Senior Life
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Grandpa John's lesson

By Mike Fak

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[June 10, 2011]  Like many of us, I have fond memories of grandparents. My grandpa John and Grandma Mary gave me a lifetime of treasured memories but none as important to me as this story I am about to tell.

John and Mary Treacy were off the boat Irish. Coming to America in the 1920’s they found a small house on the south edges of what is now called Wrigleyville in Chicago and raised two children; my mom and uncle John.

Grandma and grandpa took well to the American ways except for a few. Grandma never got used to having a refrigerator and made a trek to the local stores each day for that evening’s meal. And Grandpa John, although fluent in English, had an Irish brogue so thick that sometimes you weren’t sure what the heck he was saying.

Grandpa was a big man. Standing six foot one or more and probably 245 pounds, he was what we would say was a barrel-chested man with arms that were the size of most men’s thighs.

Grandpa worked laying the huge drainage and soil pipes that the growing city required and it was a tough, physical task that brought him home in the evenings looking like he had been in a fight.

We lived about a mile from their house so that wasn’t much of a trip for me on my bike most evenings when I was really hungry and needed a big, good meal.

Now I want it made clear that I am certain my dear mother is in heaven. I am also certain that she has nothing to do with kitchen duties in the great beyond. Grandma Mary was a great cook, my mom only knew one way to cook something and that was burned to a crisp. Thus, when given the opportunity, I biked on over to grandma and grandpa’s

My clearest memories of Grandpa are of him sitting at the dinner table in his tee shirt with a towel draped across his neck. “Michael, a person isn’t eating if they don’t break into a sweat” he always said

I will never forget grandma pulling grandpa’s steak out of the oven: a steak that actually was a roast for eight people. Then there were the huge mixing bowls of cooked onions, mashed potatoes, green beans or corn and a loaf of Irish soda bread. Grandpa had given up heavy drinking many years before but allowed himself one quart of Millers at the evening meal.

I remember those meals and grandma telling me not to be shy and eat some more of the 5 pound piece of meat she had prepared for me those nights.

Sometimes there was a leg of lamb instead of steak and it was a LEG of lamb, not just a portion of one. I remember kidding that when the night called for fish, grandma just brought home a whole tuna for grandpa to devour.

Although I have many fond memories of those days, one that to this day gives me great sadness is grandpa’s death.

Just one month after grandpa retired at age 62, he passed out and was taken to the hospital for the first time in his life. Grandpa, like many from across the seas, had been born at home.

The diagnosis was leukemia and within just a short month he was gone. Dr. Loftus said that grandpa had the Leukemia for a long time but he was such a strong man that the symptoms didn’t get the better of him till it was far too late to do anything about the disease.

I recall at the time being mad at God for taking Grandpa John. I had looked forward to his seeing me graduate from high school and I recall feeling cheated when I received my diploma.

The years have given me at least some wisdom and I realize now that God called grandpa at that time because there was something impossible that needed to be done in heaven and only grandpa could get the job done.

And that leads me to the story.

When grandma and grandpa bought their small house on Seminary Street, the house had one normal size bedroom and 2 smaller ones that were for mom and Uncle John.

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There was no garage and only a crawlspace under the 65 foot by 20 foot house so grandpa had nowhere to keep tools and other things that a fix-it-upper has to have.

Mom said one day grandpa decided he was going to dig a basement under the house and Grandma Mary agreed they needed one.

Grandpa, of course wasn’t going to have the job hired out. Nor did he have the money to rent any special equipment. So every night after a full day of hard labor, grandpa would dig into the crawlspace using a shovel and a few big, galvanized buckets to hold the dirt.

Filling the buckets, grandpa would walk them out to a mound he had started in the yard near the alley. As time went by, the mound of dirt by the alley got so large that after dark he would carry buckets of it across the street and scatter it in the schoolyard.

Everyone in the neighborhood who needed fill also were invited to take as much of the dirt as they wanted.

My mother said that for 3 years grandpa, with weekend help from Uncle Pat, dug and carried and tunneled their way under the house.

In the end, grandpa then carried concrete materials into the hole and poured walls along the perimeter.

I always marveled at hearing this story when I walked through the 65 foot by 20 foot basement with a 7 foot high ceiling as a youngster.

To this day, I use that story when I find myself challenged by something I have decided to take on that initially seems impossible to accomplish.

I think what must have gone through grandpa’s mind that first night when he opened the crawlspace window and shoveled out his first scoop of dirt.

Surely he knew what the goal was. But just as surely he couldn’t have focused on how hard and how long it would take to accomplish the task.

Instead, shovel by shovel, he worked to make a difference in getting towards his end result.

And so I keep that lesson with me when I find myself biting off more than I can chew. I forget about thinking about how hard something will be: or how long it might take. Instead I go at the problem one shovel full at a time, concentrating on what I am accomplishing this minute with worries about what I will need to do tomorrow to wait until tomorrow.

Sometimes when I get frustrated or think things are impossible, I think about grandpa. I think about how he did something unfathomable just because he never gave up: he never quit. And I find my second wind.

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