Leaning on My Grandfather’s Cane

I never knew my grandfather, my dad’s dad.  He passed away soon after I was born and I only knew him from the scattered comments of my mom and dad as I was growing up.  Not long ago I came upon a letter my dad had written to him while he was attending military school as a teenager. The letter broke my heart. My dad spoke of wanting to make his dad proud of him, how he was trying to do much better in school and how much he wanted his dad’s approval.  The letter helped me piece together facts about their relationship and how and why my dad would eventually be raised by his grandmother after his mom passed away when he was an infant.  From those stories I remember being told about him and from the heart breaking letter I recently discovered, I came to a painful conclusion.  My grandfather was abusive.

Abuse is found in various forms.  There are people who live through sexual and physical abuse while others experience it’s  horror verbally and emotionally.  In whatever form it manifests, abuse is a tragedy.  It would seem that my dad endured mostly neglectful and, at times, emotional abuse.  To beg for a parents approval is a sure sign something is wrong and my dad’s letter was nothing short of a plea to be loved – love that I don’t believe ever came.  For all of my dad’s life I was witness to a good man who loved his family yet lacked any sense of worth and never had confidence in himself.  I cannot imagine the pain of never being told you were of value and even more, to be practically abandoned by a parent and raised by a grandmother. Losing his mom at such a young age must have been a trauma he never overcame and he was never able to feel the benefits of what would have certainly been a loving mother-son relationship. My grandfather would eventually remarry and the divide between he and my dad would grow over the course of his life until by the time he died, they hardly spoke.  The fact that my dad did as good a job as he did raising two sons is a miracle.  Discovering this truth about my dad’s life illuminated things about him that I struggled to understand growing up.  He did not have a father’s example to follow as he raised my brother and I. He simply did the best he could.  I have written before that the greatest gift my dad gave me was, simply, his presence. He was always present in my life- always there.  Most of the time he had little to say –  rarely offering any fatherly advice, but he was always there.  I love my dad because he never left me.

When my dad’s half-sister passed away a few years ago, I was given my grandfather’s cane that he had used when he was older.  That and a wooden chair are the only keepsakes I have of my grandfather’s life.  I’m not sure why he needed the cane.  Perhaps he had bad feet and knees like my dad and I and needed the cane to lean on and walk with.  Two weeks ago I had a full knee replacement and have required a cane to get around with until the knee is healed. I almost went and purchased a fancy, adjustable cane but remembered my grandfather’s cane and pulled it from the closet. There is nothing fancy about it.  It is a classic shaped oak cane with a rubber tip and it seemed to be in excellent condition.  I placed it at my side and realized it was the perfect length.  I must have gotten my short height from my grandfather.  I decided I would use my grandfather’s cane.  

My physical therapist explained that I needed to use my cane on the opposite side of the knee I had replaced.  In other words, she encouraged me to lean toward my good side and not bear weight on the damaged knee. Her words stuck with me – “lean toward the good side”.

My grandfather was a flawed man. To what extent I will never know. But, I too am flawed – in various ways. Like my father and his father before him, I am flawed.  Fortunately, I have been able to express love to my family in a more natural way than my dad was able to and I credit my dad’s willingness to expose those weaknesses he lived with day in and day out.  My ability to be a better husband and father was born out of observing my dad’s flawed side.

My grandfather needed a cane and now so do I.  Leaning on that cane, I realize he did the same thing seventy-five or more years years ago.  This man I never knew, like all of us, had imperfections that forced him to adjust in his life – to lean against the good things. It is important to remember our heritage and to embrace our past, warts and all. I’m glad I have my grandfather’s cane to connect me with this man who I knew so little about.

I’m now leaning on my grandfather’s cane and I just have to remember to always lean against the good side.

Love, Steve Mc


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