There stood Grandpa Wilson, his old yet strong form slightly hunched over, while his gaze followed our car as we pulled up to the house. The light drizzle dripped off the old tweed cap he liked to wear. As I clambered out of the car, a grin appeared on his face and he opened his arms to hug me. As I wrapped my arms around him, I could feel his red woolen sweater scratching my skin. A few moments later, Mom appeared with little Betsy. My little sister charged Grandpa and allowed herself to be picked up in his strong arms and smothered with affection. “Come in, come in,” said Grandpa. “Grandma’s been hard at work all morning baking cookies for you.”
“Yum, yum, yum!” shouted Betsy, who had immediately lost interest in Grandpa and desperately tried to get out of Grandpa’s arms and inside to the cookies.
Inside the scent of homemade chocolate-chip cookies filled the air. “Hello,” shouted Grandma from the kitchen. “Who wants cookies?”
“Meeeeee!” yelled Betsy at the top of her lungs. A few moments later, we were in the kitchen, stuffing ourselves with cookies. Betsy elaborated on and on about how tedious the car ride to Connecticut was. When I looked up from the vast plate of cookies, I noticed that Grandpa had disappeared.
I knew that Grandpa was the kind of man who realized that arguing with his wife is pointless and for the most part avoided her by pursuing his interests—reading World War II stories and biographies of infamous criminals in the hut by the brook and repairing furniture and building bookshelves for his ever-expanding library in his workshop. I also knew that he didn’t like spending time with other people. Still, stunned that he would leave us the moment we arrived, I inquired about his whereabouts.
“He’s probably in his workshop; he’s got a bookshelf that he’s got to finish,” answered Grandma.
“Why don’t you go and build something with him? He always wanted to make a model boat,” suggested Mom.
I walked down the hallway, turned at the open door and peered down the stairs to Grandpa’s workshop. I could hear a paintbrush swishing over wood. I walked silently down the stairs and watched Grandpa staining the individual boards of the bookshelf. The evilly toxic smell of the wood stain flooded my nostrils and almost made me gag.
Finally, he finished and set the pieces to dry. As Grandpa turned, he noticed me, sitting on the unfinished wooden stairs. “Well, hello Peter,” he mumbled, “what brings you down here?”
“Mom said we should make a model boat together,” I stated awkwardly. “If you want to,” I added. Grandpa said nothing. He went over to the corner of the shop, mumbled to himself a bit and then appeared with several two-foot-long boards. I just stood there, not knowing what to do.
“Come on, let’s get to work,” he ordered. We took the boards and cut them into thinner strips. Then, we started making the ribs of the boat.
We worked until dinner in almost complete wordlessness. The Grandpa who had welcomed us was long gone; this new silent Grandpa seemed here to stay. As I went to bed, I made a wish that the old Grandpa would come back.
The next morning, we were working on the boat bright and early. Around eleven o’clock, Grandpa was using the lathe to make the mast, and the wood molded perfectly under his chisel. When the mast was complete, he turned the lathe off and took the wood off of the spikes that held it in place. He started talking, loudly enough for me to hear but not looking directly at me. “What shall we call her?” He looked up after a moment and I grasped that he was asking me. I thought for a moment and then stated, “The Seadog, the dreaded ship of Pirate Captain Wilson.”
“And don’t forget his loyal first mate, the swashbuckling Peg Leg Peter,” he added, showing a seemingly uncharacteristic smile. “They sail the high seas, robbing rich merchant ships and giving to the poor.”
Grandpa seemed to have let a bit of himself out and I realized that Grandpa wasn’t the boring old man he seemed to be. Just then, Grandma called down that lunch was ready and we headed upstairs for our midday repast. After a delicious meal of grilled cheese with juicy tomatoes and smoked ham, we were back at work.
Now Grandpa seemed to be more open, although he didn’t say a word. While fitting a miniature royal yard to the main mast, he spoke excitedly. “The Seadog is the fastest, most maneuverable, best crewed ship on the high seas.” “
And its crew is wanted by all the merchants in the known world,” I continued.
“Why she once fought the Endeavor, flagship of the East India Tea Company, and came out victorious,” Grandpa explained authoritatively. “The freedom-fighting duo of Captain Wilson and Peg Leg Peter boarded and captured Blackbeard’s ship single-handedly.” As he spoke, he fit rigging to the already be-sailed masts. “Recently, though,” continued Grandpa, “the Seadog was forced to fight an entire column of British ship-of-the-line led by the HMS Victory herself. The Seadog suffered grievous losses but she will sail again someday.” At first it seemed as if his story was done, but as he attached a miniature pirate flag to the flagstaff, he made as if to say one more thing. “I believe, that day is today!”
He picked up the finished boat and impishly motioned for me to follow him as he bore our precious cargo to the brook. I peered into the gurgling waters and worried for the Seadog on her maiden voyage. “Wish her luck,” smiled Grandpa, setting our beloved model into the water. As she floated and bobbed along, we followed her trek.
Suddenly, she sped up. “Oh no! The falls!” Grandpa exclaimed. The thought of having our work destroyed quickened our pace, but it soon became apparent that we would not reach her in time. As he watched her sail over the edge, our pace slowed and we slid down the small ledge to see what could be salvaged.
As I looked up from the treacherous rocky scree, I saw the Seadog, completely unharmed, run aground on the large, flat river stones. Relieved that the boat was intact, we brought it back to the house, laughing about our good fortune. That evening, Mom and Grandma were surprised by how Grandpa talked and laughed with me. I had breached the wall of Grandpa’s self-induced solitude, a seemingly impossible task, the same way the Seadog had braved the waterfall.
After that fateful day, Grandpa remained really open around me; he even associated with others a bit, which caught everyone off guard. When it came time to leave, I felt truly sad to go, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned.
* * *
I walked through the door that seemed infinitely more familiar since that time my eight-year-old self had really gotten to know Grandpa.
“Hey, Grandpa,” I shouted as I shrugged my rain-soaked sweatshirt off.
“Peter! So good to see you,” he said, with the ecstatic emotion of a child on Christmas morning. “Boy, have I got the book for you, a biography of Al Capone. It’s one of my new favorites.” He hobbled off toward the library, motioning for me to follow.
As we entered the cluttered room, I noticed a model boat sitting atop a shelf.
“The Seadog,” I remembered.
A knavish grin appeared on Grandpa’s face as his shaking hands, showing signs of his developing Parkinson’s disease, picked up the boat. “What do you say? I think Captain Wilson and Peg Leg Peter will sail the Seadog again.”
“One last time,” I finished.