A string of missed opportunities

My grandparents lived across town. We saw them mostly on Sundays after church. The dinner conversation often turned into rants about how the world’s going to pot. Labor unions and Democrats got a lot of the blame. It’s hard to admit, but let’s just say bigotry came in hefty portions before and after dessert.

Grandpa owned a plumbing outfit. The office was behind the kitchen, reached by a hallway to the back door. The office reeked of the bookkeeper’s cigar. Walter. A slam of the screen door and we’d be playing atop stacks of pipes at the rear of the yard. The small barn behind it was filled with supplies and a pipe-cutter. I still remember the sharp oily smell of its interior. He rented garages along the alley for his small fleet of trucks.

On occasion, I’d get to ride along in Bessie the pickup or his Chevy as he made his rounds of plumbing supply houses and sites where his men were working. It could have been a great opportunity for teaching me about the workings of money, but I never asked the questions — and he never prompted them.

I do remember one time when he let me open the mail and there was a check for something a little over $600. I got to handle it. It could have been a million, I was so impressed.

This would have been a great opportunity to teach me about the meaning of that figure. What his crew had done, what they were paid as wages, how long the project required, what the parts cost, how he figured in other expenses like the trucks, office support, Social Security, insurance, and taxes. Instead, all I saw was the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow — and his glee in being seen as rich, however fleetingly.

He didn’t believe in advertising, either. The sole exception was the calendars he mailed out every Christmas. I remember when we all pitched in to help around the kitchen table getting them ready for delivery.

After my dad’s death, though, I set out to learn more about my grandparents. I done the genealogy but largely skipped over them. The ancient history seemed more interesting. We had even owned a gold mine in North Carolina, back before the Civil War wiped everything away. (That part of the story can be found on my Orphan George blog.)

I’m still surprised that Grandpa’s education ceased after eighth grade. He was needed to work at the farm. Later, he moved to the city and took up plumbing through his brother. They would have gone into business together but, as I was told by several sources, that didn’t happen because their wives didn’t get along.

As kids, we used to play in the attic, too. As I learned more about my grandparents, I read of Grandpa’s going on fishing trips with his buddies and then remembered there had been a section of gear stashed under the rafters. What hit me was a realization he could have taught me to fish — even if I didn’t want to — and it would have been a great bonding moment. But he didn’t.

Maybe years later, when I lived along one of the top ten trout-fishing streams in the country, I would have been grateful to have the skill.

There were other things he might have related. The fact he had his diggers go six inches deeper than code required in laying a new line — something that paid off for his customers when the city had its coldest temperature in decades and many other pipes started freezing and bursting.

What did you learn about money from your grandparents? About work, too.

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