On Tuesday, March 26th, we lost my grandfather.
I’ve been struggling with putting into words how it feels to lose someone who felt so eternal. He refused to act his age. He was so active and full of life, so present and influential, that none of us could picture life without him. My cousins and I used to joke that when the apocalypse came, the only things left would be cockroaches and Grandpa. It was a coping mechanism, of course – we’d rather be ridiculous than face the reality that one day he would leave us, but now he has, and it’s like a punch to the gut, utterly breathtaking.
My grandpa was a Boy Scout as a teenager, and he mentored hundreds of scouts in our community throughout the years. Therefore, he was prepared, even if none of us were. He never would have left us without being sure we had a strong network to hold us up, and a powerful legacy to remember him by. I’m finding so much comfort in the closeness of our family, the vast number of people stepping forward to speak about how he affected them, and in reflecting on the lessons he left with us.
It feels reductive to try to explain the ways he helped form my worldview in a list of just five things, but if I don’t try to keep it simple, it’s too overwhelming to broach.
1. Family first
Since the eighties, when my parents were first married, my grandpa instituted “Wednesday Night Dinner.” My family is now famous for it – every Wednesday that we can swing it, all of us, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all get together for dinner at someone’s house. It’s usually just a couple hours after work, but it keeps everyone in touch and in tune.
He also keeps us all together through “The Little House,” his property in Independence, California. It’s just a four-hour drive away, with plenty of space for everyone to park, sleep, and eat without having to spend too much money. It’s a place to bring our friends, a place to relax, and a place to be together. My cousin had her wedding up there. Marshall proposed to me there. Having that shared space for vacations and major life events ensured our connection and involvement in each other’s lives.
My grandpa taught me that having a close family is an intentional act, and part of that intention is expanding the definition of family. Every year in Independence he hosted the “In-laws and Outlaws Family Reunion.” He loved his sons- and daughter-in-law like they were his own, mentoring them and fostering closeness in them that rivals that of any blood sibling. He was happy to be called “grandpa” by any one of his grand-kids’ friends. One of the greatest joys of my life is how much of a mentor and father figure he was to my own husband, which I’ll talk a little more about later.
Another platitude you might have heard: the best thing a father can do for his child is love their mother. I would be remiss in talking about family if I didn’t mention my grandpa’s deep and abiding love for my grandmother. Their 63-year marriage was an inspiration to my entire family. It taught me what love should look like: generous, playful, and supportive. Their love was the foundation that the house of our family was built, and it’s a foundation that will never waver.
2. Do what you love, love what you do
My grandpa loved nothing more than tinkering. He started his career as a mechanic, worked in the army for a short period, and then founded a steel and welding shop with his father. He loved his job, and could be found at the shop inside and outside of working hours, always tinkering. He always had a project – a car to fix, a trailer to build, a model train to work on.
Not only did he set an example for joyful productivity, he also admired it in others. One of the things I loved best about him was his appreciation for the talents of others. He loved watching other people be good at things and was fascinated by the work and talent of people who specialized in areas he knew little about. He supported my grandma’s workmanship with quilting, sewing, and knitting. He attended almost every one of my brother’s band performances, most of my sister’s stage productions, and many of my shows in my singing/songwriting days. He encouraged everyone he knew to read my book. He was 100% unreserved in supporting people who do what they love, who work hard on a project just for the joy of it with little thought to the profit, because that’s the way he was, too.
3. Give back with what you are given
Never content to keep his joy to himself, my grandpa spent much of his free time educating others about the things he loved. Through the Boy Scouts, he taught other young men about his love for the outdoors. Volunteering with Topa Topa Flywheelers, he taught school kids about antique machinery and agriculture. With the Goleta Railroad Club he fostered the childlike love of trains and all things related by giving kids rides on his speeder car — an activity that brought him as much delight as it did the children.
However, the thing that I am most grateful for is the guidance and mentorship he provided to my husband. Marshall met my grandpa as a teenager through scouting, and always admired him. He shared a similar love of tinkering and building, and I credit my grandpa with helping to develop Marshall’s engineering brain by encouraging him to explore those talents and teaching him to machine.
My grandpa never kept his light under a bushel. He was thankful for his gifts, for his work and for his beautiful family. Marshall saw that light and drew from it, learning countless lessons about what it meant to be a good man. He never grew impatient with Marshall’s insatiable curiosity and taught him everything he could about the outdoors, about machinery, and about life in general. When Marshall graduates this spring with his engineering degree, I know we will both feel my grandpa’s presence and pride. I’m so happy to know the man I get to spend the rest of my life was so inspired by one of the best men in the world.
4. Watch the mountains grow
As is evidenced above, Bob Mahan was a busy man, but he always made time to enjoy God’s creation. At the Little House, he would sit out in the backyard around sunset with a glass of Kessler whiskey in his hand. “I’m just watching the mountains grow,” he told me. I sat with him sometimes, especially one summer when it was just he and I up there. He cooked us pork chops and hominy for dinner and then the two of us sat and watched the mountains grow, mostly in companionable silence. There’s a lesson to be learned there, from a man who accomplished much and valued productivity: there is as much value in rest as there is in work.
5. Life is good
In the end, it all boils down to his motto: “Life is good.” It was always accompanied by a grin, and often a thumbs up.
Life is many things. It’s challenging, unpredictable, occasionally frustrating, often sad. As I’m reminded now, it’s too damn short. But when you have the zest for life that my grandpa did, when you love the world around you and the people in it, and when you give more than you’ve received, life is good.
In loving memory of Robert J. Mahan, September 22, 1935 – March 26, 2019