I was eight when my grandfather died. And when you’re eight, there is still magic in the world. My grandfather, like my father, was my hero. I remember wonderful things about him. Things that a child’s memory freezes in time, and paints gold with the magic of a little girl’s love and admiration. I know he wasn’t a perfect man, but he was my grandfather, my Poppy, and I remember only the golden things, the magical things.
I remember him saddling up the horses in the ranch yard and taking me for a ride down to the airport business center for Mexican food. In the late 1970s in Aspen, Colorado, you could still do that — hitch your horse up outside a restaurant and go inside with your grandfather to eat a taco.
And I remember his Jeep. Mostly because it was gold and I didn’t know anyone else who owned a gold Jeep, but also because it had a huge eagle painted on the hood. It wasn’t a Jeep like you think of, not the Wrangler-type, but an old pickup truck used for ranch work and for running around town. It had scratchy cloth seats that reminded me of horse-blankets, scraps of hay on the floor, and a gear-shift that made loud noises as it was crunched from one gear into another.
I also remember receiving a fly-fishing kit from he and my grandmother for one of my birthdays, and being proud – so very proud – that I could now be like my older male cousins, a real live fly-fisherman. Poppy taught me to fly-fish up Maroon Creek, standing on the rustic wooden bridge just upstream from the family cabin.
But what I didn’t know about my grandfather was that he was a writer. I didn’t find that out until after he died and members of my family published a collection of his work posthumously.
My grandfather wrote short stories and poetry. According to my Aunt Mary, Poppy had a “surge” in writing that lasted the final ten years of his life. But I often wonder what he wrote before that, because as writers, we know that we are writers our whole lives. The “surge” comes, yes, but the writing has been there all along. For some of us, it takes time to let the muse free, to show the words to others, to admit that, yes, this is who we really are. So what did my grandfather write before, I wonder? What did he write as a boy? As a college student at Dartmouth? As a young father in Highland Park, Illinois? What were the pieces that did not make it beyond the first draft and the trash can in his office on Mill Street?
During my grandfather’s writing surge, he took one-on-one writing lessons with a creative writing professor in Boulder. He would sit in his office on Mill Street (his German Shepherd likely lying in the window as I always remember) and share his latest piece with any visitors who walked in. According to my aunt, he loved to have his writing read back to him, loved to hear his own words read aloud. With a particularly close visitor, he might have sipped Scotch and discussed the stories.
What survives of my grandfather’s writings exist in an anthology called Frontiers Past, self-published by my family in 1981. According to my aunt, most of the stories are based on real people and real events. He changed some names, but also left some names as they were.
My grandfather is well remembered in Aspen. There is a Henry Stein Park down by the Roaring Fork River and a statue of him on the mall downtown. But I want him to also be remembered as a writer, which is, I think, how all writers would like to be remembered.
The final page of Poppy’s book is a poem. It is entitled “To My Family.” I remember reading the poem in high school, and the final line always stuck with me. I think of it often, even now, twenty-eight years after I first read it, because the words describe how I myself am trying to make my way through the world – and how I, too, would like to be remembered:
“He did the best he could with what he had.”
So I will remember the horseback riding and the taco and the Jeep. And I will remember the German Shepherd in the window and the fly-fishing lessons. But I will also remember the writing. I will remember his love of an audience, his willingness to work on his craft, and his eagerness to discuss his words with others over a glass of Scotch.
I will remember you, Poppy, as a writer. For that is what a writer would want.
My thanks to my mother Pat Spitzmiller and my aunt Mary Dominick Coomer for their contributions to this post.