My Grandfather Helps Me Find Myself, Even Though He’s Gone
My family isn’t religious, but we have a saying that we do believe in my grandfather. And an essay he wrote about me reminds me to believe in myself.
What I Did This Summer, M. J. Tully, “Oompa”
The Brave Little Toaster
The only time he’d ever lost his patience with me, I was eight years old and let a mouse loose in the house. He’d never yelled at me before, and I’d accepted his apology by saying it was okay. “It’s not okay,” he said. “It’s never okay for anyone to speak to you like that.” To this day, I remember the fact that he thought I deserved respect and should expect it from others. If he could have surveyed my life now, I knew he would not have been proud of what he saw.
That was a turning point, if a rough one. I made plans to go back to the university I’d left, was accepted for readmission for the coming semester, and moved back to Chicago, where I excelled. When I was overwhelmed, or unsure, or tired, I’d imagine explaining to Oompa what I was doing—the long hours, the study abroad trip to Kenya, the papers I was writing—and ask myself if he’d be proud of what he heard. When I could answer yes, I’d always feel a weight lift.
“Would Oompa be proud of me?” became my personal litmus test. I asked it a few months after graduation, when I realized I’d moved across country with a man who didn’t respect me, while driving around the desert town I was living in and listening to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I asked it when I was working as an assistant in St. Louis, unsure of how I’d segue into a career that used my degree in political science. I asked it when I was living in Washington, DC, as I considered changing fields to become a writer.
Oompa became that little guiding voice in the back of my head. Each time I listened to it became a hinge on which my life pivoted. I left the man who didn’t love me. I went to graduate school. I started writing professionally. I married a compassionate man who makes me laugh, believes in me unconditionally, and lets me know I’m acting like a doofus, just like Oompa did. As a child, I always trusted Oompa and took his guidance to heart. When I’ve done the same as an adult, it’s helped me make the decisions of which I am most proud.
My family isn’t religious, but we have a saying that we do believe in Oompa. We joke about possible signals he could send us from the beyond, or that cardinals, his favorite bird, are a sign he’s keeping an eye on us. But in a very real way, he’s remained an active force in my life, giving me an ideal version of myself to live up to when I can’t figure out where to head next.
Whenever I feel untethered, unsure of myself, or uncertain I’m doing the right thing, I return to Oompa’s essay, which I’ve now hauled across states and oceans. I think about him writing it, possibly when I was busying myself in another room or watching an old Universal movie at his feet. I try to take myself back to that summer. I imagine the fast-talking little girl and the grandfather who loved her, walking hand-in-hand to the creek, both of them just happy to be in one another’s company.