Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

The Best Writer I Never Knew (An Ode to My Grandfather)

Note: For Grandparents Day, I’m reposting this article in memory of my grandpa, Charles Ward.

Most people spend their lives dreaming of meeting someone famous — a big shot actress or world-class musician maybe. They long for a chance to connect with someone of real talent, a genius. But not me.

For years I had an amazing artist sitting right in front of me — and I didn’t even know it.

Photo of a Window

Photo credit: Lorenzo Cuppini (Creative Commons)

My Grandpa Ward was a jazz pianist, dedicated reporter, and oil painter. Among other things, he wrote plays and admired public radio, appreciated fine art and had a penchant for the classics. I have more in common with him than any other relative, living or dead.

But I never knew my grandfather like that — as the artist, I mean. For me, he was a nice man with a grumpy side who loved me and loved books. Only years after his death did I realize what a remarkable man he was. I regret not getting to know him better when I had the chance.

Fortunately, I have the privilege of preserving his memory in words — an apt epitaph, if I do so say myself. Here’s an excerpt of a piece I wrote about him, which was published in April 2012:

It’s early afternoon. Despite sun pouring through the windows, the room seems dimly lit. I know this room.

There’s a bathroom off to the side where I took my first shower—a rite of passage for a boy used to bubble baths. My mom stayed here after having my sister. While she was in the hospital, I read a letter from her every day that she was gone. All in this room.

It’s a place of beginnings, this room. But not today. Not this drab, dreary afternoon.

The priest recites words from a book that is not the Bible. They are practically inaudible. If I could hear them, I would not understand. Looking around, fidgety, I sigh. I am bored.

Books line the shelves: Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Stein; biographies, bibliographies, and literary analyses—it’s an appropriate place for a journalist, a caretaker of others’ stories, to die. 

Read the rest: When Grandpa Died

My grandfather was the best writer and artist I’ve ever known. I just wish I would’ve known that, and appreciated it, while he was alive.

I wish he could see me now, so that he could see his grandson, the published author. I wish he, the playwright, could’ve seen me performing in plays in college or performing live concerts with my band. I wish he could see my the walls of my house, lined with bookshelves. Just like his.

I think he’d be proud of me. Maybe he is.

Who is someone (a family member, friend, even famous person) you wish you would’ve gotten to know better? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Lorenzo Cuppini (Creative commons)

About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. To get updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • Mike Zserdin

    Touching.

    • Lori Buckle

       Thank you for sharing this beautiful post, Jeff.  My grandparents passed away when I was an adult, but I wished I had talked to them more about their lives.  My dad’s mother was forced to give up teaching when she got married, because that’s what was expected of women back then.  Then my grandfather died suddenly a few years later and she returned to teaching.  I always knew she mourned my grandfather, because she never remarried.  However, I would love to know how she felt about going back to the job she loved under such tragic circumstances.

      I would also love to know about my mother’s mother.  I’ve been told that she grew up on a real working cattle ranch, so I could kick myself for never collecting what must have been fascinating stories about her “home on the range”.

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    Great read, Jeff. It’s amazing how family bonds can be so strong.
    Both of my grandfathers passed on before I was born. I would have liked to get to know them better. I wonder what I would have had in common with them.

  • MarlDBLe

    I definitely can relate, Jeff. I have the same feelings about my Grandfather and his entrepreneurial smarts. I wish I would have sat at his feet learning a whole lot more. 
    By the way, is Ward a sirname? I’m a Ward. Funny.

  • http://www.turndog-millionaire.com/ Turndog Millionaire

    Very sad, but like you say, you can preserve his memories and legacy through words and stories. This is something many people don’t get. A person who writes about them long after they’re gone

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  • http://www.jonstallings.com Jon Stallings

    I would have to say my dad.  I was only 11 when he passed. It was not until many years had passed that I recognized his dedication to serving others. He was always helping someone, and I was often in tow and in the way. Deep down I know I only scratched the surface of who he was

  • http://www.nebraskagraceful.blogspot.com Michelle DeRusha

    Definitely my grandparents. My grandfather was gruff and not very affectionate. But he was super smart, self-educated, well-read and made guns at the Springfield Armory – that alone is enough for hours of conversation.

