The first thing I knew about Grandpa was that he told amazing stories. Stories about his family, his work, and his life: they just poured out of him.
Not that this was immediately apparent: Grandpa was a quiet man, absorbed by his own pursuits. He was a great reader. He read Ellery Queen, Zane Gray, and actually became a member of the Harlequin Romance Book Club - the only grandfather I knew who did this. And he shared his books, sneaking them to us like the contraband they were, trusting us to keep them safe until we returned them.
Sherry Wachter's grandfather, William John Zimmerman, known to the men he worked with at the Waukesha Cement Company as "Zimmy," and to others as simply Bill, was an ordinary working man, one of a passel of kids born to an immigrant German farm family in the Midwest. His life might never have made it into a book, except for his ability to spin stories that captivated at least one of his grandkids, offering her a portal into a world beyond her own difficult fundamentalist childhood.
The stories Wachter tells in this slim volume beautifully illustrated with her art and hand-colored family photos range from the innocent - the time when young Bill put a frog in the bucket of spring water he and a girl student fetched to refill the cooler at their one-roomed schoolhouse - to the dark, like the terrible trucking accident when a cattle truck slid into Zimmy's semi during a blizzard and he was thrown free, only to be crushed by his truck and the concrete drain pipes he was hauling, and then, lying "in a pool of red-stained, melting snow" trampled by the terrified cattle.
During his months of recovery, while his wife worked to feed the kids and keep them from losing their home, Zimmy developed a frontal-lobe brain tumor. Awake with only local anesthesia during the difficult surgery, having refused restraints, he holds deathly still as the surgeon cuts through his skull and delicately incises the tumor,
"The saw hums. The room is silent except for the doctor's terse instructions to the nurse, and the occasional, 'You doing all right, Bill? How you doing Bill? You still with us, Bill?' As surgery progresses sweat sheens Bill's face, then beads, then runs off and drips to the floor.
"Finally the doctor says, 'That's it.'
"The nurse leans over so Bill can see her. 'So how was it?' she asks.
"'That was nothing',' Bill says weakly.
"'Doesn't look like nothing to me. There's a puddle under here I could swim in.'
"Bill musters a weak chuckle."
It's not just that her Grandpa tells great stories, Wachter realizes as she writes them down, it's what she learns from them. About Zimmy, and who he was: his basic kindness, his sense of humor, his courage, his quiet insistence on respect and decency, even - perhaps especially when life hits hardest.
Wachter also learns that "the magic lay not in Grandpa's experiences, but in him... Grandpa's greatest gift was his understanding that while life happens to us, we can shape our stories - and we can make them magic."
That kind of realization is what lifts ordinary family tales into the realm of memoir. It is what we learn from those stories that makes them something worth sharing with the wider world, something universal, offering a grain of truth about life and living that widens our perspective.
Wachter tells Zimmy's stories and some of her own (including a very difficult one about family sexual abuse), making this a thoughtful and insightful personal memoir as well as a tribute to Zimmy. These stories read like a window into the human soul, into our potential to rise above the worst and, as Wachter writes, make magic of our lives. Magic that outlasts us, and inspires others to become the best people they can be.
Sherry Wachter is a writer, editor, designer, and college writing teacher. She has a son in college and two formerly feral cats who love their humans and detest each other. She has written three memoirs, two novels, a collection of short stories, and a number of children's books, including The Very Good Dog.
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