My paternal grandfather was a primitive artist, some folks said. I was offended by the remark, not realizing the term referred not the quality of his work, but to his use of materials at hand - petrified wood, gnarled wood, deer antlers, earthly things that displayed character and pleased him.
I was fourteen when he went about removing the old hitching rail that had stood at the gate of his farm house since he was a boy. He was 72 and the time to replace it with a stone fence and deer antler gate had arrived. I knew nothing of this plan until he asked me to help him move four large petrified stumps that had lain beneath a thorny locust tree near his barn.
Missouri winters can be frigid. The winter of 1952 was no exception. Working in the basement, I helped prepare his small batches of cement that, when finished, become two decorative panels. His experienced hand and a metal trowel, brought a sheen to the surface on one panel in which a number of small thunder eggs and agates formed a pattern that pleased him. On the other panel he applied a thin layer of pure cement and when it reached a stage that suited him, he carefully etched the lines of a poem he credited to Shakespeare.
Poetry was not one of my stronger suits, so I turned a blind eye to the words this dude had left us a half-millennium before my arrival.
Being not in line to inherit Tanglewood Farm, I enlisted in the air force, married a lady I met on the Oregon coast, raised a family and let thirty years slip away without refining my literary knowledge.
During the summer 1982 a letter from a distant relative alerted me that Tanglewood Farm had been sold. Another decade passed before I ignored the “Keep Out” sign and trudged the quarter-mile lane. Cattle were grazing where Grandpa’s house had once stood, but his stone fence remained at what was once the entryway. After copied the poem on a slip of paper I hiked back to my car. But before heading back to the west coast, I read the words one more time.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.
And there it was the meaning. How could I not have understood Shakespeare’s words? Grandma was a school teacher before she married in 1910. While Grandpa was the artist, she was the wordsmith. But he’d crossed over with an eternal gift, and etched her favorite verse in stone.