When I was in the operating room getting ready to deliver Harley Belle, a nurse, in a valiant effort to distract me, asked what I was going to name my soon to arrive baby girl. I told the nurse her name would be Harley. The kind nurse then asked me where I came up with such a unique name. I explained that it was my grandfather’s name, and that, boy or girl, this baby would be called Harley. To further ease my nerves, she continued her diverting chatter and asked me about my grandfather. She said, “You must think a lot of this gentleman if you are going to name your child after him.” Without hesitation, I replied that my grandpa was the most loyal and hardworking person I knew and that if this little girl had those same attributes, she would do just fine in life. The nurse wholeheartedly agreed.
For the second summer in a row I lost a grandfather. On August 5, 2016 my grandpa, Harley Gilleland died. I witnessed the suffering and humility that death brought to a man whom I assumed was larger than life. I am again comforted in the knowledge that families are forever and I will see him again. I was fortunate enough to be in his company during the last few weeks of his life. I had to return home to Virginia a few days before his passing and it was devastating to have to leave. I knew I would never see him again in this life. Of course, in his permanently logical manner he expressed to me his desire that I not return for the funeral. I can still hear his gruff voice saying, “You don’t come back for a funeral, Lis. It’s just too much, Hon. You go home and be with Scott. We’ll be fine.” Trying my best to control my emotions I kissed him on the forehead and choking back my sobs I told him I loved him as I rushed out of the hospital room. My only solace was in knowing he would soon be out of pain.
The morning he died I woke up early and looked out of my window to the small rose garden in my front yard. It was in shambles, having been neglected most of the summer while our family traveled. I knew grandpa’s roses would never be so unkempt. The phone call came as I sat shamefully staring at my weed ridden garden. I knew in that moment all I could do to honor my grandfather, the exemplary gardener, was to get to work. I pulled on my boots and spent the duration of the day trying to salvage my uncared for roses. I felt he was near me the whole time, which is probably why I chose to keep working long after my hands and back were unbearably sore.
My grandfather’s yard and garden is famous in our small town. He and grandma never shied away from a moment of hardwork. Their home and yard was always in a state of flawlessness. My grandfather was a perfectionist, unlike any I have ever known. In fact, when I got my first car I used to take it to grandpa’s house to wash it. My excuse was that his driveway was so much bigger than our own. But, the reality was, I knew grandpa would never be able to tolerate how I was washing my car and would soon take over the task. Within a few hours, he would have my car looking show room ready with a fresh coat of wax and air in all the tires. This transformation would take place all while I watched from the comfort of the garage, drinking my pop and eating the cookies that grandma would inevitably provide when anyone came around.
My first real memories of my grandpa were when I was in the first grade. My parents and I were living in Nevada where my dad was working for a gold mine. They sent me to Colorado for a few weeks that summer and the summer after that, before we moved back to Colorado permanently. Grandma and Grandpa had an enormous bed, at least it seemed enormous to me. It was certainly big enough for all three of us to sleep in each night comfortably. I remember thinking if I ever got a bed this big I will have all I ever wanted out of life. But before we crawled into bed at night Grandpa and Grandma always kneeled down beside it and grandpa would pray. I would sneak a peek from under my bowed head to watch grandpa from across the king-sized chasm. It was fascinating to watch this tough man bow his head and pray each night. He would express his gratitude for what he had been given and pray for me and other members of our family. In those sweet moments, as a five year old girl, he taught me how to talk to God, express gratitude and humbly ask for His divine guidance and protection. I have seldom missed a nightly prayer since those days. The gift of prayer has been one of the most powerful lessons I could have ever learned in this life and it came from the example of my grandfather. After prayers, the three of us would pile into bed and watch Johnny Carson or Benny Hill. I would fall asleep with the comfort of grandpa’s deep laugh and the smell of his after shave coming from the pillow next to mine.
