Lessons Through LEGO’s: What my Grandfather has taught me
There was never a time in my life that I was so in awe of one human being. Like a priest, giving a powerful Sunday sermon, he commanded the crowd and all eyes were on him. He was in control without even saying a word. He not only had undivided attention, but he had the most moldable heart and mind one could imagine. However, this man wasn’t religious. He wasn’t even speaking to a crowd. He was my grandfather and he was speaking to me.
The smell of sweet cake began to fill the room as I heard the creaky oven door being opened. This was a common experience at my grandparent’s house. When I was younger I thought that my grandmother kept a cake in the oven at all times, anticipating her next guest and with the flick of a switch, a hot cake would be ready for the welcoming party to present. Even though this wasn’t true, she was the consummate 1950’s wife.
Winter in Las Vegas was far from brutal, the occasional dip into the 40’s but nothing steady. With very little prior experience with the cold temperatures, any day below 60 was freezing to me, causing me to don some sort of head wear and a coat.
The slow drone of the heater could be heard in the background as my grandfather cracked open the box to a freshly bought LEGO set. The only other audible sound, other than the spattering chatter between my grandparents, was the drone of the TV, constantly set, at the time of his life, to CNN. As talking head after talking head waxed poetic about the state of affairs in America, I couldn’t have been bothered to listen.
“Let’s get this started,” said my grandfather, with a warm smile.
We were off.
There is no two ways around it, my grandfather was the most influential male figure in my life at that time. When I was a boy, my father left the family, leaving my mother, two sisters and myself to work together through the times when the void was apparent. He was at my tee-ball games, drove me to my soccer practices and taught me the lessons of manhood. While the unimaginable strength of my mother filled the maternal side of my upbringing, my grandfather stepped into the paternal void. While my opinion has since changed, at the time, I was left with a palpable feeling of loss and uncertainty.
“Don’t worry about that piece,” my grandfather said to me, “the answer for where that goes will come with time.”
Like most houses occupied by people of impressive age, my grandparents house was a museum to life. Filled with trinkets from around the world, a statue from South Africa, pictures for Australia and even a piece of the Berlin Wall, their house was a collection of artifacts from a life well spent.
If the house was a museum, my grandfather’s library was the centerpiece, the Mona Lisa in a sea of paintings, the Hope Diamond surrounded by second class gems. His leather bound law books, filled with knowledge that was second nature to him, seemed to be busting from the book shelves. Everything the room was a testament to the life he and my grandmother had made together though 66 years of marriage.
Countless pictures lined his walls. There were pictures from his day as District Attorney of Nevada, pictures with mobsters, pictures with politicians, pictures with people who fell in both camps. There were pictures with his father, the once governor of Nevada and pictures of his proud military family. There were pictures of poor people and of the rich. There were pictures in America and pictures from faraway lands.
These were pictures of life, and at ten years old, I could already begin to see the man that I wanted to be. I began to perfect my skills of emulation.
“I think I’ve got this one grandpa,” I said beamingly, as I placed it on the side of the pirate ship we were now building.
Building in the study always took longer than normal, my eyes jumping from picture to picture as I would slowly lose focus on the plastic pieces in front of me.
At times I would get frustrated, like any child of my age hoping to impress their idol. My hands quickly moved from piece to piece, blue, yellow and green plastic, grazing my hands as I tried my hardest to appear competent.
“Be patient,” he would say, as he saw my hands zipping across the mahogany oak table. “It will take a while with something like this, but…” As he spoke his aged hands moved through the piles, at a pace much slower than mine. He continued, “That is why it will be rewarding when we finish it.”
Almost with perfect timing, he pulled out the right piece. As if a director, with unbelievable focus and concentration placed the piece in the perfect place for my grandfather, he concluded his monologue with a nicely time crescendo.
“You planned that,” I quipped, with what I thought was wit. He smugly smiled with a bellowing laugh, saying, “Why would I ever do that?”
We would continue to build as the cake from the other room began to cool down and was then frosted. The smell began to emanate from the kitchen, getting stronger and stronger as more time went by. My grandmother, slowly shuffling with two plates in her hands, set two plates in between the plastic pieces of our project.
With a caring smile and a pat on the head, my grandmother set down the forks and told us to “enjoy”.
“Thank you for everything you do,” said my grandfather, standing up slowly, to give my grandmother a loving kiss on the cheek. With a smile, my grandmother walked away from the table, glowing like 66 years had reversed and she had just received her first kiss from my grandfather.
I was ten years old, no permanent father figure, no relationship to learn from. I was ten years old, unsure of my future, unsure of marriage in general. I was ten years old, and in just a few seconds, in just one six word statement, my grandfather proved to me that not only can marriage work, but how important being in love is. I was ten years old and I was in awe.
As years would pass, we would finish the pirate ship, we would finish planes, we would finish boats and we would even finish the skyline of New York City, all with patience and concentration.
When I come back from college, the low drum of the news still plays in the background. As my grandfather has aged, his politics has changed. CNN has slowly changed to Fox News, Anderson Cooper morphed to Glenn Beck, and while my politics may stand at odds with his, his messages of independence and confidence still hangs in the forefront of my psyche.
The cake is still served, no matter who walks in the door. The books still bulge from the bookshelves and the pictures still fill the wall. The LEGO’s have come and gone, ebbing and flowing into the endless list of hobbies I had as a child. The deep mahogany table still sits in the middle of the room, filled with memories of the past.
My life has changed and so has my grandfathers. He is a decade older, as am I, but the messages that were imparted on me during those winter days still stay with me.
“Never remain complacent,” said my grandfather on my most recent visit home. “I am so proud of you, you have learned so much, but never be happy with what you have. Always strive for more.”
I have learned so much, so much from him, my powerful influence.