“Finer than frog’s hair,” he used to say. Which is not a pun, exactly. Neither is it a dad joke, except for the way he told it with a twinkle in his eye and a silent dare to interrogate his terminology. An idiom, maybe. I have never heard anyone besides my grandfather use the phrase, although when I research it I can find it in collections of sayings unique to the southern states. Finer than frog’s hair. He meant he was fantastic. Fabulous. More than simply ok, more than feeling fine, he was the sort of joyous that could only be expressed by comparison to a non-existent fiber on a figurative frog.
“Hey good looking,” he used to say, nodding your way as you passed through the room, and I never stopped to question whether it was true or not, for he was my grandpa and grandfathers are supposed to believe only the best of their grandchildren, no matter how messy their thatch of thick hair, or their scattering freckles or the awkward line of their adolescent legs—no matter the thickness of old glasses, the shine on new braces, or the unfashionable length of your jeans. He had a full and friendly face, lined at the edges but never truly old, with a heavy line of bushy eyebrows that seemed to grow in every direction, like the wild edges of his lawn, grass and weeds and flowers tapering into the neighbors yard without the boundary of sidewalks or fences or tidily managed hardscapes. His cheeks were round and red and “it’s the Irish in our blood, didn’t you know,” no use moaning about the curve of your chin or the breadth of your nose or the way your fair skin would glow pink at the slightest hint of summer sun, “put on a hat now, don’t forget.”
“The interesting thing is…” he used to say, and he was the master of tall tales and fantastic fiction, he could find amusement in the most ordinary of things, could make of a tough task a game or a sport, and I never did realize until years later that the water turn in which we slipped and slid and skipped, where we waded in ditches and splashed through games of stickball and baseball and tetherball and dodgeball in borrowed swimsuits and cut off shorts was work, was irrigation, was the way he kept the grass green and watered the stand of cherry trees that stretched an entire block behind the house. He cut old tires into sinuous seats that he hung from old trees and from the remains of a steel set of swings, the kind that superheated during the summer until it scorched the palms of your hands and the backs of your legs and the soles of your feet until the sun went down when it suddenly felt like ice on your skin. He taught me to pump my legs as hard as I could, and when I reached the very highest arc of the swing, to jump, landing with spine tingling shivers on the spongy soft grass.
“They’re meaner than heck,” he’d say with a smile, and you believed him, for he knew everyone on the block, and the block beyond that, and the block beyond that, and it seemed sometimes like he must know every person in town, and maybe he did, for in his younger years he had delivered the mail for the entire area, spending the day driving rural routes and navigating rolling roads and no matter where we went he found someone to talk to, to bluster and blather and gossip and gab, and in his later years he would get up every morning to go to the gym, not to work out, no, he went to sit in the spa with the other old men, gathered in the steam of the dim, damp, sauna to one side of the cracked and aging pool to talk about their wives and children and neighbors and friends, to chat about whose grandchild had married someone else’s third cousin two times removed and moved a town away to the big city and left their small hometown behind, and they would shake their heads in unison, a chorus of despair at the racing rhythm of modern life as they sat back in the tepid water with a shrug and a sigh and a content sort of sympathy for those who could not enjoy such simple slow mornings in their sleepy seniority.
“What would Della wear?” He used to sing. “What would Della wear? She wore her New Jersey, boys, she wore her New Jersey,” and then he was off, belting out silly songs about states and fields and farmers and sows, piglets and pancakes and funny old men, and he would get us all to join in, with whistles and snorts and shrieks and shouts as we sang out half-remembered lyrics to old forgotten tunes that never seemed to make any sense except for the way they shouted cheer in simple, silly, sacred serenades of song, and he taught me to adore absurdities and foolishness and nonsense and glee—to tell knock-knock jokes and to love puns and quips and jokes. He taught me to wander the vast adventures of his yard, to love swashbuckling tales of pirates and privateers, to linger through long afternoons, lounging on the floor as I read from cloth covered novels he kept on a low shelf in his office, behind the desk where he sat working at his typewriter, the shush and hush of paper rolling in and out and the ding of the bell at the end of each line and the click and clack of keys a comfort in the background as time slipped past spent in the company of worlds of words of long ago.
“I’m fit as a fiddle,” he’d say with a wink, and then “play me a song” and I would scratch out twinkle twinkle little star on my ¾ violin that screeched and squealed, and after years of listening to my own children learn to play I admire his fortitude and forbearance, the way he always looked like he had been part of some grand event, and how he never missed a concert, not in junior high or high school, not even when I joined an orchestra as an adult with babies of my own, not the time I played the Messiah for the community concert or in the pit orchestra or the chamber orchestra or the symphony orchestra, and he was as proud to hear me then as he was to hear my youthful attempts at tunes, the discordant descant of developing dexterity, and that to me says so many things about the man that he was, answers so many questions that I wish I had asked when I was too young to know why I needed to know how to sink deep roots in rocky soil and measure worth and enjoy life and how to be grounded and how to gather little ones around with stories and songs, and my grandfather taught me a lot of things, like how to make a spitball and carve a piece of wood and dig the weeds out of the gravel drive and how to creep quietly through the garden to catch the quail unaware and how to leave your shoes at the door and walk barefoot in the grass and how to play the spoons and the washboard and even a rubber band, but most of all, how to have fun and how to love laughter and how to seek play. And it is difficult to measure love and knowledge and memory and experience, but I will always be grateful that in so many ways, my grandfather taught me joy.