Goodbye, Da: What I learned from a man who didn't tell me — but showed me — how to live
Meet Courtney Crowder, the Des Moines Register's Iowa Columnist. The Register, Des Moines Register
When I think of my grandfather, Chester Care, known to all his grandchildren as "Da," there's a very clear picture that comes to mind.
It's Thanksgiving, and we've just finished taking that classic family photo where the grandchildren look like Russian nesting dolls sitting next to each other on the couch.
Amid all that hubbub is Da, in a corner, holding the newest baby in the Care family. He's singing to it and bouncing a little bit, sort of dancing with it.
They seem to be in their own little world, just grandfather and grandchild.
It may have been the sweater vests or that he loved singing and dancing or that he was a tall, skinny, older white guy from Pittsburgh, but Da always reminded me of Mr. Rodgers.
Much like the other men of his generation — the aptly named Silent Generation — he was quiet, unassuming.
He was kind, to be sure, but a hard person to get to know. Car rides could be just him singing or silently listening to tunes.
A few topics — including why contemporary music is garbage — would get him talking.
Coming from a blue-collar family in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Da signed up to fight in the Korean War before attending college and law school.
Eventually, he hung his shingle in Lexington, Kentucky, working in family law and specializing in estate cases. For many years, he worked as Fayette County's public administrator, settling the estates of those who died with no will or known relatives.
He was a detective in lawyer's clothing.
What I didn't know until I was much older was that he was tireless in pursuit of his profession. We were all just sitting around during a Thanksgiving vacation when he pulled out a box of files and photos and papers and laid them out on the dining room table.
He had been retired for years, so this was odd. Those files represented the only case he hadn't solved by the time he finally closed his doors, he told me.
Even in retirement, he was determined to seek justice for that one family. But he was doing so discreetly; no fanfare, no praise, just him and his papers.
He probably wouldn't have told me anything had I not walked right up and asked.
Years later when I told him I moved to Iowa to take a job as a reporter, his face twisted up. I got a call from him a few weeks later.
As a young lawyer, he said, he had written a pamphlet on Kentucky's estate law as it related to the ownership of family farms. He wanted that pamphlet back, but the University of Kentucky had sent it to the University of Iowa where it was still sitting on the shelf.
"Don't know what they want with it, but I would love if you could get it for me," he said.
I explained that while the power of the press is strong, I doubted that the university would let me leave with a part of their collection.
With Da, you never knew what mystery he was solving right then or what adventure he was plotting next.
Recently surfaced home videos showed a high school-aged Da and his friend on a summer bicycle trip that took them up and down the East Coast. They went where they wanted and relied on wit and the kindness of strangers to keep them rested and fed.
I remember overhearing the stories of an exchange program Da went on in Russia, then known as the USSR, and how he had been asked over and over to sell his jeans.
He told me later that if he had brought more than one pair, he definitely would have.
After retirement, Da took a teaching trip to China. There he met with many Chinese students, all of whom had taken American names. As one expects, a lot was lost in transition.
I specifically remember him talking about one girl who named herself "can," as in I "can" do it.
"I didn't have the heart to tell her that in America, the word can also meant toilet," he said.
Being the oldest grandchild, I got to go on a lot of mini-adventures closer to home with Da.
I remember trips to a zoo-like park called, "Kentucky Down Under," where we were spirited away from the bluegrass to Australia through the magic of amusement park scenery and gift shops filled with kangaroos and koalas. All day, Da and I explored, pretending we were amateur Steve Irwins.
My favorite trip was one we took to Toronto. We went to see Medieval Times, where my cousin and I refused to eat the rotisserie chicken the costumed waiters eagerly urged us to chow down on using only our hands.
Mad that we let that food go to waste, Da and my grandmother refused to supplement our evening with McDonald's. (The popular phrase of that generation — "waste not, want not" — certainly rang true that night.)
We had been allowed over the border and back in with just handwritten notes from our parents saying our grandparents were allowed to take us into another country. It was before 9/11, but it still boggles the mind that he drove 10 hours betting that would work.
That was Da; hit the road and figure the rest out when you get there.
My grandfather died the day after my wedding. We laid him to rest last week.
His was a fast end. Just two months ago, Da was sizing up the retirement home's stock of single ladies to find a date to the next VFW dance.
I've found it hard to reconcile a death that happens so quickly, but I take comfort in the fact that Da won't have to live a life that doesn't include dancing.
When I sat down to write what I was going to say at his funeral, I really didn't know where to start. Da and I didn't have any heart-to-hearts that I can remember: No big Courtney and Da "Taster's Choice" moments.
He was a solitary man.
But that was the thing; Da and so many others in the Silent Generation were never going to sit down and tell you some big life lesson. Only in the movies and on TV shows did a father wrap up the mess his son was in and deliver the moral of that week's story — all in time for the Ovaltine ad.
Instead, with men of my Da's age, you had to watch. If you did, their actions, the little things they did, gave you the tools you needed to live a good life.
Realizing this reminded me of one of my favorite Mr. Rodgers quotes: "There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person."
So, I stopped to look at my own life, and there I saw Da's influence in every fold.
There's the ethic of hard work, that a chapter isn't closed until you say it is, and that some of the most important work happens quietly — say, in a dining room after a holiday without anyone knowing.
There's the mantra that a whole world is out there waiting to be discovered. If you take a chance, you can have a good time and, more importantly, you may discover new parts of yourself along the journey.
Finally, there's the idea that inside all of us is an internal radio constantly humming along to the music of life.
When the moment's right, you've got to listen to it, sing along and dance like no one is watching — with or without a babe in arms.
Learning how to do that, well, that's a talent I figured out from my Da.
COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She hopes that wherever her grandfather is, he's still humming along to the music of life. You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.