Introducing Your Maternal Grandfather

Dear Ellie — I’m thinking the time has come to introduce you to your maternal grandfather, Opa. After all, his 66th birthday is coming up on March 2, a/k/a Texas Independence Day, which you may not celebrate in Seattle.

This is a little daunting. I’ve been married to Opa for 43 years. Even after all this time, he’s still the most fascinating person I’ve ever met. He still surprises me. So, how on earth do I shrink him into a few hundred words?

Oh, well. All I can do is tell you a few facts and anecdotes that might help explain him.

1) He was born and grew up in Midland, a small city on the flat, desolate plains of West Texas. The town of Notrees (I kid you not) is only 40 miles away. It’s a hardscrabble part of the world where people come to get rich from the vast oil reserves of the Permian Basin. Sometimes, they do get rich; sometimes, they get rich and lose it all.

This is the scenic view of Midland.

This is the scenic view of Midland.

Midland attracts a certain kind of people — hardworking, optimistic, independent, flinty. They’re wonderful neighbors, but they’re often puzzled and a bit scornful of others who aren’t as resourceful as they are. I’ve often wondered whether a harsh land makes people hard — or whether a hard kind of person is attracted to a harsh land.

Funny to look at these descriptions and think how they apply to your grandfather (I do think the landscape of your childhood marks you forever, no matter how far you travel). Like so many other West Texans, Opa is independent, driven, and optimistic. He’s not hard, but he’s tough.

For the right kind of person, the open skies and emptiness of West Texas are a spur to resourcefulness and creativity. You make your own way, you make your own fun, you make your own fireworks.

The first born of a lawyer father and bon vivant mother, Opa became a kind of Tom Sawyer-like kid. He explored alleys, experimented with dynamite, and propelled gas-filled balloons up into the sky, where they burst into flames, Once, in cahoots with his father and younger brother, he almost sent his younger sister up in a gas balloon more buoyant than they’d expected. “We miscalculated on the math,” he says now.

Oh, and the fires and fireworks. One of Opa’s first fires was lit under his baby brother’s crib. He claims not to remember it. He mostly moved his fires outdoors after that, setting fields and an occasional fence on fire.

“Weren’t your parents a little concerned about spawning a junior pyromaniac?” I’ve asked him over the years. He says no, they thought he was just fine. (This may also be why Opa has such annoyingly high self-esteem.)

Last year, when Opa and I were in Midland, we were visiting a neighbor who’s lived across the street from his family home for 60 years. She’d just seen yet another reference to Opa’s research in psychology, which has become quite well-known.

She said she was proud of him and wasn’t that great that he’d done so well. But I could see something else in her eyes — some kind of hesitation. To her, I could tell, he was still the little red-headed juvenile delinquent whose bottle rocket misfired and set her roof on fire.

2) He was a redhead during his formative years. Yeah, I know — that shouldn’t matter. But it does.

Being a brownette myself, I never realized what a big deal that was. But, when Uncle Nick went through his stint as a redheaded boy, I finally realized it’s like living under a perpetual spotlight. Everybody knows your name, total strangers come up and comment on your hair color, you stand out in any crowd.

That hair was red. Trust me.

That hair was red. Trust me.

Time passes, though, and so do hair and hair color. Former redheads blend more easily into any group. I think they always see themselves as different, though, as a little apart from everybody else. “What was it like growing up as a redhead?” I’ve asked Opa. He always gets a fond smile on his face at that question. “It was just great,” he says.

3) He’s curious about everything. That’s one of the qualities that’s made him such a good scientist and endlessly interesting person.

He watches and photographs the patterns of birds settling onto high wires. He takes note of when everyone in the family gets sick, loudly wondering about stress in their lives. (It’s much more fun when he gets sick, believe me.) He photographs parties from above to see how people gather and split apart. He analyzes people’s language to understand who they are and how they relate to the other people they’re communicating with. When this research was beginning, he walked around our Dallas neighborhood with a giant recording device on his head, looking like an extra in a sci-fi movie.


