Thursday, August 14, 2014

My grandfather's garage

We've lived in our big, old house for over 25 years. During that time, we've painted and redecorated rooms, added a deck, replaced windows, and remodeled the kitchen and three out of four bathrooms. We've put on a new roof on two different occasions and moved enough new and old furniture in and out to stock a store.
We've dug holes for trees and bushes and planted, re-planted and transplanted enough plants to call it a forest, and we've done all those other crazy things people do when they live in a house for a long, long time.
But there's never been a garage.
Actually, that's not exactly true. There was almost a garage, once upon a time. My grandfather remodeled the whole place in the early part of the 20th century, changing it from an 1860s Victorian home to its current arts and crafts style of architecture in a major facelift that was to include the addition of a built-in garage underneath the back of the place. It was set up in such a way that you'd pull a car through a large pair of swinging doors into a big basement-level room. Sounds pretty slick, but gramps didn't get to enjoy it, as he was forced to turn that space into a garden apartment in an effort to generate a little extra income as things went from bad to worse in the dark days of the Great Depression.
But it wasn't enough.
They lost the house.
My gramps was, quite honestly, one of those guys. One of those guys we all wish we could be like. Hard working. Happy. A real larger-than-life type who--as I recall--lit up a room simply by walking into it.  He was a Norwegian immigrant whose family first settled in the Scandinavian enclave of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. As a young man, he took the advice of a traveling salesman who told him Galva looked like a nice little town that could use another clothing store. Once he got here, he realized the town was filled with the two brands of folks he cared for the least: Swedes and Republicans.
He stayed anyway, and grew a family that included my mother and her two brothers.
His business was a success, and soon, he found himself busy and happy, serving on the school board and other civic organizations as befitted a hard-working young businessman.
Then, something happened.
At first, the stock market crash of 1929 seemed very far away.  He had not speculated in wild investment schemes in an effort to get rich quick.  He, like most of the people he knew, had invested his time and money into his family, home, business and community.  Into his own tiny piece of the American dream.
But slowly and surely, the financial crisis made its way across the nation, even into the small cities and towns of the Midwest.  Jobs were lost.  Farms and businesses failed and were sold for a fraction of their worth or just went away.  People continued to need clothing, so his business was still good.  He extended credit to many, feeling that surely his customers would pay him when times got better.
But they didn't.
Though he was owed money, he, in the words of my mother, “Couldn't bring himself to pressure his friends and neighbors for money he knew they didn’t have.”
His efforts to save his business and the family home failed, and the house remained a bittersweet reminder of a difficult chapter in my family's history until my wife and kids and I made an interesting decision and bought the place almost 50 years later.
I can't really tell you why we lived here all these years without adding a warm, dry place for our cars. It certainly would have been nice, as both of us commuted to our jobs and would have appreciated not having to shovel and scrape on cold winter mornings. I suppose there were always other ways to spend the money, and I guess we just managed in the way that people do when they don't know any better.
This past winter, though, was the last straw.
I don't have to tell you how cold and snowy it was.  I was feeling a little rickety most mornings, and my son needed to get the grandkids to school and himself to work, so snow-covered cars were something we just didn't need.
So we did it.
We hired a guy named Bruce, who drew up a few plans and got to work. Soon, our big project began to take shape.  People began to drive by slow, just to see how it was coming along, in that friendly-curious way folks do things in our small town.  After just a few weeks, Bruce finished the garage. Everybody liked it.
Even us.
It seemed like everybody was getting what they wanted.
She got the strip of cement driveway she always dreamed about. I got an electric garage door opener. Our son got a place to store the lawnmower and our grandsons got a place to put their bicycles. And the town got something to talk about.
But the best news is this:
Gramps finally got his garage.


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  2. Where I grew up people would have brought lawn chairs to your yard to watch them build the garage!! I thought about it but figured some other members of my family had already worn out our welcome!