My maternal grandfather can be politely described as a distant figure. I didn’t know him well and was kind of frightened by him until one day when I was in my twenties on which I realized he was actually a pretty small guy with a flannel shirt over a barrel chest.
When I was a kid, he was an “owner-operator” at Jauquet Trucking, driving tractor-trailers for a living.
As such, during my visits to my grandma’s house he was usually on the road (hauling logs to the paper mills), working outside in his garages on his white and blue trucks, or asleep on the sofa.
My grandpa’s life then was as probably as far from my life now as two white guys’ lives can be, though of course his work (and my grandma’s, and my other grandparents’, and my parents’) made my present life possible. When I think about these facts of generational change, class mobility, and all that, I think that he would find my current life almost impossibly frivolous. Working indoors all day? In an office at a college? Not making my children work all the damn time? Spending my free time (free time!?) riding a bicycle?
And yet my bike has created an odd sense of connection to him. Being out in all weather? He might appreciate that, though he might also wonder why I don’t earn any money by doing my winter rides.
I’m hardly handy, but I handle some of the mechanical stuff on my bike now and then, and invariably I get grimy and have to wash up at the utility room sink with a dollop of citrus-scented pumice soap. That smell sends me right back to the kitchen at my grandma’s house, where I’d be sitting drawing or reading and waiting for dinner – maybe one of my Grandma’s homemade pasties. When Grandpa came in from the garage, he’d wash his hands at a tiny sink off the kitchen, scrubbing and scrubbing at the grease and dirt with a pumice soap that smelled faintly orangey.
His was a no-nonsense block of Lava soap, where mine is probably made from ethically-collected pumice and free-range oranges, but there you go. Once sufficiently (but never completely) clean, he sit down at his spot in the corner and we could all eat.
That indoors memory is complemented by an equally distinct but much less predictable outdoors memory. The truck garages were massive hangar-like spaces, dimly lit, full of trucks and truck parts and tools.
Their dirt floors were slick and black with oil, and the air was full of the smell of grease. My life now is as un-greasy as could be, except when I work on my bikes and at random moments out riding, when I encounter that same creosote smell. Sometimes it’s coming from wet railroad ties at the spot where some lonely road crosses the tracks. Other times, it’s coming from ties that someone’s repurposed for a bridge on a bike trail. Other times, it’s from telephone poles – maybe a stack of new ones awaiting installation or, like last Sunday, a pile of old ones stacked mysteriously at the edge of a marsh where I’ve paused to take a break. The melting snow was driving out an overpowering scent of creosote, and for the minute I was there, drinking water and pissing into the reeds, I was eight or ten or twelve again, standing in Grandpa’s truck garage. Luckily for me, there was a U.P. pasty waiting for me back home – not Grandma’s, but a good one just the same.