My Two Grandfathers

Men Of Character — Part II

Grandfather Ben reading amidst flowers, a place he liked to be in his retirement years. Family archive photos

My grandfather Johnson was as tall and fair as Grandpa Forsberg was redheaded and short. He was the third son of Ida and Alfred Johnson, born in Jonkoping, Sweden, in 1887. Like my Morfar, my Farfar was a man of character, a man who loved work, a man who spoke tenderly to all, a man of great compassion and love of family, a person of integrity. Bernard Nils Johnson was known to all as Ben. He was one of 10 children who lived to adulthood, and a favored son by his hard to please father. Ben kept all the family books. His father, a successful builder and contractor, built a cottage on the shore in Lakewood where the family spent summers. It is a formidable house still, now painted white, though in my youth and in my grandfather’s day, it was dark green and white. My grandfather was an obedient son but in 1904 at the age of 18, he hitchhiked West, stopping in St. Louis for the World’s Fair, and making it all the way to Seattle where he considered taking work and making a life. No one seems to know exactly what he did out there, but he did stay for two years.

Ultimately, he returned to Jamestown and never again thought of leaving. He worked for his father early in life, learning all aspects of the construction trade, and later specialized in trusses and high bar work, particularly for large buildings. He talked about being part of the team that built Southwestern School. In 1917, he and his father built a farmhouse and a barn out on the Goshen Road, which he farmed until 1925. Though Grandpa was never much of a talker — frankly, I heard him say 100 words in my entire life — he told someone in the family he quit farming because he could not send calves to market. He also loved his draft horses deeply, and when one died of colic (which, as we horsemen know, is a gruesome death), he could bear no more. He left the farm behind forever.

I remember him most as a fearless man who loved heights. On vacations to the Catskills and Adirondacks when I was a child, grandfather Ben could be found standing as far up and far out as possible on a rock or a bridge. He stood still and tall, staring into space. Granny Johnson would stand back and with hands on hips, quietly watch him until he stepped back and down. She would be smiling. All their lives, their love was demonstrable, obvious to the world through body language and facial expression. We were lucky to toast them on their 50th anniversary, kissing like a young couple. It still makes me smile to think of it. In the photo, he is dressed in a sleek pale gray suit. It makes me remember he was a formal man, always well dressed, even at home. Sometimes he would put on a hat and suitcoat and walk down Forest Avenue and back after dinner. In later years, after my parents had divorced, my mother saw him walking one day on the corner of Third and Main. She hugged him tightly, and when she pulled back, she saw he was weeping, openly. The divorce of his son and daughter in law broke his heart.

Grandpa loved all the grandchildren, who routinely sat on his huge lap at Christmas and holidays. We all adored him. He never spoke a harsh word in the years I knew him. He built us useful things we have kept and treasured all our lives: desks, dressing tables, toy chests, carved and graceful shelves for our rooms, little chairs. He and Grandpa Forsberg built a swing set in our backyard, setting it in concrete, where it lasted 20 years. That’s how reliable they were. They were two men you could count on to do the right thing, to be there every day at the dinner table, to bring home the paycheck, to treat every person with dignity and respect.

My father said that during the 1930’s, his father would gather them all around the radio to listen to President Roosevelt’s fireside chats. He read daily. Like my Morfar, Ben favored history and stories of exploration. I remember reading Peary at the Pole from his bookshelf when I was 10. Ben’s heavy copy of the bible was marked in various places with his favorite passages. My aunts Marian and Helen told me he sometimes read a verse at dinner time at the table. He liked Psalms best and Song of Solomon, as one can see from studying his Bible notes. He was in charge of the family books after his father died, and we can read his eloquent handwriting, noting family births, deaths, and hardships. He kept letters from family. His quiet intelligence and calm demeanor were gifts to all.

At right, Granny and Grandpa Johnson on their 50th anniversary.

Later in life, Ben and his Martha moved into one of the six apartments on Newland, a house then kept in pristine condition, painted pale green with yellow trim and window boxes on every porch railing. Grandpa loved Dahlias, which he planted in the backyard, huge, yellow Dahlias as big as his fists. He was a fine gardener. I recall him sitting on the side porch reading the paper in the sun. When I arrived, when anyone he loved arrived, he would lay down the paper, and smile at us a smile so warm we all knew he loved us well. No words were needed.

My two grandfathers were men of character. How lucky we were to have them. How lucky we all are to have our loving grandparents whose love is deep and true. Both men lived to be eighty or more. Both died at home. These were men who never cheated, who never shirked their duty or complained or even were sick a day until they fell ill and died. Both men seemed to love life, treasure its small moments — a cup of coffee steaming in on the table, a chair in the sun — in a way that taught me to love life too. Each of them illustrated a life of integrity and love. Who could ask for more. They are not memories; they are with me every day in heart and mind.

My dad, Raymond with his parents, circa 1942, before dad left for the South Seas during World War II. You can see how proud Ben is of his only son.