    And my grandmother was sassy, fashionable, and quick-witted. And an RN during a time when 99.9% of women didn’t work. So much to know…but unfortunately, I think by the time we get truly interested, we are much older (I am in my 40s) and they are long gone.

  • http://talesofwork.com/ kimanzi constable

    I wish I had more time with my grandma. She just died 3 weeks ago but I didn’t spend much time at all with her because she lived in Kenya. I actually spent two years with her when I was 14 , my mother sent my brother and I to live with our family in Kenya for two years. She started three businesses in a small village that supported her entire family, most men didn’t want to deal with her as a business owner. She had 14 children and lived an amazing life in the midst of extreme poverty all around her. I miss her!

  • http://pansandpickpockets.com/ Ally Siwajian

    This is a beautiful piece of prose, Jeff, especially in its entirety on
    The High Calling. The way you’ve crafted your words echo the depth of
    your story about a man, an artist, a journalist, and a writer. But most
    of all, he’s your grandfather, and that relationship you two share is
    truly something special.  Thanks for sharing this story. It’s made me
    reflect on my own relationship with my Papa, the history buff who framed
    newspapers, smoked cigarettes, and visited graveyards to stay in touch
    with his ancestry.

  • http://www.nginaotiende.blogspot.com Ngina Otiende

    Mine was not brief encounter.  

    My dad passed away some five years ago, so I had like a life-time with him.

    But a lot has happened in the 5 years since he passed. I got married,  family members moved countries, great career advancements for others and general improvement for everyone.  Am blessed to have had my dad for many years…but can’t help missing him now, wondering how life would be with him around. Meeting my hubby, enjoying retirement with mum, seeing his grand-kids grow, traveling the world. :)

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    I would have liked to have gotten to know my grandparents on my father’s side better. They passed away when I was young and I have vague memories of them. Seeing as they lived to 98 and 99 I’m sure they had so much knowledge to pass on and experiences to share. 

  • KS

    Jeff, that was beautiful prose. Thank you.

    My dad’s mom died of pancreatic cancer when he was 12; my mom’s dad died in a car accident when she was 10. In both cases, the grandparent who died was remembered as musically talented and a lively, interesting person. Needless to say, I have only hearsay, but to this day I carry with me a feeling of loss that I feel certain was transmitted unconsciously through each parent.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Wow, KC. I understand and empathize with that pain.

  • http://blog.runebug.com/ runebug

    That was a beautiful story. Hopefully you find some comfort in what you know now.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thank you.

  • http://www.healthyspirituality.org Jean Wise

    Beautiful tribute, Jeff.  I remember my great Aunt Anna as an older gray hair lady.  I can picture her but can’t remember much of anything else.  She died when I was 6.  Now as an adult I have her old suitcase full of 60 years of journal, passports stamped from around the world and three books she wrote.  We have the same interests and I think I much more like her than I ever knew.  That is one person I would love to spend time with.  maybe in heaven…

  • http://www.workyouenjoy.com Adam Rico

    What a wonderful post Jeff. A great tribute to your grandfather.

    As for me, I would say I would have liked to have spent more time with my grandfather on my Dad’s side. He passed on 31 years ago. 

    I recently came across a birthday card he had given me on my first birthday. In it, he wrote a short note about who he hoped I would become and encouraged me to stay true to God’s word.
    It was really powerful to read that note and to know he intended for me to read it someday after he was gone. It reminded me that our writing will impact others long after we’ve passed on.

  • loly101

    I agree, sometimes we neglect those close to us as interesting people until it is too late to ask them questions about their life.   Remember bits and pieces of what they once disclosed is sometimes not enough, but then, I guess the writer could take over and begin to imagine that world that once was.  Grandparents are a great source of inspiration if only we had appreciated them more and had gotten to know them better.  Like old buildings, torn down because they aren’t modern and don’t hold enough of what we want them to hold.

  • http://www.bethcoulton.com/ Beth Coulton

    My dad…knew him all my life, but didn’t discover his writings til he was gone.  We have a folder of goofy, heart touching, sentimental poems he wrote to my mom during WW2 when they were apart.  Amazing.  I see him differently now, after his death, and now know where I got it from…..

