It’s been a over a year since my grandfather, William J. Engle, passed away on February 14, 2013. He was 89 years old. I got caught up in my life before I really had the chance to write anything about his passing. My heart still stung with grief when my mother told me on a phone call on a cold but clear February morning. Two deaths in 6 months was too much for me to handle, too much for me to live with. I wanted to be numb, unaffected and so, I was.
When I was 6, maybe 7, my parents and I went to Canada, where my grandparents owned a small cabin, pictured above. I was sitting in the kitchen, at the long dining table, eating breakfast. It was cold cereal with milk, probably something that turned the milk a pale pink or purple. I never finished the milk in the bowl after I ate my cereal; I disliked the little bits of cereal floating in the off-color milk. My grandfather gave me, a young child, a hard time about not finishing the milk. He was upset, repeating “She didn’t finish her milk. She should finish her milk.” I vaguely remember being ashamed and my parents being dismissive of his concerns. This interaction feels like a small but important detail that helped define my relationship to him.
I didn’t really know my grandfather very well and I know only the generally understood details of his life. He was a dairyman and milked 40 cows, everyday, twice a day by hand until the early 1980s. He cared for his children, lost both of his wives in his long life. I can conjure up memories of a quiet man from my earliest years. He was quiet, reserved until the end. He didn’t talk too much about his past but enjoyed his present while fishing, boating, hunting, building, fixing, tinkering. I didn’t see him very much in my teenage and adult years, as I was out in the world, away from the town I grew up in. I distanced myself from him because I wasn’t sure how to have a relationship with him. His life and my life felt very different from one another and I had no idea how to connect with him in any meaningful way.
I realize now, this far from his death and living a much different life than I was a year ago, that I could’ve actually connected with him had I understood how he spent his life. I know he valued hard work. In the last year of his life, he expressed approval at my interest in agriculture. I would’ve liked to talk with him about his farm, his cows, his work.
I also realize that the one defining interaction that I had with him, regarding unfinished milk, wasn’t really about my personal habit. It was only until recently I understood why he was so bothered by that half a cup of milk poured down the drain that particular July morning. His life was defined by his work and so much of his work was milking cows. He didn’t own a modern dairy and he milked his cows by hand for so long, that half of cup of milk represented to him several minutes of his work day. He was insulted that someone could throw away his time like that.
I understand, finally. Every time I have cold cereal now, I finish the milk in the bowl, without hesitation.