My grandpa taught me English in 9th grade. Each week he would come pick me up and take me to dinner. The next morning I had to wake up early to 'get to class with grandpa.' He would go over grammar rules with me and then give me a prompt to write on. As I sat in the garage-made-office, smelling the cigarette smoke and cologne from my grandpa at the adjacent desk, staring at the blinking cursor, I would freeze. The anxiety of performing for my grandpa, the king of English and writing, built up so much in my chest that I would become immobilized. Finally, I would start to type something out and then read over my 5 or so sentences just hoping he could find something worthy of his time to read in there. Each time I printed out what I created and handed it over, I would suck in a breath and almost forget to let it back out. My heart was pounding in my chest and ears, which drown out almost every noise, yet, the sound of my grandpa biting on his thumb nail as I stood there rang through.
Ralph Stewart took life by the balls at a young age and made shit happen. He may have gotten word that he was to be transferred to Japan in his navy post for the next two years, but he made sure to switch out his paperwork in the Japan stack with an unlucky bastard in the Hawaii stack. Dressed up as janitors, he and a friend changed their fates forever in that classified drawer of that office. I admire this about my grandpa, the fact that he isn’t willing to play by the rules. Life dealt him a hand and he said, “Nope, I don’t care for those cards,” so he dealt himself a new hand.
Ralph is incredible at cards, pinochle in particular, as well as pool. Growing up, he tried to teach me his mad, crazy skills in both. Unfortunately, the pressure got to me and I cracked. I can hold my own in a game of cards, but I am still lousy at pool. I was again intimidated by my grandpa’s expertise. I would inspect his large amount of pool trophies, some which were taller than myself and imagine what it would be like to be as good as he. When I was his partner in a game of pinochle, I found myself apologizing profusely to him. Mostly without even knowing if I made a bad move just to cover my ass in case I had. He told me once, shaking his head, “Stop apologizing,” so I’ve tried my best to get better at that.
My grandpa, a former Vice President of Public Relations at Piedmont Natural Gas, who was known for being one of the most cut throat big players in the company, was teaching me freshman English. Yes, he was an English teacher back in those hawaiian dream days, but it had been quite some time since then. I felt as if I needed to stand at attention at his desk as he critiqued my papers.
Each time he would take the paper in one hand and in the other he would hold his cigarette between his fingers while biting on his thumb, looking over my paper with a critical eye. Then would come the pen markings - all over my work. My heart would drop each time I would see this. I have always been a sensitive soul, but I continue to toughen up and take criticism better than these first days of showing my work to others. My grandpa would shake his head in wonderment as to how his offspring could write so badly. I spent a whole year doing this with my grandpa. This is not to say he did a bad job with me. If anything, he was teaching me my first lesson of getting critiqued harshly and figuring out how to deal with it, which is something that is necessary for me to get comfortable with as a writer. This surrounds a writer's life after his or her work is sent out for any other eyes to see other than his or her own. Being critiqued is a good thing. It makes us revisit our work that is not perfected and gets it closer to what a reader is looking for, which is our ultimate goal; having our readers connect to our story.
I love my grandpa, and I know he loves me. He even redecorated a room in his house for me that year so it would feel like my own. He has no idea how much that touched my heart. Although after that year I felt like I was not a born writer, I finally picked it back up again and feel confident that I can become a good, hell, maybe even a great writer. I hope to surprise my grandpa with what I can create now and make him proud. Cheers to you Ralph. You made writing look intimidating, which inevitably became a challenge accepted by me. I am here to prove that I can do it and do it well at that.