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274th Weekly Poetry Contest winner: All You Need Know

by stevieslaw

All you need know

My grandfather, the lumberjack,
was often mistaken for Paul Bunyan.
When he yelled “timber”
it could be heard
from Seattle to Vancouver.
Once he felled an ancient oak
to teach me the lore of tree rings—
wide for a good year,
narrow for a bad.
His calloused hands caressed
the log as he said,
“this is all you need know of life.”

Grandpa, the watchmaker,
was stooped and gray, but elegant
as if he’d stepped out of a portrait
from a forgotten time of formal grace.
What Rodin would have given
to marble the bones of his hands.
I would sit on his workbench
in a shop full of child-sized tools
and watch him work and rework
the movements of a timepiece.
With a thousand pieces splayed before him
he’d say,
“Here I create time,
and time is all you need know of life.”

My grandfather, the farmer,
had the finest two hundred acres
in northeastern Kansas.
A doughty man born without ear or rhythm
he’d sing the standards—
“Ain’t Misbehavin” or “Makin Whoopee!”
as his steam tractor wobbled through
the flat fertile fields.
We’d all smile to imagine him singing
his heart out.
Once, I watched
him put his arm into soil elbow deep
and come away with loam black as pitch
and teeming with worms.
“All of life is here,”
he said to me.

Grandfather, the soldier,
had a grand mustache
that made him look like Pancho Villa.
He fought with Black Jack Pershing
in the Belleau woods
where corpses outnumbered
the bullet scarred oaks.
He would don his uniform
and his tin cap
to shoot targets with his long gun
at a quarter mile range.
I never saw him miss.
Fingering a spent cartridge, he said
with a tired smile,
“this is death—
all who live must meet it.”

My grandfather died when I was five.
I have few memories.
In one I sit on his lap
and stare out the kitchen window
at the unsuspecting walkers
on Riverdale Avenue.
We sit in silence—
his face is so yellow and worn
it seemed carved of candle wax.
At the last, I remember
I waved goodbye to his hospital window
impossibly high in the massive brick
then walked away with my mother.
Swaying and sobbing,
she held my mittened hand too firmly—
as if all life depended on it.

See all the entrants to 274th Weekly Poetry Contest