The Grandfather I Never Knew

When I was a small boy, I spent Christmas Day with my mother’s side of the family at my grandmother’s house. She lived on the corner where two gravel roads intersected across from the Berryville Store. At one point, she and my grandfather had managed that store, but by the time I came along in October of 1955, they’d moved on to other ventures. My grandfather would die in March of 1957, and the only way I would ever know him would be through the stories my relatives told and the things he left behind, items I would find in the drawer of a library table at my grandmother’s house: pipes and pipe cleaners, cigarette lighters, a deck of Bicycle playing cards. Such was the evidence that he’d once been what we might call “a man of the world.” I’ve heard stories of his dissolute ways, but those are for another time. The closest I ever felt to this man I never knew was when I held his books.

The front bedroom of my grandmother’s house had built-in bookshelves. Keep in mind, this was a modest frame house in what some would have called the boondocks, a rural patch of southeastern Illinois where dirt farms dotted the landscape. My grandmother’s house had no indoor plumbing. She washed her dishes with water heated on the gas stove. An outhouse sat at the rear of her lot. She kept a chamber pot in her bedroom. My point is this wasn’t the sort of house where you’d expect to find a small library, but that’s exactly what my grandfather left behind.

In the winter, my grandmother closed off the front part of her house to save on heating costs. She had what she needed at the back of the house, a good-sized kitchen and a second bedroom. She told me I wasn’t allowed to go into the front part of the house, but each day, when she and I were supposed to be napping, I’d wait until I knew she was asleep, and then I’d open the forbidden door and go to that front bedroom. I’d take a book from the shelf and sit on the cold Linoleum floor. I didn’t yet know how to read, but that didn’t stop me from taking pleasure in the way the book’s binding smelled, or the feel of the slightly raised typeface, or the sound of the pages as I turned them. Years later, my mother would tell me stories about when she was a girl. Each evening after supper, she and her siblings would gather around my grandfather, and he would read Zane Grey westerns to them. I love this image of my grandfather, a man who was broken in many ways but somehow managed to hold faith in the written word and the power of a good story well-told. How I wish I’d had the chance to hear him read from Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage: “Every day I awake believing—still believing. The day grows, and with it doubts, fears, and that black bat hate that bites hotter and hotter into my heart. Then comes night—”

And indeed the night did come, a Sunday night in March when I was only five months old. My grandparents had come home from church, the white clapboard church just down the road, and somewhere in that house where I would spend many Christmas days, my grandfather’s heart stopped beating, and my grandmother was left to her widowhood.

I often wonder what my grandfather might think if somewhere in the realm of spirits he knows I became a writer. I wish I could tell him he was the start of it all. He left his books for me to find. I held them in my small hands. The words waited for me to decipher them. No matter how broken he may have been—no matter how much his life may have disappointed him—he managed this one thing: He loved books, and in loving them, he left a trail so I could love them, too.











  1. Carol on December 26, 2022 at 12:47 pm

    What a beautiful story. And what an interesting legacy this grandfather left you. Do you still have some of his books? I was struck as I read that your grandfather must have died just a couple of weeks after my own grandfather. One of those irrelevant things that crosses your mind when you read someone else’s story. Thank you for sharing this. I love the image of that little boy sitting on the cold floor sneaking looks at books he couldn’t read.

    • Lee Martin on December 27, 2022 at 12:29 pm

      Carol, I may have one or two of his books, passed down from him to my mother and then to me.

  2. Virginia Chase Sutton on December 26, 2022 at 1:15 pm

    Beautiful story, yet terribly sad, Once again, it reminds me of rural Indiana, down south, where the big city nearby was Richmond Indiana). Neither grandparent ever told a story, but my grandfather would talk when his brothers visited from Kentucky. My grandfather, Milliard Fillmore Sutton, along with all his brothers— except Orville- (there’s a story there) were named for Democratic presidents. No stories except when we visited from Chicago, and he clammed up. Hmmm. Everyone is dead, at this point, and I have few clues. Great story, Lee,

    • Lee Martin on December 27, 2022 at 12:27 pm

      It can be quite a challenge to reconstruct family history when there are few clues to go on. I came from a family that left little written record behind.

  3. Terri DeVos on December 26, 2022 at 6:22 pm

    I love this, Lee! So many of our family have left us legacy’s. They probably never knew it.
    Our lives will leave legacy’s for others who follow us.
    Our goal should be to leave them legacy’s that are as memorable and loving as yours.

  4. William Read, Jr on December 27, 2022 at 7:26 am

    Thank you so much for this share, Lee. My Great Grandpa Read was never discussed except occasionally by Homer, and how he found his father in death. This is the first time and only photo I’ve ever seen of him. I see the Read line passed down through my own Father. Deeply moved. I’m grateful. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on December 27, 2022 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks for this comment, Bill. I think of all those family photos that must be out there somewhere and how badly I’d like to see them.

  5. Ellen Shriner on December 28, 2022 at 9:41 am

    Thank you for this story. Your memory jogged several realizations for me. My father was an avid reader but owned few books. He checked out four (the max) from the public library every week, and instilled his love of reading in me. Interesting because I don’t recall books at his parents’ home. My mother’s father had few books, but one treasured one was Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas which he read with his 8th grade education.

    • Lee Martin on December 28, 2022 at 11:26 am

      Thank you so much for sharing these stories. They make me wonder how your father came to love reading without an influence in his childhood home. I’m very glad he did, and I’m glad he passed that love on to you.

  6. Phyllis Pool Usher on December 29, 2022 at 10:07 am

    Lee, recently learned from Berryville friend on Facebook that you are a writer. I am an avid reader, passed down from my mom and grandfather. I will be reading your books soon.
    I have fond memories of you, your mother and grandmother, Maude. I have wondered what became of you. My nephew, Eric Pool, has a vineyard and winery not far from the lane that went up to your house.

    • Lee Martin on December 29, 2022 at 11:09 am

      Phyllis! So good to hear from you. I’ve been to Eric’s winery. In fact, the tasting room is built from wood from the barn on our old farm. I’d love to catch up with you. If you’d like, please email me at

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