  • Stephanie Hilliard

    My husband’s grandfather was a big, gruff man who had farmed in Central Texas his entire life. What I didn’t realize until later was the wealth of oral history he carried in the stories he told of that farming life. I wish I had been aware enough back then to jot down at least some of those amazing stories before they were gone.

  • http://kaiyaslaughterheals.blogspot.in/ Court

    I never knew my dad had wanted to be a writer too until I was like 16 and I remember that day, looking at him in a new way like that, was startling. It was cool to have something in common with him that I didn’t realize we did!

  • http://flailingthroughlifeandlove.blogspot.com/ Hillary

    Its amazing how the innocence and blindness of youth to death and impermanence can make us miss so much. Still, I think it’s also a balm for later. Looking back and learning about people that I have lost is almost like finding that they are speaking to us still from a cloud of witnesses. For me, finding a personal connection in a new way to someone I loved after losing them is uplifting. It shows me that they continue to live on in me and the people around me their lives touch. It helps in realizing that the inner self we all hide from the light is eventually found and loved later by someone eventually, even if not in its own time. 

    :) Great post.

  • http://granbee.wordpress.com/ Rose Byrd

    I feel so much like that about my PawPaw West–except I WAS guided into knowing what a wonderful teacher and lesson planner he was by the other elders in my family.  Wonderful writing you have done to honor your Grandpa Ward!

  • http://quietanthem.blogspot.com/ Renee Ronika Klug

    You are carrying on your grandfather’s calling. 

  • http://itsakoolife.wordpress.com/ rebecca koo

    There was a guy I grew up with who was SUCH an artist. As with many creatives and super-intelligent people, I felt a little awkward around him. Plus he was older than me by a couple of years which when you are growing up seems like a bigger deal. I was good friends with his younger brother. However, now thanks to facebook we have re-connected and I am so grateful to get to know him better. Such a kind and deep soul with so much to offer. Glad I’ve had another chance to appreciate an old friend. He is crazy smart and an unbelievable artist.

  • http://twitter.com/HumairaRiaz Humaira Riaz

    It is my grandma. She passed away when I was 9 but there is so much more to her that I wish I knew while she was alive. 

    Incredibly strong woman. I love her! 

  • http://www.daveknickerbocker.wordpress.com/ Dave Knickerbocker

    My would be mother-in-law died six months before I married her daughter. Since she lived in England, where my wife is origially from, I had little time to get to know her. But, there was much laughter, and my wife remembers her to me often. She didn’t write memoirs or show signs of greatness in any other way than raising two amazing young women, and I got to marry one of them. So, she was a fantastic person in my book.

  • hipsterandhymn

    I only met him once before he was diagnosed. I friendly hello and an outlandish smile welcomed me to a place I had never been, a community that was about to change my entire life.

    A few months ago I sat at Troy’s funeral along with over a thousand other people. Troy wasn’t an incredible artist or some brilliant writer or businessman, but Troy loved people. He acted out what he believed in a way that I have never seen before. I watched my friends laugh and cry as they remembered this man who completely changed their lives.

    I wish I would have known Troy before the cancer. Troy before the weakness. The real Troy.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://profiles.google.com/susanwbailey Susan Bailey

    I keep hearing this story. I thought of it myself as I begin to appreciate my parents as people beyond just being Mom and Dad. My son is having a delayed grief reaction to my Dad’s passing (8 years ago) and he’s thinking the same stuff. I mentioned to both my kids (both grown) to try and get to know their Mom and Dad as individuals too – my son and I are definitely doing that as we are really good friends as well as mother and son.

  • Anton

    Great Post that makes me realize how lucky I was to have known my grandfather and was fortunate to have shared more than 50 years with him. He was the greatest influence on my life, not only because he was a great writer, painter, musician, violin maker, inventor, teacher and a great lover of my grandmother, but also because he was a fantastic “human being”. At 51 he was told he would be dead within the year. At 80 he confessed that everyone who said he would die was dead. He was still writing for a newspaper two weeks before he passed away at 97.

