Happy Birthday, Gramps

James Franklin Snook (1936-2021)
photo by Matt Snook 2019

Today, Valentine’s Day ‘22,  would have been my Grampa Snook’s 86th birthday, and it’s our first without him. He shares it with his adopted home state of Oregon, and the date is apropos for the amount of love I have for both.

I wish I had the sort of childhood memories that lend themselves to neat, linear storytelling – the kind that’s funny and warm and maybe a bit sentimental, but poignant and thought-provoking.

But my brain doesn’t work like that. Instead, I have a thousand snapshots — vague memories of normal times spent with Grampa being Grampa. We didn’t get to visit much, and most of the visits were saturated with beloved cousins or spent with Gramma. But my life wouldn’t have been the same without Gramps.

He was a teacher by trade for many years, but I think he was also adept at teaching by example. He didn’t need to explain that a good way to spend a morning was with a cup of coffee in a sunny spot, a good view of the birds out back with a pair of binoculars close by. He didn’t need to chat your ear off about anything, and in fact, some of my favorite memories are of him and my dad and I sitting in the kitchen, not talking. 

Just… being. 

A sip of coffee here, a scratching of a pencil there. Maybe a quiet comment about a jay that had just landed on the seed-strewn barrel on the deck. Soon, someone would bustle in and start washing dishes or ask a question and disrupt our collective reverie, so I savored them while I could. (Side note: before I offend my gramma, I should probably thank her for the thankless job of always doing the dishes! 😉)

Certain objects always bring Grampa to mind. Fresh firewood, or Sharpie markers, brown vintage coffee mugs, or binoculars. He’s probably the root of my being a pyromaniac, much to my parents’ chagrin, I’m sure. Grampa taught me how to do the “match trick,” where you pretend to wrap a string around the head of a burnt match, then flick the hidden end with your thumbnail to make it seem as if the “string” pulled the burned end off. That always thrilled me to no end. 

The smell of Sharpies takes me right to Grampa. He could bring a little cartoon animal to life with a few quick strokes – thick around the ears, small and sharp for the whiskers. Sharpies were for making signs at cartoon shows, for writing block letter fonts, for drawing smiley faces.

I’m pretty sure Grampa was the one who showed my sister and me how we could turn our last name (his, too) into a goofy smiley face, using the double “o” as the eyes. He could transform an ordinary, graphite-streaked kneaded eraser into a funny little mouse, with big ears and a long tail. 

I think I learned so much by osmosis from Grampa. I don’t remember specifically getting drawing tips from him, or learning how to compose a good photo. But we’d go on walks and he’d stop and  take photos and show us which ones he liked and after a while you could get a sense of what looked good and what didn’t. 

I also learned from Grampa that a camera is a good shield at large gatherings – it makes you look busy, so people are less likely to chat you up, it keeps people from taking your photo, and it makes you see the world differently.

Playing music with Grampa made me a more observant and uh… flexible musician. He put as many measures into the songs he sang as he felt like doing in the moment, and it always kept me on my toes. He never changed, and never seemed to mind. I still can’t quite emulate his exact phrasing- it was truly all his own.

I don’t remember Grampa being much of a writer, except for his Gumphy story tapes at Christmas, which were more ad-lib than planning, probably. But last fall, as my family looked through his desk and old files, we came across some stories, including “Charlie the Cougar,” and it made me realize I’d learned a lot from him in writing, too, somehow. Maybe we both read too much Pat McManus, or took the same mental notes as we rowed through life. But reading “Charlie,” I was pleased to find many similarities to my own style of writing.

photo by Matt Snook, 1985

Of course, I have many regrets. I never asked Grampa about his past. I didn’t come to him seeking art advice nearly enough. On one of the last visits I had over the years, I had a Paul Calle sketching book that Dad had given me, and I brought it, meaning to talk to Grampa about it, but I just… didn’t. 

I wish I’d recorded more of his guitar playing. 

I wish I’d paid more attention to the sort of music that he listened to.

 I wish I’d had more one-on-one time with him over the years. 

I wish I had just visited… more. You know?

There is no way I can sum up 85 years of life, or even the 30-odd ones I got to spend on Earth at the same time as Grampa Snook. He is just a presence that I will miss, and a memory that I will cherish. We were all so lucky to have had him.

Happy Birthday, Grampa. 

7 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Gramps

  1. I just found out about your Grandfather’s passing today. I am very sorry for your loss and all those that knew and loved him. I only knew him through his cartoons but those provided many great times with my own Grandfather as he was a big fan of the cartoons and we loved reading them. Whenever we visited the resort on the lake, we always sat inside and read the cartoon books and the ones on the walls. I have his book, some posters and prints on my walls in my office. Such great memories.


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