Recently, Opa got fired up about why one light pole near us in downtown Austin swayed and the others didn’t. He and I went on a couple of daily patrols to note pole swaying patterns. It occurred to me that if I hadn’t known him, I’d never have noticed light poles swaying or birds flocking on wires or people using pronouns. But then, I realized, he’d have never noticed unexpressed human emotions or good literature without me. Maybe it equals out.

4) On the home front, not all of his experiments or judgments have worked out.

When Uncle Nick was eight or nine, we were concerned he was watching too much TV. Instead of forbidding or rigidly scheduling it — which he felt would have made it more attractive — Opa pounced on another psychological premise: over-sufficient justification. If we paid Uncle Nick to watch TV, the academic reasoning went, he wouldn’t be doing it of his own free will and wouldn’t enjoy it as much.

So, Opa paid Uncle Nick by the hour to watch TV. Uncle Nick responded by watching even more TV and building up a tidy little nest egg he used to buy junk food with. With such abysmal results, the whole experiment was closed down pretty quickly. But, for months, Uncle Nick had to answer disbelieving questions from friends, such as: “Your father paid you to watch TV? That’s a joke, right?”

Similarly, Opa had long admired Freud. He would often mutter randomly about what a genius Old Sigmund was, how creative, how pioneering, even if the rest of the world was reviling him.

Sigmund Freud: Sometimes, a cigar is only a smoking device.

Sigmund Freud: Sometimes, a cigar is only a smoking device.

One evening when your mother was only 6 years old, she came out of the bathroom and reported seeing a snake there. Opa was beside himself. “She’s imagining snakes!” he chortled. “She’s right on schedule, according to Freud. You know — penis envy!”

Minutes later, I went into the same bathroom. A tiny green garter snake was slithering on the tile floor. “But it’s not very big,” I told Opa later. “I wonder what Freud would say about me.”

It was funny after that. Opa didn’t talk about Freud for a long, long time.

All of which brings me to my own, non-academic thoughts on the subject: Penis envy is a theory only a man could have come up with. Most women don’t think they’re missing a thing. They envy men their privilege, not their genitalia.

* * * * *

Of course, I’ve given you only a sketch of your grandfather. I’m hoping that, over the years, you’ll get to know him so well that you can color in your own details. As his grandchild, you’ll probably see him in ways unfamiliar to the rest of us.

Opa and you, when you were only a week old.

Opa and you, when you were only a week old.

Thinking back over 43 years of marriage, though, I can offer a little advice: If you decide to marry, pick someone whose curiosity about the world is as great or greater than yours. Choose someone you have fun with, can laugh with. Just make sure your intended laughs at your witticisms as much as you do at his or hers; you don’t want to sign up as anybody’s full-time audience.

That’s worked for me, so far, and it seems to be working for your mother, as well. Love you, my dear girl, Coco

(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)




  1. Brette · February 23, 2016

    How wonderful that Ellie is getting to know her grandfather. Mine was an important part of my life. I hope she learns a lot from him and never sees a snake in the bathroom.

  2. Steve · February 23, 2016

    Jamie and I have so much more in common than I realized, at least when it comes to setting fires in West Texas.

  3. Sheryl · February 23, 2016

    Ellie is getting a wonderful inside glimpse into her fascinating family. Lucky girl.
    And I love your line about penis envy 🙂

  4. Kerri @ Living Large · February 23, 2016

    I really love this, especially the part about paying Uncle Nick to watch television. LOL! And great advice about choosing a mate, it’s always great to have an equal in the curiosity and adventure department.

  5. Jane Boursaw · February 23, 2016

    What lovely sentiments about Opa. I hope to meet both him AND you in person one day.

  6. Alexandra · February 23, 2016

    Great advice about choosing a mate!

  7. Roxanne · February 23, 2016

    Since I grew up without a dad, my maternal grandpa played a HUGE role in my childhood. And, yes, any womanly envy isn’t about pieces-parts. It’s about other things.