BY HARRY ANDERSON
May 20, 2015
Since I moved to Whidbey Island six years ago, a strange but wonderful phenomenon has overtaken me. I am becoming my grandpa.
To some extent, it’s understandable. I recently celebrated a birthday with a zero in it. The one they call “the new 50.” Hear me chuckle about that, as my knees hurt and my shoulders ache and I fall asleep in my chair at 9 p.m.
I remember my grandpa as being old, very old, and always “retired.” But he was always busy, always doing something. Washing and waxing his 1962 Chevrolet Impala, which he sometimes did weekly—at least in summer. Building or expanding shelves to hold my grandmother’s prolific home canning in their cellar. Pruning his magnificent roses. Tending his beautiful tomatoes, beans and carrots in his 10-by-20-foot garden plot next to the garage. Fixing the same leaky faucet he’d fixed a hundred times, unsuccessfully.
Taking an annual drive with my grandmother to Reno so she could play the slot machines. Drinking a pot of black coffee and smoking a pack of Pall Malls every day. Talking back to the nightly news on his 16-inch black-and-white television. “World’s gone to hell in a hand basket,” was one of his favorite comebacks.
Harry Waldemar Anderson was born in Marquette, Michigan, on Nov. 3, 1890. His mother died when he was two years old and his father soon remarried a woman who, according to him, didn’t think much of her new stepson. As he told it, she ordered him out of her sight from 7 a.m. until dusk. He sold morning newspapers on the trolley cars to make pocket money, went to school, sold afternoon newspapers on the trolley cars, then dozed in the atrium of a bank building until it was dark enough to go home.
By the time he was 14, he had left home for good. For a while, he slept in the back room of a local saloon and earned cash by cleaning spittoons. A couple years later, he and a friend briefly tried their hands as vaudeville song-and-dance men. Then he drove a hay wagon.
After he met my grandmother Esther, he hired on as a railroad bookkeeper and they eloped to Minneapolis in 1916. They raised three sons and had seven grandchildren. They moved first to Montana, and then to Tacoma. Harry retired from the Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee & Pacific Railroad after 40 years, and he died peacefully in 1977 at the home in Tacoma that he and Esther had shared for more than 50 years.
Before Whidbey, my life was not much like my Grandpa Harry’s, especially not his Dickensian childhood. I grew up in an Ozzie-and-Harriet environment with mom, dad, sister, brother and picket fence. I moved around a lot, living in Washington, California, Oklahoma and Texas. I had an all-expenses-paid year in Vietnam and Japan, courtesy of the Army. I spent my working years in journalism and public relations. (Grandpa Harry liked to brag about his journalist grandson; he said I reminded him of how much he enjoyed being editor of the railroad employee newsletter back in the 1940s.)
But now, retired and living blissfully on this beautiful island, I have come to understand why my grandpa seemed to enjoy his old age so much. He knew how fortunate he was to have survived so long with good health. He learned a trick that too few seem to learn: Life is simpler and sweeter when you’re older, but you have to figure it out.
And Whidbey is a sensational spot to grow old. It’s an active place where your days fill up with good works and interesting people. Before you know it, you volunteer to clean up roads, help the less fortunate, serve on a County board or assist at a local food bank. Or else you’re attending a local history lecture, hanging out with neighbors at the farmer’s market, indulging in the artist expressions you never had time for, or even writing a blog for Whidbey Life Magazine.
Unlike my grandpa, I don’t wash my car every week or take annual trips to Reno. But I am as inept as he was at plumbing, and I do love to talk back to the television, especially those annoying talking heads on cable news.
My Whidbey garden is every bit as lush as Grandpa Harry’s garage-side plot in Tacoma. Like him, I harvest enough food to last us well into the winter months. My canning abilities, though not as exemplary as Grandma Esther’s, have come along nicely. I am particularly proud of my pickled beets.
Time has a different meaning on this island. It’s not slower but it’s less rushed, more reverently passed. Whidbey sometimes has a feeling less like 2015 and more like 1955, the year my grandpa retired. That’s especially true once the TV, Wi-Fi and cell phone are ignored. Six hours of pulling weeds here brings a unique sense of satisfaction that is amplified by not competing with five other things that must be “multi-tasked” simultaneously.
Fast food drive-throughs and cheap eats are scarce here, so we cook at home most of the time. We even eat together. There are only four indoor movie screens on Whidbey (a rather sad three-screen multiplex in Oak Harbor and the nostalgic Clyde in Langley). That limits our away-from-home filmed entertainment options, except for the wonderful Blue Fox Drive-In where 1955 lives in glory. Touring Broadway musicals don’t stop here, but WICA and the Whidbey Playhouse give us a chance to see our friends gallantly emoting and singing.
Like my grandpa, I also manage to live decently on what’s euphemistically called a “fixed income.” Lower cost of living is another great benefit of Rock dwelling.
So, thanks Whidbey Island, for making my Golden Years comfortable and fulfilling. And thanks, Grandpa Harry, for showing me how to live long and prosper.
Once upon a time, Harry Anderson made an honest living as a reporter, editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in central Whidbey, where he spends his time gardening and ruminating on things that interest him.
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