until he dropped the reins and let his burro go where it wanted – which was right back to camp. Among the slips of paper we read after he died was one that said the cowboy life was probably best suited to those who grew up with it, not those who chose it for the romance or adventure. Regardless, having lived all that life out west seemed to offer him, Delbert wound up taking a bus back to Kentucky from California
In those last days, I thought about him on that burro. It seemed to me that having lived all that life had for him, he packed up his tired tent of a body, laid down the reins and went on back home.
But as with his dictionary, where the marks of his hands show where he had been, he marked the trail of his long life with enduring expression and a postscript of memories.