Photo courtesy of Peggy Sturdivant

At Large in Ballard: Standing Tall

By Peggy Sturdivant

My mother’s father, my Grandfather Teal died 22 years ago. We shared a cottage every summer with my grandparents; they arrived from Illinois in the spring, my family joined them the day after school let out for the summer.

Even as a child I knew they were not like the other grandparents who watched me tricycle past. My grandmother wore culottes, bare legs, smoked brown cigarettes and sat low in the driver’s seat of the red Pinto. My grandfather picked up any hitchhiker that he passed, brought home donuts from choir practice, treasures from the dump and rode his bike to the beach afternoons for a swim. They had taught in the Philippines in the 1920s; traveled to Europe on freighters after retirement.

Grandpa Teal outlived my grandmother by almost ten years, keeping up a correspondence with me until just before his death in 1992. Long, handwritten letters filled with articles he found inspiring, and always unselfconsciously lyrical. Born in 1900, my grandfather was 92 when he died. He was the oldest son in a large family from Buffalo, New York. He loved to sing and had a melodious voice, one that I associated with his tallness, as though his voice were the pipes above a church organ.

When we learned in June that Grandpa’s last living sibling, my mother’s Uncle Roger was failing, I had an almost opposite emotion of what one would expect. Instead of a sense of loss, I experienced a sense of “found.” He died July 7, 2014, at 98. I began communicating with these relatives who had just lost their father, but who were giving me back my grandfather. And I was able to fill in family pieces for them as though we were a jigsaw puzzle, long separated by geography and an age gap between brothers that confused the next generation.

My Great Uncle Roger and his wife Grayce lived in California, a state more foreign to us as a child than Europe. Tall like my grandfather he had hair like a rooster’s crown, unlike my grandfather’s dome. On a visit Roger set out in short shorts for a five-mile fast walk. As an adult I was graced with his thick annual letters. Sometimes he telephoned, usually if he didn’t reach my mother first, his voice an echo of my grandfather’s. A civil engineer he puzzled over remedies for my steep Ballard driveway on a stop when returning from Alaska on the Trans-Canada Highway.

For some years his letters detailed the decline of his beloved wife Grayce. After her death I didn’t notice precisely when the letters stopped. In learning that Great Uncle Roger was near death, I learned that he was still alive, living with a son in Grants Pass, Oregon, far closer than I’d realized. Both his sons were with him in his final days.

“Should we be here?” my husband asked a few weeks later, the night before a simple memorial for Roger Teal in Northern California, on realizing it would just be seven of us. I thought about it. If my grandfather were alive he would want me to be there.

We sat in “the only good restaurant in Crescent City, California” to meet five strangers. A couple from the harbor the night before, with paddleboards in the back of their truck, turned out to be two of our party. Then a tall, lean man entered the restaurant, with an equally tall son, a smaller woman between them. My heart gave a little lurch. They had my grandfather’s height: the Teal height. Just like that we were family, but interviewing each other like prospective roommates.

As per their parent’s wishes the ashes had been combined. Their sons used a mailing tube to mingle them and then carry them into a beautiful place, the redwoods. Home of the tallest trees. By a 1000 year-old tree we took turns sharing; first cousin-once removed Bryan sang “Our Father.” Then they poured the remains into a hollow. Their loss long expected, but still fresh.

After the redwoods we gathered at a cove, sheltered from the Pacific waves by a jetty. A son, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson went out on paddleboards, in the whipping wind to scatter the rest of the ashes. Bryan Teal knelt and touched his heart. The last of that entire generation of Teals plumed into the air and then fanned into the water.

These people are so cool, I thought, my people. Kindred spirits of my grandfather and his most kindred brother.

Over dinner we passed photographs and shared memories as readily as the warm bread. The difference of 15-20 years means so much during youth, so little between ages 50-70. After less than 12 hours it was hard to say goodbye. In one day we had reconnected brothers and rethreaded families. By morning we would scatter in four compass directions, as did the brothers who traversed the world in ways so different than their siblings.

On the slow drive north, back to Ballard, I remembered more I wanted to tell my mother’s cousins, and all that I needed to share with my mother. They were tall I kept thinking, and sometimes I was thinking of my grandfather and his brother, other times I was thinking about the gigantic redwoods.

Contact Peggy atlargeinballard@peggysturdivant.com

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