Grandpa Hillary
August 1987

“Grandpa Hillary,” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 53


Grandpa Hillary

“So you’re havin’ trouble at home,” he mumbled gruffly, never looking up from the strip of leather he was braiding into a horse’s hobble. “So what do they think I can do about it?”

I shrugged and tried to swallow my bitterness. I glanced around at the starkness I had once loved, before Grandma died, before Grandpa was as old and callous as his scarred, course workbench.

The stalls of the horses were empty. On the solid floor the last remaining bits of manure were dry and musky-smelling. The rough lodge poles still showed the deep grooves from the horses’ sharp teeth, but the thick saliva had dried long ago.

“Your ma says you ain’t even plannin’ on gettin’ your priesthood,” he grunted again.

“What do you care?” I answered, flipping my hair back out of my eyes with a twist of my neck.

His knobby fingers stopped. Behind him, rusty spike nails held harnesses and bridles and canvas feed bags. A fancy braided quirt, fashioned when he was a young man, was draped in cobwebs and dust.

“It’s not me,” he roared, “It’s you that ought to care! The priesthood’s the finest gift you’ll ever get!”

I wished Grandma was still alive. Then the farm would have had noise—chickens cackling, children laughing, horses stomping impatiently for someone to exercise them. But she was gone, and there was nothing left to buffer his anger, nothing to smell or taste or touch. Even her garden was dry and clumped into compost. All of it unbearable as he and I stood there glaring into each other’s eyes.

“What’s gotten into you, boy? How long’s it been since you attended your meetings?”

“How long’s it been since you attended yours?” I answered sarcastically.

He pulled his red printed bandanna from his back pocket and blew his nose, then settled back onto his seat. “I can’t go no more,” he explained, “It just ain’t the same without Emily. Nothin’s the same without Emily.”

I backed up by the horse stalls, where the scratchy bales of hay were still stacked in tight, neat piles. He picked up his leather punch and turned it over in his hand.

“She was a pretty thing,” he mused. “She could dance and sing and cook. What I wouldn’t give for a slice of her pie right about now.”

“Or an oatmeal cookie,” I whispered, “with walnuts and chocolate chips.”

He seemed distant, talking on as though he were alone in the dust-filled air. “You know, the first ring I ever gave her was made outta rawhide. It rubbed the insides of her finger raw, but she wore it anyhow. She still had it hidden in her jewelry box after all those years.” He wiped his eyes with the bandanna, and laughed a little to himself. “That girl wanted to wear it when we got married. I told her they wouldn’t allow it in the temple. Said she’d have to have gold or nothin’.” He scratched his broad shoulders on the edge of his workbench. His eyes stared without seeing. “Of course, I didn’t tell her the Tabernacle is full of leather. Indian iron. They used it to lash the beams together.”

I was a child again, wide-eyed. “You know everything, don’t you, Grandpa?”

He looked up as though just remembering I was there. “Emily thought so,” he smiled. “You used to think so, too. A long, long time ago.”

I tried to hold my shoulders in a proud, daring angle. I tried to stay aloof. But how could I? I remembered the summers we had spent together—his only grandson—my greatest friend.

He reached down into the leather pouch that hung at the side of his workbench, and I could almost hear the story he used to tell me about the early pioneers and how they kept a similar “jewel box” on the chuck wagon. They filled it with odd strips of rawhide to repair everything from hinges to the broken iron bands on their wheels.

But his eyes did not perk up with a quick story. His hands did not spread in exaggerated motions to help the tale along. Instead, he pulled out a clumsily made button knot.

“This is yours,” he said and handed it over to me. “I should have let you have it when you were still young enough to care about it.”

He stood up and pulled the string from the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Then he walked out and left me in the dark.

He didn’t look at me when I followed him into the kitchen. It was a lonely room now. The cookie jar was empty. There was no sprouting potato in a glass jar by the sink, no turkey wishbone drying above the oven, no sourdough starter in the refrigerator. He stood alone in front of the stove slicing potatoes, onions, and side pork into a heavy cast iron skillet half-filled with lard.

I held the button out to him. “What’s it for?” I asked.

“It’s the Hillary family button knot,” he answered. “It’s an old tradition, passed on from father to son. Every pattern is different. Secret. That there is the first one I ever made as a boy.”

“Well, didn’t you teach Dad? or Uncle Ben? or Aunt Margaret?”

“They didn’t care about such things. Too smart for it.”

“Do you remember how to do it?”

“Of course I do, it’s the trademark of a fine braider.”

“Well, how come nobody wears them?”

He turned the dinner with a long-handled pancake turner, and scratched at his chin. “They don’t need to anymore. They don’t really need leather or leather toolers for much of anything nowadays. They have thread now, and new sewing techniques. Metal brads. They have ropes and handles and buttons and hinges. Time was, when they needed us for beds and furniture and blankets and rugs. I guess I just overstayed my welcome.”

