Grandpa was born in 1909 in Granite Falls, a small town in Western Minnesota. He was the second youngest of nine children born to his Swedish immigrant parents. He grew up poor, on the wrong side of the tracks, but that never stopped him.
After Grandma died, I was worried that Grandpa would whither. You hear of it happening often enough. But he didn’t. He eyes would fill with tears at the mention of Grandma’s name, and when he spoke of her, his voice wavered. But he didn’t give up living. He wasn’t ready. Instead, at the age of 90, he taught himself to cook, and he began work on his latest golf invention, a “swing tuner” which he called, simply, the Gadget.
A natural athlete, Spencer was captain of his high school basketball team. He was a hunter and a fisherman. At age 19, when the baseball coach wouldn’t play him, he swore off baseball and took up golf. He hit balls into a burlap sack outside his house until he was good enough to play against the best golfers in the state. He can remember what he shot in 1939, in 1945, in 1971. He has three holes-in-one on his golf résumé. He has been a greens keeper and a golf instructor, and it’s as a golfer than many people know him best.
One of the things I know disappoints him is that none of his granddaughters have taken the sport seriously. I used to go to the driving range with him, and he would adjust my grip and my stance, tell me to “keep that elbow in,” to “swing through the ball,” to “close the face of that club,” to “keep your head down.”
I have a pretty good golf swing because Grandpa, but I don’t play golf. He always used to tell me that golf was the most difficult sport you could play because you had to remember everything: the grip, the backswing, the elbow in, the stance. If one thing goes, you won’t make it. You can’t be sloppy. But it was difficult for me to remember everything I needed to remember all at once. And that’s where the practice came in. “It has to be second nature,” he would say. “You have to practice these things enough so that they feel natural.”
Before Stella was born, I would go to the driving range with him once a week in the summer, but after she was born I was too busy juggling childcare and graduate school. I couldn’t commit to golf. But I want my grandpa to know this: I still use what he taught me.
In my classes this fall I lectured about dialogue and scene, voice and character, and as I did these things, I said, “Practice. This will become second-nature.” I felt as if I were channeling my grandpa. You see, writing isn’t so different from golf. You need all of the aspects of good writing (strong characters, evocative prose, realistic dialogue, sensory details) to be a strong writer. In golf, you may know how to chip, but if you can’t putt, you’re lost. As a writer, your prose may be lovely, but if your characters are flat, it doesn’t matter. You can practice these aspects of craft separately to master them, just as you can in golf. But ultimately, they need to become a part of you. Like a golf swing, the craft of writing needs to be organic, natural.
I hope my grandpa knows that I’ve listened and I’ve practiced. I hope he knows what I’ve learned from him, even though I rarely step onto a golf course.
There will be over 70 people at my grandpa’s party on Saturday, a testament to the kind of person he is. He is without guile. He makes friends easily. He sees commonalities where many people see differences. He is forever positive, an avid reader who is also addicted to CNN.
If you wouldn’t mind, could you raise your glass for Spencer this weekend and say a wish for him? He’s a stubborn old Swede, and I love him.