I am the grandson that lives in Fred’s house, who rehung the seashell decoration in the dining room corner, just as it is in family photos, who collaged over paintings & other found objects around the property, who let the corner of the yard grow wild, just like Grandpa Fred did, a place for the rabbits & the birds to nestle & rest.
I am the one who was with him during his last night. In accordance to the Covid rules, we, as a family, had to decide on one representative to be his hospital visitor & it was I. So I was there with him in the Elwood hospital, as he dozed in & out of sleep, watching together President Obama’s eulogy for Congressman John Lewis. I was there with him at the Anderson Hospital as he slept, draping a fourth & fifth blanket across his cold shoulders, holding his hands so he wouldn’t remove the by-pap machine helping him breathe into the night. I see clearly the privilege I was granted by my family, chosen to be the one there with him that fateful night, so I wanted to speak of that honor--of being there with him, of being his grandson, of carrying on his legacy.
I am also the wild card of the family--the youngest, the mentally disordered, the hick, the weirdo artist. I know my family, & probably many of you, are worried about me, waiting for me to go off the rails. To be honest, I probably will lose it at some point soon, but I promise you it won’t be because of the passing of Frederick Lewis Tyner. He lived a long good life, y’all--farming hard, raising my momma & the late great Uncle Ted, loving Grandma JoAnn, inviting foreign exchange students by the dozens into our community, helping out at the elementary school, slinging insurance, & building up this good plot of property I’m lucky enough to continue on.
Here’s something many of you might not know: the first poem I ever wrote was about Grandpa Fred. The poem, unlike his life, was terrible. It compared him to a turtle, the whole slow & steady wins the race cliche, though apt for Grandpa’s tempered, practical way of easing through life. I will save you the pain & not read it to you now, thank goodness. Instead I want to talk to you about the only known piece of artwork by Frederick Lewis Tyner.
Decades ago, he visited his cousin in North Carolina, a visual artist. She invited Grandpa to paint with her & this is what he created. I found it in a closet in the house, draped casually with a sheet. It’s been hanging in the opening to my hallway ever since, a necessarily relic in my grandfather’s path through life.
The first thing I notice is the color choice, three shades of the one color, blue, as if he didn’t want to waste water & time washing multiple brushes, didn’t want to risk colors mixing inadvertently, as if he didn’t care to make things too flashy. I notice how it starts with the swath of sky, the Bob Ross-esque birds, the mountain in the distance, but as we move lower in the painting, we can see grandpa, engaged here for the first time in the exhilaration of art, allow himself to become more impulsive. Notice the bunny that seems to high-tail it across the still canvas. Notice this thing that is either a minimalist shack or an unfinished horse. As we move down the painting we see how this whole time, this whole world has been floating, a hovering existence.
The last thing I notice is his signature, his initials--F.L.T in a neat thin red script. Which has me thinking about how we define ourselves & in-turn are defined by other people. In my final memory of him, laid in the hospital bed all frail, I remember thinking to myself--”Grandpa Fred is really old.” He would’ve been 90 at the end of this November & being old, at one point, became his defining characteristic as it does for all of us, if we’re so lucky to live long enough.
But of course, that’s just recency talking. At certain points, he was defined as a farmer, an insurance salesman, a member of the Army; as a son, father, uncle, cousin, grandpa; defined as a widower grieving the loss of his wife, a father grieving the death of his son, as Fabulous Fred. When I think back on Grandpa’s nine decades, he checks all the boxes you would want for a loved one’s life--full & comfortable, adventurous & challenging, loving & joyous.
If you’re like Grandpa, you believe that Eve’s fateful choice with that apple made our lives perilous, in need of redemption. If you’re like me, you believe the materials of the universe have collided & coalesced for millenia to create these vast & wild creatures we find ourselves inside. If you’re somewhere in between, regardless, I know you can agree with me that, as the musician David Bazan so frankly said, often, “It’s hard to be a decent human being.”
My Grandpa Fred undoubtedly was a decent human being--through his keeping busy & by helping others grow & prosper, even at times to his own detriment. My most vivid & cherished memories of him revolve around this, doing these sort of activities with him. Helping him sell suckers & popsicles at the elementary school. Making rounds with him to collect prizes & treasures for the school carnival & secret santa shop. Going with him to Indianapolis to pick up exchange students at the airport.
Right before this Covid mess ramped up, a group of my friends came to town to work on a play, developing it right in Fred Tyner’s dining room. In the middle of their week here, we all went to see Grandpa at the assisted living facility, his home for his final years. Gathered around a table in the lobby, we all smiled for hours as he shared stories of the farm, demonstrated how to do a Sudoku puzzle, & hugged each & everyone of them hello & goodbye, inviting them to make themselves at home out in his old house.
Since my return home a little over a year ago, I’ve been wondering what it means to be a good person living in a small town like Elwood. That’s the next stroke in this ongoing painting of Fred Tyner’s life; what do we want from his legacy? I’ll tell you a secret: in the last year, barely a day has gone by where I don’t wear an article of his clothing--a hat, his boots, this shirt right now. It is a reminder that his legacy is one of doing, moving a body around in space & time, using it to help others. If you take one thing away from this memorial, this chance to reflect on the life & death of Fred Tyner, please remember that we are each a part of his legacy.
Maybe I was wrong earlier when I said this painting is the only known piece of artwork of Fred Tyner’s. There was much beauty in his generosity to this community. There was much passion in the love for his family. There was great consideration, energy, & nerve in how he handled his business. As creators & makers, movers & shakers, may we all be so kind.