  • Mary McCauley

    It would be my dad.  He died when I was 17.  There is so much about his life I wish I knew now that I am the same age he was when he died.  So many stories I was too young to listen to or as k about.  But the one memory that will never leave is his love for me.  I have looked for someone to love me like that every since.  Today I am blessed with such love from my husband. A miracle.

  • Thompkm

    beautiful!

  • Mirelba

    I envy you the privilege.  The grandmother I was named for accompanied her children to their death in Auschwitz.  I have heard so many stories of her over the years from my mom and other survivors who knew and loved her.   I wish I could have met her for myself, and gotten to enjoy having such a special woman for my grandmother.  All my ‘memories’ of her are courtesy of other wonderful people who wanted to give me what to treasure and mourn
    .

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      wow. i’m so sorry to hear that, Mirelba. it’s amazing how people live on through the memories of others, though. thank you for sharing.

      • Mirelba

         Yes, as long as we have memories, it keeps them a bit alive. 

  • http://cherionethingivelearned.blogspot.com/ Cheri Gregory

    My father’s father was killed in a car accident before my brother or I were born. One of my favorite photos of him shows him standing beside a tall Thoroughbread, all decked out in English riding attire. My father tells me he was a very accomplished horseman…I get my horse-crazy gene from him. If he’d been alive when I was in 6th grade, I like to think I would have continued riding lessons instead of piano lessons. I still have his saddle, circa 1955. No clue what to do with it, but I can’t seem to let go of it.

  • Mae Lorette

    My grandfather was a quiet man, rarely spoke. It wasn’t until he’d been gone for thirty years that I discovered he’d been shot in the throat in WWI. I was told he was illiterate and it wasn’t until seven years ago that my father told me that that when they memorized their multiplication tables around the kitchen table, their father, my grandfather knew them, just from hearing his children. The Brilliance that is in our DNA must be acknowledged so that we can share it with the world. Thanks for your writings Jeff, you are one of my faves and I’m an old lady…smile…but a youthful old lady. Be blessed!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      wow. thanks for sharing, Mae.

  • Angela Brackeen

    Beautiful … thank you for sharing.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      you’re welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/TheOtherMartha1 Martha Reynolds

    My grandfather was still climbing mountains at 80. Childhood memories include walks with him through the woods where he lived – following the trail he’d blazed as he’d point out and identify flowers, trees, and birds. In the 1920’s, before he married, he and a pal plied the Pawcatuck River in canoes and camped along its banks. I have his journals and hope one day to put his writings into a book.

  • Philippa Ross

    Just like you, I wish I’d got to know my grandfather better. I remember coming away from my grandfathers funeral some 20 years ago thinking  – ‘how come I never knew that side of him’  He was an exceptional man – a highly respected quiet strong leader who was honored by his colleagues and friends.  He too was an artist, a fine landscape painter.  
    I only remember him as grandad, the man who I dressed up in my Sunday best to visit; be on my best behaviour for an hour or two.  I don’t remember ever talking to him about his life – just general day to day chit chat.
    As the years go on – and my friends parents reach their end, they too discover things about them they never knew – stuff that comes out while someone pays tribute to them at the lecturn.
    We are all so wrapped up in our lives we don’t take the time to talk to people.  We just see them as the person living out a role – mother, father, shop keeper, bin man etc.  
    Take the time to have a great conversation with people around you .

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      those are bittersweet realizations. thanks for sharing, Philippa.

  • http://ruthannereid.com/ Ruthanne Reid

    Boy, does this ring true for me. My maternal grandfather was an AMAZING man. He died before I was born, but I wish I’d gotten to know him. Incredible developer – he built communities, lakes, and towns all over the country. Brilliant musician – he could go to the opera, come home, and by ear reproduce everything he’d heard on the piano. He was funny, and far-thinking: my grandmother was much younger than he, and he died when she was still a relatively young woman. Yet his plans to take care of her after his death were so thorough that she never had to worry about a dime until the day she died – more than fifty years later.

    I really wish I’d been able to know this man. I’m honored to have him in my family.

  • http://www.shannonmilholland.blogspot.com Shannon Milholland

    This is interesting, Jeff, because my grandfather was the Features Editor of the Kansas City Star. I don’t remember him not being “ancient”. He never shared with me his passion for the written word but I did play or witness many rounds of Scrabble with him. He was the master of using the printing measures en and em in just the right space.

