Writing Grandad

One of my dreams as a kid was to live in a library, the kind in old Victorian mansions, with walls made up of loaded wooden shelves stacked from floor to ceiling. And strange as it may sound, I knew that spending time in it would feel a lot like spending time with my granddad. He was well over six feet tall, more knowledgable than Encyclopaedia Britannica, warm in energy and humble in spirit, yet still silly enough, or at least open minded enough, to partake in my family’s games.

“Here Grandad! Put this on your head!” we’d prod as he and Grammy walked through the front door. (The ‘put things on your head’ game was a big deal in the Johnson house.) Without hesitation, this wise, tall man, also a renowned professor and archeologist, would don whatever we’d handed him. He once wore a pair of nylons on his head throughout an entire evening, not because he wanted to but because he loved us enough to do just about anything. He tended to my hamster, Cuddles, during vacations, beat us in countless games of Scrabble, shared his passion for the outdoors and lovingly called our grammy “dear.”

I was only 13 when Grandad died of cancer. And while no amount of books or libraries could come close to filling the void he left, his legacy runs deep. His wife, six children, grandchildren, students and colleagues missed him and still do. Each year the Council for Minnesota Archaeology hosts a lecture in his honor—a tribute that illustrates his humbleness.

I remember standing at his funeral, heartbroken and perplexed by all that was happening. Though I didn’t realize it then, I wasn’t just grieving his life but a future of shared experiences. What would it be like to know him as an adult? I’d never know…I thought.

After reading my first novel close to two decades later, my brother said he saw “so much of me and my life in it.” As an artist, he knows from experience how often our creative works reflect our realities.

“Is Rutherford Sykes Granddad?” he asked.

“Huh?” I considered it. Sykes was my main character’s mentor—a tall, warm, knowledgable and accomplished man who had terminal cancer…but survived. My eyes filled with tears as it dawned on me; Sykes was Granddad. I’d found a way to keep him alive and cope with my ongoing longing to know him.

Since I “wrote Grandad” into my novel, I’ve felt closer to him than I have in years. He pops into my thoughts more often and appears in occasional dreams. I see more bits of him in my father. And I’ve been eager to learn more about him.

I now know that he served as a fighter pilot during WWII, enduring 64 missions in North Africa and Italy, and finished his masters degree in anthropology in a mere four quarters before completing his doctorate at Yale. That he was a multi-published author, curator at the St. Paul Science Museum, the designated State Archaeologist of Minnesota from 1959 to 1963 and a cofounder of the Council for Minnesota Archaeology. A man who pursued his passion, supported causes he believed in and, as I already knew, loved his family incredibly.


American anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber said that anthropology is the “most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” That sounds a lot to me like Grandad. He used his intellect and talents to better the world.

Although much of Sykes’ story won’t appear in my novel once it’s published, I’m grateful to have “unearthed” it. I’m keeping those words and pages on my computer and in my heart forever.

Regardless of how much time passes, we are forever touched by lost loved ones’ memories and the vacancies they leave behind. Honoring them through our thoughts, creativity and actions helps keep them alive.


Inspiration to write this post came from EC Stilson, author of The Golden Sky. To learn more about Stilson’s message and read others’ posts on love and loss, visit The Crazy Life of a Writing Mom. Visit her blog on Friday, November 18th for a chance to win an iPad2, $500 cash and more!

What about you? How do you honor loved ones’ memories? Has doing so ever struck you by surprise?

Leave a comment


  1. Cora

     /  November 17, 2011

    Wow August, that was so moving! I love that you wrote Grandad into your novel. You captured him so well in this post

  2. August, that was indeed moving. I envy you in that I never knew my grandfathers.
    Awesome post, thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Shannon Esposito

     /  November 17, 2011

    How lucky you were to have such an amazing Grandfather. I didn’t know either of mine, they died young, but sounds like yours was just an all around incredible person and touched a lot of people’s lives. I do believe people we love are kept alive in our hearts and memories!

  4. Thanks, Prudence and Shannon! I know your grandfathers would’ve been mighty proud of you both.

  5. Your grandfather sounds like a real hero on both a public and a personal level. I wrote a blog post to honor my husband’s grandpa for Veterans Day last week. Even though I only knew him the last ten years of his life it really made me think of what a positive impact he had on so many lives, especially my husband’s. Thanks for sharing your memories!

  6. mgmillerbooks

     /  November 17, 2011

    Very touching. You’re blessed that you got to know him as long as you did, and it’s wonderful that you’ve been able to “capture him in time”, if you will, through your work. 25 years after my grandmother passed, and I still write “for” her.

    P.S. Your brother’s art is awesome.

    • Thanks, MG. Indeed, I feel fortunate to have known him. Lovely that you write in your grandma’s honor! I’ll pass your kudos on to my brother. 😉

  7. Joe Bunting

     /  November 17, 2011

    He sounds like an amazing man. I can see how he influenced you.

    I’m trying to consciously delve into my grandfather’s character in my fiction. He was a little different. He was an alcoholic–would take my dad and his brother to the bar and get drunk and drive them home. He was abusive. He killed himself when my dad was 10. He was also charismatic, a good singer, and well loved in the community. I’m fascinated by him, probably because I didn’t know him, but his impact on my family is like that of a ghosts. Huge and unseen.

