The main thing I remember about him (aside from his habit of poking me in the tummy and making a squeak with his lips with the sound of air being squeezed out the neck of a balloon) is that he was my first idea of someone who was "distinguished". He was a real old Virginia country gent of the best variety, all leather, hand-knitted wool sweaters, and pipe tobacco. All those menswear catalogs you see of rugged outdoorsy types standing in a photographer's set of a stable? My grandfather was the real deal.
It wasn't always that way ... he'd had as rough and tumble a turn-of-the-century country upbringing as anybody, back in the days when Herndon was a little farming community instead of Silicon Valley East. He was a farmer, as had been his father and his grandfather. Once upon a time, the Robey family and associated clans owned vast tracts of Northern Virginia ... by my lifetime, almost all of that had been sold off except for my grandfather's house on Lee's Corner Road. He still had what was to me an extremely impressive half-acre vegetable garden until they sold that place and retired to the Kilmarnock River so he could take up crabbing in his retirement.
As for what he looked or talked like, just think of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, and you'll have him pegged perfectly, right down to the peculiar lisp. Then imagine encountering the same guy in his seventies and with a modicum of money, and you'll see him as I knew him. Unfortunately, he died sometime in the '80s, I forget exactly when, but like so many of my most interesting relatives, he passed away just as I was starting to get to the age to appreciate him.
Lest the title of this ramble deceive you, he did not die of cancer brought on by smoking, but rather of heart failure. I'm sure the smoking didn't help, but believe me, it didn't particularly hurt, either. I suspect the extent of his smoking was an after-dinner pipe, but I couldn't swear to it.
Anyway, what led me to think about this was one of those strange mental rambles. You see, sometime early last week, I lost my pen. What's the big deal about that? Well, I was particularly fond of this pen; it's a Uniball "Jetstream" 1.0mm, writes as smooth as Bailey's Irish Cream and makes a nice, bold line. I bought this pen particularly for the purpose of carrying around with me to write in the little notebook I've taken to carrying around so that I can catch inspirations when they come. Today I was shopping for a replacement.
The notebook, I should mention, is a Moleskine that I picked up at Barnes & Noble, the little black flip-book kind you always see reporters carrying in old b/w movies. I originally had just a generic spiral-bound thing, but the rigors of going around in my pocket were too much for it and it was rapidly disintegrating. I picked up the Moleskine because it has a rigid cover and an elastic band to keep it closed -- making it much more durable. Moleskines have been used by Van Gogh, Hemingway, and who can guess who else.
Anyway, I picked up a replacement pen, but I didn't like it very much; the good news is that when I got home, I randomly happened to move my keyboard, and bang if my beloved pen didn't come rolling out from under it! Feeling something like the father welcoming home the prodigal son, I scooped the pen up with enthusiasm and started transcribing notes (mostly about Brigid and Greg) from the shredded spiral notebook into the Moleskine, all the while humming along to a jazzy selection from Django Reinhardt that happened to be playing on my Pandora station.
And in a fit of sudden self-awareness, I felt like the archetypal (or possibly cliché) "author", actually living something akin to the tastes I longed for when I was younger and forced by parental peculiarities or my own lack of resources into a lifestyle not of my choosing. I'm not quite sipping port in the quaint New England fireside den yet -- in fact, I've never had port in my life -- but I am at least, in broad terms, in the right neighborhood. And as I was scribbling along, the thought suddenly popped in my head that what I would really like to go with the jazz and the writing, was to be smoking a pipe. I used to love the smell of my grandfather's pipe, and I still love the smell of a tobacco shop now ... so very far from the nasty and revolting cigarettes my parents and brother puffed all during my childhood. And unlike cigarettes, a pipe doesn't leave everything feeling grimy and smelling stale ... or at least, my grandfather's pipe didn't. His house was always meticulously clean and fresh, particularly compared to the one I lived in.
Well, I don't have a pipe and I'm not getting one; I did enough second-hand smoking growing up that I've got no business doing it firsthand as an adult. But it would be a lie if I pretended that there aren't times when I wish it was an option, and when my thoughts run that away, I always remember my grandfather and think about what I learned from him on the subject of being a gentleman.