“Would you teach it to me?”

He put two plates on the table and poured two glasses of milk. Then he pulled a wedge of cheese from the refrigerator and shaved it onto the potatoes to melt. “I suppose I could.”

We sat across from each other. He winked at me and asked if I’d give the blessing on the food. The lines between his eyes seemed smoother now. His eyes loved me again. I bowed my head and gave the prayer.

“We could work on it Monday,” he said after I finished, shoveling a forkful of food in his mouth.

“What about tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow’s the Sabbath.”

“Well what about this afternoon? It’s not that late.”

He pulled out a slice of bread and sopped it in the melting cheese. He gulped his milk and scratched the stubble on his chin. “We’re goin’ into Smithfield this afternoon. Gonna get us both a haircut.”

I stopped eating and let my fork clatter onto my plate. “No way,” I protested, “No way!”

“Well, you’re not going to church in the morning like that.”

“I’m not going to church in the morning!”

“Look, if I have to get a haircut, you have to get a haircut!”

There was a grin on his face as I noticed for the first time how long and wiry his own course gray hair had become. Grandma had been gone for nearly three months, and I don’t imagine he’d seen a barber since then. His grin changed to a chuckle, then to a laugh that started deep in the caverns of his throat.

“Oh boy,” he said, “is that woman mad at us. We’ll sure hear about this next time we see her!” He chewed at a thick piece of pork, still smiling. “You there, not even passin’ the sacrament yet. And me, I haven’t done my home teaching in three months!”

We finished eating, leaving the dishes in a way Mom or Grandma never would have done. Then we climbed into the old truck and drove down the narrow road. The boundaries between farms were marked by irrigation ditches and tall Lombardy poplars, like old English hedgerows.

As we jostled over the bumpy dirt road, sailing past Burt’s Dairy and Feed store, Grandpa pointed to the crusted paint of the sign and called out the letter A. The alphabet game. We hadn’t played it in years.

“B,” he called crooking his finger towards the “Best Buttermilk in the World” banner.

I bobbed my head across the street to Harold’s gas station, “A.”

He saw the Coke sign and then looked back to the dairy. “C,” he bellowed. “And D.

By the time we made it to Smithfield, less than three miles away, Grandpa was scanning the roadways for a Y, and I was praying for a green “Quaker Oil” sign so I could get my Q.

We continued to laugh, even while Ralph snipped off my locks. Even when he nicked Grandpa’s mole.

“It’ll be good to see you in church tomorrow,” Ralph smiled as Grandpa slipped him a tip. “Good to see you up and about.”

Grandpa slapped me gently on the back. “We’ll be there all right.” He patted my back again, “You know my grandson here is about ready to be ordained.”

“Congratulations, son.” Ralph waved us on and started on the next customer.

Early Monday morning, after a Sunday Grandma would have liked, we got up to make our button knot. We prepared a thin calf hide to cut our strips from. Grandpa’s arthritis was acting up, so I did the cutting. My knife worked slowly in a continuing spiral into the belly of the piece, like Uncle Coolidge peeling the skin off a summer apple, in one long, looping strip. My skiving knife worked slowly, around and around until it reached a scar where the calf had bumped against the barbed wire. We cut out the flaw and continued until we had two strips that were perfect for braiding.

“Good job,” he praised. “Now how about some lunch?”

“What time is it?” I asked, surprised.

“Past two,” he grinned.

I looked down at my hands. The inside of my right index finger was red, and the tender skin of a blister was ready to tear. I tried to stretch the stiffness from my fingers.

Grandpa was tired too. He had stretched the skin flat as I cut. The tendrils of his newly cut gray hair fell forward in sweat. He threw his arm around my shoulder, and we left the workshop to go to the house for more sandwiches.

After lunch, we took a nap sprawled across the living room floor with awkward-shaped couch cushions crammed beneath our necks. Later, when the sun set beyond the western horizon, we returned to our work.

He took one of the carefully wound balls and examined the one-eighth-inch strings. Then he started the knot around a wooden mandrel. I crouched before him on my knees.

His hands became a part of each tool—the working, thinking, master part. He pulled the string up and over and back under with confident precision. His fid separated the strips and pushed them back down in a rhythmic dance. Then he held it out to me. I split the parallel strings and started the pattern again. Over one, under three, again and again. He took it back and tightened each loop as he intertwined it with the strings already done. The knot worked slowly between the knots of his knuckles. The top and bottom finally formed perfect scallops and at last a tiny pineapple-shaped button.

Raising it into the light, he smiled proudly at me. I turned the blunt metal end of the fid in my hand. It felt secure in my palm. He handed me the tiny fruit-shaped button. The proof that we were craftsmen. One of the gifts of a rich heritage.

  • Caren Llewelyn, a nurse, teaches the CTR-B class and is Cub Scout den leader in her Kearns, Utah, ward.

Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn