My Grandpa Jack was magic. Truly, he was. To a curious, head-in-the-clouds girl like myself, his abilities could be described as nothing but magic! Grandpa Jack could always get a campfir single match. It didn’t matter if the wood was damp or freshly cut from his forested property in the Missouri Ozarks; one match was all it took. A master “tinkerer” (as he called himself), he could rebuild or fix anything he got his leathery grease-stained hands on. His shop in the garage was overflowing with bits and pieces of machinery he’d salvaged, and everyone within a thirty-mile radius knew that if something wasn’t working, Jack would make it right again. He never charged for his services, and he completed every challenge with a smile on his face. I rarely saw him without that smile. The only time it disappeared was when he was bent over a project, his tanned brow furrowed in the deepest concentration. Though e somehow always smelled like summer rain, warm and fresh and revitalizing.
Grandpa Jack taught me how to whittle a stick into a miniature sculpture with nothing but a little pocket knifethe best places to hunt for wild morel mushrooms in the spring, and the best places to swim in the summer. The muddy banks of the Missouri River were his favorite. We would float and fish, and I would watch him water ski for hours, amazed at how easy he made it look. He promised me he’d teach me to water ski on the river when I was older. But the most amazing thing Grandpa Jack could do was tame wild animals. He’d stand on his deck, surrounded by forest, hold out his hand with a few sunflower seeds tucked inside, and wait patiently. It wasn’t long before the birds and squirrels came closer to investigate. He’d smile knowingly and coax them gently with his words. “Come here little birds. Come here,” he’d say, and I’d watch in astonishment as they complied. I was afraid to breathe, sure that if I moved the spell would be broken. Sure that it was a spell, for what else could explain it? The birds would land on his hand; the squirrels would settle at his feet, and they would let him pet them as they ate. If he sat still in the sun fence lizards would gather on his lap and sunbathe right along with him. A red fox den was nearby, and the kits would follow him with bright-eyed curiosity. They trusted him completely. It was pure magic.
I desperately wanted to be magic like Grandpa Jack, but I doubted myself. I my age to make many friends. And I was too strange. Too awkward. Too A.D.H.D. Too redheaded and freckled. Too learning disabled. Too gentle. Too easy of a target. As a result, I preferred the company of animals and trees. I spent most of my time climbing through the canopy, daydreaming about the adventures I would take someday when I had grown braver. Imagining myself as a fearless explorer who didn’t worry about things like not having anyone to sit with at lunch or play with at recess. I dreamed of freedom from close-minded, intolerant peers and strict, un-empathetic teachers. I dreamed the constant social anxiety that hung over me like an oppressive cloud would break. I wanted to be brave, strong, and resourceful like Grandpa Jack. Everyone liked him. Everyone wanted to be his friend. He made it look easy.
It wasn’t easy for me. But, Grandpa Jack didn’t let me give up on myself. If I said I couldn’t do something he’d insist, “Can’t never did do anything,” and he’d push me to try anyway. He taught me to embrace my quirks, brush off the cruel critiques of others, and move forward one step at a time. He taught me that the magic he possessed had been inside me all along, that I just had to believe.
I lost my Grandpa Jack when I was eleven years old. It felt far too soon for me to be without his guidance. There were so many things I still wanted to learn from him. There were so many things I still wanted him around for, like those promised water ski lessons, and my transformation into a young woman that he would be proud of. But I promised myself that I would be grateful for the time we had and that I would never forget everything he had taught me. I would carry the magic forward for us both now.
I never did learn to water ski; it never felt right without him, but I learned to do a lot of other things. His encouragement stayed with me, and I learned to face challenges with his resilience. I learned to be brave and strong and kind. I became a capable, hard-working, life-loving woman that I believe he would be proud of. These days injured or lost animals have a way of finding their way to me on a regular basis. It is as if they know I will help like Grandpa Jack told them to trust me, and so they do. Every time I encounter one of these trusting wild creatures I feel his remembered smile warm me with the sun… and every time I am grateful. Yes, magic is real. After all, can’t never did do anything.