    I too wish he could see me one of two of his seven grandchildren who inherited his love for writing.

  • Judy Guion

    I also knew my parents, but yet I didn’t know them. I am learning about them through hundreds of letters written by them and about them from 1939 until 1946. You see, my father and an uncle  went to Venezuela in their early 20’s to work for an oil company and my grandfather began writing letters to them every Sunday night. Then the war came along and his five sons were scattered all over the world, but he continued his weekly missive to all, including the daughter-in-laws that joined the family. It’s a slice of life and my passion is to encourage others to bridge generations and to share their heritage also.

  • http://twitter.com/lorimcspeaks Lori McClure

    This reminds me of my grandfather because I never knew he had been a country singer with some success. It was never talked about. He was just a cool guy who played the guitar and sang silly songs for us. He had a heart tattoo on his arm from when he was in the Navy, and he always had a toothpick in his mouth. Cool guy. Wish I had known just how big music had been in his life. There were stories to be told I never got the chance to hear. Thanks for a heartfelt post :)

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      wow. very interesting, Lori!

  • Dawn Aldrich

    I spent my childhood listening to family stories. Being the youngest in my immediate and extended family often times I spent hours on my mother’s lap soaking up nostalgic tales of relatives I’d never met. I love the stories and collected generational family photos. Today, my husband and I make family memories intentional through both immediate and extended family gatherings so that our grandchildren will have more than nostalgic stories and old photographs. They’ll have memories of face-to-face encounters.

  • soulstops

    What a loving tribute to your grandfather…I wish I could have known my maternal grandmother more but she lived in another country, and she died before I had a chance to visit her again. It is hard to pick one famous person, so I will pick two: Corrie Ten Boom, and C.S. Lewis.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      thanks! I second that on meeting Lewis. good one.

  • http://sparkvoice.wordpress.com/ DS

    I think it’s my dad.  He struggled with alcohol, and I never really spent a lot of time around him beyond the age of 5.  As we both grew older, he stopped drinking and began to embrace being a dad and grandfather until cancer overcame him.  I cherish those times we shared together as men.

  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.sundwall Susan Sundwall

    My dad’s dad was a feisty old Swede who came over on a boat. People had to face so many more trials so much younger than we do now. I would liked to have heard about his whole immigrant experience.  Dad’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was two and she came over from Sweden, too. I’ll have to look them both up Yonder. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/pj.albers Paula Joanne Albers

    How odd that I come across this today…

    But let me back-track a little first. I would have liked to have met my grandfather. Throughout my childhood, my mom filled me in about the “man with the broken english”. A man who came to this country with his brother and nothing else. Two men who left a wealthy, Dutch-Indonesian plantation and everything they could have ever known  just to get a glimpse of the “greatest country in the world”.

    The story relayed to me was that my grandfather was an amazing artist, hard worker and quiet soul. My aunt was the “keeper” of most of my grandfather’s art: this collection included letters (written in Dutch) water color paintings, furniture and sketches. I was awash with pride, speculation, curiosity and a sad realization that I would never get the chance to meet this man, and probably wouldn’t see this beautiful “time capsule” again. (My aunt stopped communicating with me after my mother and uncle’s deaths.)

    I’ve thought about my lost grandfather quite a bit and have considered my own love of art; I wonder what he would think of my “creations”…

    …I am grieving. No, not over the loss of my grandfather, but because of the passing of a dear friend. This friend is a man I’ve known since our teenage years; a man I now realize I love/loved deeply.

    Friends were all we could be. Time seemed to keep us separated at alternating steps as our lives veered in just slightly different directions:

    One of us married, while the other single.
    Places then changed.
    Children were born; homes purchased; decisions made.
    Alternately/subtly contacting each other, only to find the timing too late each time.
    The years didn’t wait…
    Thirty of them came and are now gone.

    I’m reminding myself that somehow things are as they should be… but I’m not able to commit to that belief just yet. Realization has led to regret; regret to longing.

    My friend died of a broken heart; my own is now breaking…

  • Mike Fischer

    You’re a lucky man Jeff, to have seen an artist who was your blood relation.