Most mornings I get up to drink tea and write while sitting on my couch with a cat or two. This morning was no exception. Snow whirled past the window, and I looked at the birdhouses on the neighbor’s pine trees. Grampa made the birdhouses, and today was his birthday. So I spent some time holding him in my memory, as I often do.
Grampa Mueller was my mom’s father, and he was the steadiest male presence in my life. My earliest memories are of watching him milk the cow. He had a deliberate way of moving, and the cow trusted him as he fed her, washed her teats, and strapped on the milking machine. Grandkids could climb rails of the stall and reach out to stroke her warm flank. He showed us how to move around animals so they would know us and nobody would get hurt. The routine became familiar. When the milking was done, he released the cow from the stanchion, poured the milk into a stainless steel bucket, rinsed the milker at the standpipe outside the barn. We walked together back to the room in the garage where the milk was strained into a steel basin. Then we went into the house.
There was a rhythm of life at Gramma and Grampa’s house. They were both farmers and the children of farmers. In those days, it was possible to milk a few cows, butcher your own meat at home, raise chickens, and grow a big garden on a forty acre stump farm. Grampa was a logger too. He went to work in the dark most days, and ran a big high lead yarder for Weyerhaeuser. He smoked a curved meerschaum pipe, and his name on the crew was “Sherlock”.
That place out in the Willapa Hills was a paradise for my siblings, cousins, and me. We ran and played in the woods, waded in the creek, gathered eggs in the chicken house, took off our muddy boots at the back door. Grampa was patient with us, explaining all manner of things. But he could also be stern. He was big and angular, with a deep voice. None of us ever wanted to do anything to make him chew us out. If he told us to clean up the tools we borrowed to build canals and dams, we knew we had better do it. And put them right back where they came from.
If he had a favorite grandkid, it was hard to tell. He was fair and generous with all of us. Each kid got a chance to ride on the back of the tractor. When we were big enough to learn to drive the tractor, he taught us one by one. He taught us many things, skills and values that I carry with me still.
Grampa was the grandson of German immigrants who came to Washington via Hawaii in the late 1800s. In 2001, a couple months after he died, I went to Kauai. I saw the Lutheran church outside Lihue that the German community built. There were Muellers in the cemetery. I saw the homes on the edge of the sugarcane fields that they built, and immediately knew where Grampa’s carpentry came from. Stout, square, practical.
After retiring from the woods in the early 1970s, Grampa turned his attention to the farm. He grew hay and grain, and managed a herd of Hereford cattle. His mother’s family had been horticulturists and he had an interest in fruit trees. The orchard had apple trees that he’d grafted, berries, and grapes. He ran a small sawmill. As the oldest granddaughter, I got the first cedar chest he made from wood he milled. He made them for all the granddaughters and daughters. Years passed, and Grampa slowly slowed down. He stopped growing grain, and sold the Herefords. More time was spent woodworking, tinkering with machinery, and reading. He knew all the neighbors. For years, he kept a daily journal of happenings and weather observations. He was well-known as a storyteller.
There was a large supply of lumber from the sawmill. He planed some of it down and made birdhouses. A lot of birdhouses. He got the plans from somewhere. Every other fencepost along the hayfield had a birdhouse. He made big houses for owls. He made classic bluebird boxes and little wren houses. Some of these were painted, some were finished with oil. These were given away in droves.
I have four of them, made from cedar milled on the place. The two on the pine tree are painted cream with red roofs. Every spring I watch the tree swallows return. They swoop around the boxes. She lands, takes a look. What do you think, she asks him. I like it if you like it, he says. I don’t know, she says. Maybe we should look around some more. The flying and swooping continues, and pretty soon it appears that the boxes have families. I try to remember to clean out the boxes before the birds come back.
Grampa would be pleased, and I smile to think of him. I plant my garden, and think of him. I hike up a trail, and ask him to watch over my shoulder while I lead a big project. Sure thing, Bug, he says. And I feel as steady as a rock, knowing Grampa’s sense and strength are mine. Sometimes I look at my hands and see that they are smaller versions of his–square palms, long straight fingers. I’m not the only one. My cousin Matt has his blue eyes. My cousin Lori has his straight nose and wide smile. My brother has his height. There is something of him in all of us.
I had a Grampa for forty-one years. I’m so glad it was him.
Clarence Henry Mueller
January 19, 1913 — October 25, 2001