The following piece was written by my younger son, Benjamin Ralph Tousley, as an entry in his journal. He sent it to me yesterday and, with his permission, I’m sharing it here as one example of the power of remembering. As Ben's story demonstrates, death may end a life, but it does not end our relationship with the one who has died. (Although my son is named after his paternal grandfather, Ralph Wilson Tousley, whom he loved dearly also, this piece is about his maternal grandfather—my father—Harry Eugene Merritt, MD, and of course it warms my heart.)
My Grandfather’s Pipe
By Benjamin R. Tousley, April 25, 2010
A horrible thing happened today. My grandfather's pipe broke. It was a cheap corncob pipe that probably cost about $3 when he bought it. So what, right? That would seem like no big deal, but to me it is. It is a big deal to me for a number of reasons, some that make sense and some you just won't understand.
First, my grandfather has been dead for a great number of years. That pipe and a couple more like it are all the physical remnants of him I have. The only physical signs that a man I loved and admired was here and a part of my life. I'm sure that he, like me and every other man, had his human frailties and shortcomings. But to me he was a great man, up there in the annals of great men (to be named later). He was a Renaissance man. He was a medical doctor, Doc Merritt. He also was a scholar, a musician and an outdoorsman. He played the banjo, built his own canoes for fishing, outfitted deer blinds with swivel chairs for hunting, drew cartoons and treasure maps, and spoke multiple languages.
And I remember him fondly. See, he died when I was about 10 or 11. But when I was lucky enough to spend time with him, I remembered it. I remember as a young boy, Grandfather and I taking long road trips. Don't remember to where or why—who cares about that now anyway? Point is we spent quality time together back in the day when you could not count on a radio station being heard 15-20 minutes outside of town. So we talked, told jokes, or just enjoyed the quiet.
What was neat to me was that he had me stuff his pipe for him while we were driving. To me that was cool. I felt, well, grown up, important, proud that he'd asked me to do something. It was like that back then. My dad was the same way, told us to do things,fix things, build things. They expected us to be...capable. So I have this memory of stuffing his pipe and feeling pretty cool about it.
What's the big deal? If you asked that question, you obviously never smoked or stuffed a pipe. It is as majestic an experience you can have for what some would call a bad vice. Smoking a pipe is an involved activity. The bowl must be packed just right, too tight and it's too hard to draw, too loose and the tobacco goes out. When it is just right you can smoke a single bowl for 40 minutes and never light a second match. But it takes attention. I use a tamper to lightly tamp the tobacco periodically to maintain just the right pack. Yes, I am a pussy, thanks for noticing. But Greek Gods, Titans, and Grandfather used their thumb. He was epic that way.
Grandfather was a serious pipe smoker too. And so it was an honor bestowed upon me to be entrusted to stuff his pipe in just the right way.
So you can see why that pipe might be important to me. Smoked that damn pipe every day for quite some time, but it was not always that way. That pipe has a history. Like I said, Grandfather died some 33 years ago. For a 10 year old boy, my only understanding of it was he was here one day, gone the next. No rhyme, no reason, just gone. More confusing was all his possessions...puff...gone. Some went here, some went there; I have a few things that he gave me. A Boy Scout knife, some collector coins. But I also got his pipe. And that was cool.
Well, the years went by. I went to college, married, moved more times than a human being should in a lifetime, completed two missions overseas, got divorced, had property and boxes moved here, there, some stolen by movers, others lost in the divorce. Chaos eased only by the healing power of time. And so it was by no small miracle that one day a few years back I came across the pipes in a box while moving yet again. I had started smoking pipes and cigars on my own years earlier. To find these, especially after all that chaos in my life, was a magnificent treat. I have been smoking that pipe constantly ever since.
Now, I have pipes. I have expensive pipes, $150 pipes. But, and in all honesty, none of them smoke as easily or as smoothly or provide the same enjoyment as that damn corn cob pipe. Which makes it all the more special. Plus I loved the notion that I was smoking such a relic. Felt kind of like Indiana Jones.
As I alluded to two paragraphs ago, my life, like probably everyone’s to one degree or another, was active, tumultuous, evolving. And with all the events in my life, I am now at the age where I am taking stock of my life, what I am, who I am, my accomplishments and failures. What sums up my life.
So the pipe broke. What a rotten thing. Or is it? I have those memories of Grandfather without the pipe. He is immortalized by my memories of him. But I have to tell you. Holding that pipe, enjoying the experience of stuffing it just right brings the memories up to where they are palpable.
That pipe breaking was a hard pill to swallow. But you know what I am going to do? I am going to do just what Grandfather would do. I'm going to get some corn on the cob, shave the corn off, dry the cob, drill the holes, and make my own corn cob pipe. I think this kind of Renaissance-man response is befitting the memory of a great man.