By Billy Liggett
I don’t remember why I needed the tie. I just remember looking in the mirror at my grandparents’ house, dumbfounded at the thought that I could take this long, skinny piece of cheap fabric and somehow make myself look more “professional” by wearing it.
I remember my grandfather appearing behind me in the reflection of that mirror … we called him Papa. His reassuring, tight-lipped smile was there, as it always was. He could have poked fun at my dilemma — as he would do occasionally — but I think he sensed my frustration in this moment. Not just with my inability to tie a tie, but in my disappointment that I was 16 years old and never had the occasion to have to wear one.
“Here ya go, Billy,” he said, taking the tie into his hands and starting the process as we both looked ahead. “The half Windsor is easy. I’ll show you the full Windsor, too.”
I concentrated harder on those hands than any lesson I’d had before it. I nailed the half Windsor in two tries. I’ve tied a million of them since.
My grandfather, Charles Stearns, was a rock for my family. Even more for me.
My parents’ divorce. The terrible step parents that followed. Those divorces. Tough financial times. Tough emotional times. I was surrounded by instability as a teenager — but my grandfather was there. I sought him for advice or when I just needed somebody to vent my frustrations to. We talked a lot about football — he played collegiately for Rice University in 1950, the year they finished fifth in the nation and beat UNC in the Cotton Bowl.
We talked a lot about a lot of things.
I lost my grandfather last month after his lengthy bout with various illnesses, a weak heart and progressing dementia. I visited him in Texas the week before he died — he didn’t remember me, but on occasion would ask me about North Carolina.
I was asked to speak at his funeral as his oldest grandchild. In my speech, I focused on the calm he brought to not only me, but to just about everybody in my family (I love them to death, but there can be some drama amongst my tribe).
Friends and family have described me as a very laid back person, almost to a fault. Some compliment my ability to take stress in stride and to not fold when the world is crashing around me. I feel like this is the greatest gift my grandfather gave me, and in my speech, I challenged my family and our friends in the audience to strive to become that calm — that rock — for the people around them.
The tie was another gift, but I couldn’t bring myself to share that story without tossing out everything my grandfather taught me and becoming a blubbering fool on the stage.
Six years before he died, my grandfather was putting on his best suit for another funeral — his wife of 50-plus years. My grandmother.
His dementia was in the beginning stages, and when my mother asked me to walk back to his room to check on him, I walked in to a familiar scene.
My grandfather, loose tie in his hands, staring at a mirror. Unsure what to do next.
“Here ya go, Papa,” I said, taking the tie into my hands and starting the
process as we both looked ahead.
“Let’s go with the half Windsor.”
Billy Liggett is a writer and co-founder of The Rant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Campbell Magazine.