Some of my fondest memories were being in the mountains with him. He would tell us ghost stories or accounts of his boyhood as we sat around the campfire at night. All the grandkids would listen in complete silence, because he was the strongest, bravest man we knew and we adored him. We would hike around the mountains surrounding the cabin and grandpa would encourage me to pick up and squeeze the animal droppings between my chubby fingers to discern whether the scat was fresh or not. Of course, I was assured that this was for our safety, or to help in the tracking process when it was hunting season. I loved to drive in Grandma and Grandpa’s truck up to the mountains. Grandpa always played Julio Iglesias in the cassette player and he would sing along with a Spanish accent. His favorite trick was pretending the brakes were out in the car. Although, I had been a victim of the joke repeatedly, I was continually terrified as we rounded each bend of the treacherously steep mountain pass. Each time he convinced me that this occasion was the real deal, until Grandma would finally say, “Harley that’s enough!” and grandpa would look at me smiling and say, “Did I scare ya Lis?” He even tried this trick once when I was on the motorcycle with him. I was sitting in front of him and we were riding down to the river. We were traveling down a small hill with a large rock at the bottom. Suddenly, Grandpa claimed he had lost his brakes and complete control of the motorcycle. We were gaining speed and heading straight for the boulder and what would ultimately be our demise. I was screaming and he was yelling that this was the end. I did what any 7 year old would do when faced with certain death, I grabbed the handle bars and yanked them as hard as I could away from that rock and then attempted to jump off the motorcycle. Well, this choice almost caused us both to crash and in a miraculous maneuver Grandpa managed to keep the bike upright and me safely on board. However, I was promptly removed from said bike and given a swift spanking and lecture for grabbing the handle bars. This punishment was followed immediately, by an almost painful bear hug and an apology for scaring me so badly. History repeated itself almost thirty years later when riding an ATV with Atley. Grandpa and Grandma were on the four-wheeler behind us. I attempted one of Grandpa’s old tricks. Atley got nervous and yanked the handle bars of our ATV, almost causing us to careen down the side of the mountain. I promptly removed him and told him he had to walk back. I was furious and terrified. Grandpa and Grandma put Atley on board with them and Grandpa told me I was way too hard on the boy. I decided not to remind him of the motorcycle spanking of ’85.
When my parents moved to Bolivia, Grandma and Grandpa graciously let me move all my stuff into their house so I still had “my room” to come home to when I visited from college. Every time I flew home Grandma and Grandpa were always there waiting to pick me up. I think they arrived at the airport hours before my plane was supposed to arrive and because it was pre-9/11, grandpa would be at the very top of the jet way peering anxiously through the crowd. When he saw me he always grabbed my bag and then I was once again gathered into that tight bear hug. I would take a deep breath of his aftershave and feel the comfort of finally being home again.
I could write pages and pages of a life time of memories with my grandpa, like the way Grandma and Grandpa visited early every Christmas morning to see what Santa brought. I could talk about how Grandpa was always ready with a jacket for me when I looked cold or that scratchy army blanket when the jacket wasn’t quite enough to warm me up. I could reminisce about how he was always ready with a handkerchief or a package of Smarties at the most opportune times or the moment he caught me making out with my boyfriend in front of his house. I could pen all those trips to the mountains to cut and haul wood in the fall, the sound and smell of grandpa’s saw and the methodical way we all worked as a family to fill the trucks with firewood for the winter. I could write about the time we all went to Las Vegas and I made Grandma and Grandpa walk miles and miles or the time they came to visit me in Atlanta and their favorite part of the trip was the golf cart ride around the pond near our house, or their trip to Tucson to visit me when we were caught up in a very un-Arizona-like torrential rain storm.
My most precious memories are the times I saw tears in his kind strong eyes. They appeared once on the day I got married, another time after I sang in church three summers ago. He grabbed me on my way back to our pew and with tears in his aging eyes told me he loved me. And finally those tears appeared again one night when we were gathered around the campfire. He expressed how much he wished my oldest cousin Tia could be there with us after she had passed away. He loved us and managed to show us, not through words but by his loyalty to our family. Whether we were right or wrong, he was always on our side. He loved my grandma and set an example to all of us about what a lasting relationship should look like. His influence is a constant in my life. He taught me to enjoy the beauty of nature and enjoy the simplicity of Sunday drives and visiting on the front porch. I think of him each time I am tempted to shirk on a job. I remember how he never gave anything but his best. I think of him each time I kneel by my king sized bed to pray. I think about him when I work outside in my yard. He is in my head when I am stacking wood in the backyard and my pile seems a little lopsided. I see him in my Harley Belle’s stubborn determination and blunt sense of humor and I am so thankful she is his name sake.
I love you Grandpa and I sincerely thank you for all you taught me, for raising my amazing mother, and for loving my Grandma with all your heart. You are missed daily.