    • It’s amazing how much our lives and choices impact others, isn’t it? It sounds as though you reap inspiration from your grandfather as well, much due to his complexities. I’d love to read your end work… Best wishes with it!

  8. So insightful, touching and you moved me to tears! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  9. What a beautiful tribute to a great man. Thank you for posting this.

  10. What a wonderful, wonderful story August. Very moving.

  11. very touching – made me think of my grandmother. thanks for sharing

  12. Beautiful August. Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful man. You were lucky to have him and vice versa. Isn’t it interesting how we work them into our novels? I worked my sister into mine as well. Actually, she pushed her way in there.

    You wrote with passion and heart. Very moving August. So glad you joined today.

    • Ha… Laughing at the image of your sister shoving her way into your text! I love it. Yes, loved ones and our experiences certainly do pop up everywhere in our work. I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way.

      Thanks so much for your warmth, Debra!

  13. What beautiful memories of your grandfather, August, and how wonderful that you found him again in your writing. I never knew my grandfather but I’m very close to my family and in little ways, they too find their way into my books.

    Thanks you for sharing this wonderful tribute of such a special man in your life.

    • Thanks so much, Sheila. I’m glad to hear you keep close family ties and can relate. Sometimes I wonder if fiction reflects reality more so than reality does! 😉

  14. zencherry

     /  November 17, 2011

    A fitting tribute for your grandfather. I’m certain he’s pleased and probably donning something on his head just for you. 🙂 Simply lovely.

  15. August,

    What a wonderful, moving post. Your grandad sounds like he was the best. My mom passed 7 years ago at 65 and it always saddens me that my daughter will not know her. We keep her memory very much alive with stories, a memorial bench and the Maxine cartoons she loved.

  16. What an amazing history your family has August. I can see why he is missed.

    I think that people like your grandfather are able to accomplish so much during their short lives because they loved what they did. And it carried on through their person life.

    He was a happy man and enjoyed the people that surrounded them, especially you and your family.

    It’s funny how we write people we know into our novels. Like our subconscience needs or wants to keep these special people close, you know?

    Thank you for sharing your fond memories.

    • You’re so right, Karen. Pursuing work we love seems key to success. Grandad taught me that, as have my parents.

      Stay well and keep writing! Eager to see who appears in your work as well. 🙂

  17. It’s so wonderful what can come out through writing. I think sometimes it’s even more dear (as you wrote) keeping pages in your heart forever. :0)

  18. Sounds like you had a wonderful grandfather and great post too, a fitting tribute.

  19. Catherine Johnson

     /  November 18, 2011

    That was lovely August, a great tribute to your grandad who sounds an amazing man.

  20. Your Grandad sounds like an amazing man, and how wonderful to have written him into your story:) I miss my Grandad too, and he visits me often in my dreams- inspiring me to do my best. Can’t wait to read your novel!

  21. What a loving tribute to an incredible man! You are blessed to have had him in your life.

  22. Mike J.

     /  November 19, 2011

    Beautiful August…thanks so much for putting your thoughts re: Grandad into words here for all to see…I have shared this with some friends here, and all were very moved by the story, as am I…I think about him a lot too…he left us much too early, but his legacy lives on, and your blog is a great way of illustrating that!

    Love, Mike

  23. What a beautiful post! I got chills when I read this line: Though I didn’t realize it then, I wasn’t just grieving his life but a future of shared experiences.

    That is exactly it, isn’t it? That’s why it is so difficult when the big moments come and go and those we’ve lost aren’t there to share them with us.

    Your granddad sounds like an inspiration, and you’ve made him come to life in this post.

  24. Tom Johnson

     /  November 20, 2011

    Beautifuly written, August! Thanks for writing it. Tom

  25. Terry

     /  November 20, 2011

    Truly a beautiful tribute, August. You are a gifted writer and thinker. To capture the “essence” of your Grandad with such accuracy and authenticity illustrates the depth of your talent.

    P.S. I would have liked to see him with the nylons on his head!!

  26. It’s amazing how our subconscious plays with our waking world. After my mother passed, the elderly woman mentor in my WIP passed, as well, and it was very cathartic for me to write that, though I sobbed over it for days. Inversely, I recently killed of a character in my current novel that I did not know was going to die until I wrote that scene. A couple of weeks after that, I found out that the friend that character is based on is dying.

    What a wonderful grandfather! I’m so glad for you that there is so much public record of his life to fill out your memories. As children, we cannot know our grandparents as fellow adults. It’s very cool to grow up and realize we would have loved these people even if they hadn’t been our grandparents, but just for who they were. Thank you for your post.

  27. Alli

     /  May 28, 2012

    Thanks for writing this August. I don’t have any of my own memories of Grandad, so I love hearing what others have to say about him. I’ve done a bit of research on him myself, for a speech in high school and an art project in college, but hearing people’s personal stories about him fills in so many more pieces. I wish I could have known him longer than I did, and I wish that my sister and the other younger cousins could have met him, but things like your blog post are great to help us know him a little better.

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