Legends can come in all shapes and sizes and can be of stories about knights, archers, wild frontiersmen, cowboys, and Indians. Most people know about the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood. We have heard and read stories about them as well as the likes of Davy Crockett, El Cid, and Hiawatha. A testament to any legend is their longevity. After hundreds of years, their stories can be heard, or seen in the movies, or read about.
By definition, legends are stories handed down from earlier times about a person whose fame or notoriety makes him a source of exaggerated or romanticized tales or exploits. These legendary figures are a part of tales of magic, miracles, and awe inspiring human experience. Theirs are stories that have been passed down to aspire us to do something greater, to stir our souls, fill our imaginations with wonder, and to close the gap between the years and let us glimpse, if only briefly, back to an earlier time.
But do legends have to be limited to kings and cowboys? Do they have to pull swords from stones, rob from the rich to give to the poor or be national heroes?
Although our lives overlapped, I was too young to fully appreciate or understand the impact my grandfather had on me and those around him prior to his death. I hold on to the few memories I have of him and cherish the stories I have been told about him. They have, whether intentionally or otherwise, served to elevate my grandfather towards such exalted status as much as any other historical or legendary figure. For example…
My mom and I had broken down on the side of the road. To be more specific, it was her Chevrolet Vega that had broken down; we were the unfortunate victims of the shoddy GM engineering in our car. It was a time before cell phones which meant my Mom was going to need 28 cents if we were going to be able to make a call to anyone. The traffic on the road we had pulled off of was heavy and the nearest payphone was a mile away from nowhere. I was too young to understand what was going on but not young enough to recognize the panic slowly creeping its way to my Mom. Then, out of nowhere, he came. I don’t know if he was summoned by some sort of warning sense or we were broken down in the right place, but my grandfather pulled his grey Buick Skylark in behind us just when we were beginning to abandon hope. My PopPop (as he was known to me) emerged from his car. The late afternoon sun behind him, cast his silhouette. He was as tall as an oak tree and his shoulders as broad as the horizon. Not one strand of his jet black hair moved even as the traffic buzzed by him. The reflection bouncing off of his glasses hid his pupils. I didn’t know if he wore the glasses to protect his secret identity or from myopia that had set in from his age, but they were as much a part of him as his fingers were. Just the sight of him there would have calmed a hungry alligator so it was no surprise the panic felt by both my Mom and I washed away instantly. I remember thinking no matter what was wrong with our car, my PopPop would fix it and if he couldn’t fix it, he would probably just pick the car up with his bare hands and carry it to the nearest garage because with every step he took, he conveyed an innate strength. As he walked past my Mom and I, his hulking figure blocked out the sun so we were able to see the lines in his face. He was unwavering in the face of the flow of the speeding traffic only a few feet away from him. I was waiting for him to lift the engine block out of the car to take a better look at the problem but instead, he laid his hands on the terminal to our battery and with a turn of the key, the car started. He said his goodbyes with a hug that could have squeezed the breath from a grizzly bear and a smile that would have melted an iceberg. We pulled away at the same time but in opposite directions. I turned back to watch him leave and watched as his car go off in the distance.
While we did break down on the side of the road and we were lucky enough to have my grandfather happen to drive by, he didn’t jump start the car with his hands and while he was tall, he was no oak tree. But when I tell my kids about their great grandfather, sometimes the stories get embellished. Partly out of fun and partly out of my own feelings of nostalgia but the truth is neither this story nor his memory needs any embellishment.
What he was able to accomplish in his life and the people he was so adeptly able to affect profoundly, is enough. I know of my grandfather’s life from listening to family members and from the scant few memories I was able to capture with the limited time I was able to spend with him. Even if I didn’t know him as well as other members of my family, there are times when I have a yearning that longs to be in his company. When those feelings arise, I think of the stories I have of my grandfather. And think about how much I aspire to reach towards his legacy, how his life has been an inspiration to me in my own, and how every time his name, which I am so proud to share with him, is mentioned I’m able, if only briefly, to go back in time to be with him. Back to a time when, for me, his legend began.