When I was about sixteen years old, a friend of my mother’s came to the house to visit. She brought another acquaintance named Vicky with her, and the usual conversations ensued as they drank their afternoon coffee. I remember rounding the corner of the hallway to find Vicky looking at the collection of family photographs hanging on the wall. You know the kind of family picture sprawl that dates from babyhood, showing every embarassing school photo ever taken - with space left for the ones yet to come. I stepped up next to her to see who she was examining so closely.
Vicky was staring up at a large black and white portrait of a handsome mustached man sitting at what looked like a ship captain’s desk. There were maps spread out before him, and an oil lamp hanging from unseen rafters above. He held a pipe in one hand, and gazed into the camera with a steady confidence. Vicky’s mouth was hanging slightly open, and her brows were knitted together as she studied the portrait. After a moment’s silence, she slowly tore her gaze away and looked at me. “Why… do you have a picture of Captain Puget hanging in your hallway?”
I laughed as I looked up at the man, shrugging as a sixteen year old does. “Because….he’s my grandfather.”
Her eyes flashed open wide. “Captain Puget….is your GRANDFATHER?? You… have no idea… I loved him when I was a kid! I watched every show he ever had! I watched Exploration Northwest… he’s really your grandfather? Really??”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I never really encountered someone who was so stricken by the fact that I might be related to this man. I peeked up at him and shoved my hands in my pockets. “Well…yeah. We’ve got the same last name too, y’know.”
Vicky silently mouthed that name as her smile spread across her face. “Of course!!! I always knew your name sounded familiar, but… I just never thought. Wow…. can you tell me about him?? What’s he like?? Oh I had the biggest crush on him when I was young….”
And that’s how it went. That was the first time in my life that I realized a large secret about my grandfather. He had a certain fame. I stood there in the hallway listening to Vicky’s tales of growing up with Captain Puget, and then the excitement of watching Exploration Northwest…and all of the adventures that my grandfather would take his weekly viewers of the Pacific Northwest on. She spoke of the shows with bright eyed wonder, looking at me as if I was going to jump in and nod my head, agreeing with her on each enthused point. What she saw instead was a very blank eyed look, and perhaps a whistful smile…but there was no agreement. I only listened until her words tapered into another slow question. “You do know what I’m talking about…don’t you? His television shows?”
“I’ve never seen them, Vicky…” I replied in flat truth. I had heard of the shows, sure. Exploration Northwest had even been in production and shown on TV as I was growing up and old enough to appreciate them. There were days that I was probably glued to the Muppet Show, or Mash… when just two channels over my own Grandpa was taking his viewers on yet another wild outdoor adventure. He won 26 Emmy awards for the program, over the duration of the 21 years he wrote and produced it. And I had never seen a single episode.
Vicky looked absolutely crestfallen when I told her this. It was as if I stole all the glory of her meeting his actual flesh and blood. In fact, I had never really given it a thought…. because I didn’t know any better. I knew the man. I didn’t know his accomplishments…. and I could thank my Father for that.
I was his grandaughter, but my grandfather had divorced my grandmother years before I was born. He remarried….and the new family that came from that union overshadowed anything he had in the past, including his children… my Aunt and Father. Because of that, there was little spoken about the man in the household. In fact, the first memory I have of him is an autographed picture in my scrapbook. I asked my Mom who it was. She pointed to it and said “That’s Grandpa Don”. I stared at it and asked her why he had signed his picture with his name, instead of just saying “Grandpa”. “Because,” she said quietly, “he likes to sign pictures that way.”
We would go to his lovely log cabin sometimes… my mother and I, along with my two cousins. We would race out to the pasture and pet his blind horse Chinook. Grandpa would scoop us up in a hug, and then off we would go with his daughter and two sons, technically my Aunt and Uncles- though they felt more like cousins - and the adults would sit around the fire and talk about things I didn’t have the patience for.
He was an amazing storyteller. He had a voice that simply drew you in to whatever he was saying. He was a polished writer as well, penning the story of Washington State in a beautiful book accompanied by photographs that a friend of his took. I remember this being on our coffee table for years, inscribed to my mother. I never appreciated where my heritage came from… this love of writing. The wish to tell a good tale. I never really took the time to think of where the talent might have stemmed from… and all along it was this man who was divided from my life because of the turmoils of the adults who surrounded me.
The last time I saw my grandfather was at my wedding. His hair had gone from slick black-brown, to shock white. He wore a white suit, and walked with a cane…but still stood tall. My memory of actually talking to him that day is a blur. A hug, a shared laugh… and off I went into my life without a second look back. He died less than a year later.
As I walked up to the burial site, I felt a wash of emotions well up from within. How could I have let a whole life slip away without ever really scratching the surface? I stood quietly, listening as Chief Seattle’s great, great grandson performed a Duwamish Indian Burial Ceremony. I watched as he stood before the children of my Grandfather… speaking ancient words of assurance, and realized that nobody at that funeral aside from them knew that I was also flesh and blood of the man they were honoring. That I too had his spirit in my veins, coursing through me, appearing in so many facets of my life. Storytelling, music, art. A passion for adventure…. a lust for travel. Why had I been robbed of being able to share these things with him? Why had my father let his own bitterness barricade me away from this great man? I looked around me, to look in my father’s eyes as if to seek the answer… but he wasn’t there. He did not attend the funeral.
Now, years later, I am only coming to understand the great treasure that was lost to me. How I wish I could sit and talk to Grandpa now…to listen to his stories. To hear his grand adventures, and to show him that his love for writing lives on in me. I wish I could have told him how proud I am to have such a man’s blood in my blood. I wonder if he ever had an inkling of what his grandaughter was capable of.