I’ve shaken hands with admirals, governors, a vice president of the United States, professional athletes. Once, I shook Captain America’s hand. But far and away the single most impressive handshake I ever was part of was with a retired letter carrier.
He was a gruff old-timer when I first met him in 1996, and his gunsteel eyes stared right through you under a canopy of eyebrow. His handshake was a vise-grip, and he barked “How ya doin’?” He was the kind of guy of whom you might think, “Man! I’m glad I’m not dating HIS granddaughter.”
And I was dating his granddaughter.
Some of the grandkids called Al Couturier “Grandpa Meanie.” It was aslightly-misplaced nickname. He was crotchety, to be sure. Blunt in speaking, quick in movement, and he had neither time nor patience for fools. But mean?
The dictionary definition is “characterized by petty selfishness or malice.” If there was anything I learned about the man over 23 years, it was that under that practiced veneer of grump was one of the most generous, caring people I’d ever meet.
I remember my first Thanksgiving with Katie’s family; the tradition was desserts at someone’s house. They gathered at the old family home, owned by one of his daughters at that point. I’d been warned plenty about Gramps already. When I heard him bark “GET OUT OF MY KITCHEN” at the kids, this genteel, 21-year-old was probably more intimidated than the kids he was trying to chase out of a space that, technically speaking, wasn’t even his kitchen.
The intimidation wore off slowly. Very slowly. He was in his 70s then, and still had forearms that looked like he could wrestle a bear - which he may very well have done. He was still hunting well into his 80s.
Along the way, I started seeing glimpses of his innate goodness. It was most evident in his relationship with his wife since 1949, Eileen. They held hands. He deferred to her good judgment, more often than not. They shared an unshakable faith.
Once, the two of them came into my classroom at Toledo Rogers High School, and tutored kids for the Ohio Graduation Tests. Gone was the bear-wrestler, in was a sweet old man whom the kids could not believe was old enough to have served in the Navy at the end of World War II.
And the older he got, the more you could see it with the little kids. By the time he had a lot of great-grandkids running around, you could tell he relished playing the character of a grumpy old man, rather than actually being a grumpy old man.
The older I got, the more I loved the man. I’d never really known my own grandparents as an adult. Through Al and Eileen, I had a relationship that I just didn’t have in my own family. To me, Gramps kind of became the ideal of who you could be as an old man.
I was about 30 when I finally felt comfortable enough to dish back whatever he slung at me, and the handshakes only got better after that. I was always genuinely happy to see him, and if I doubted whether he was genuinely happy to see me, the doubts were dispelled one winter night, when he said “Come into the kitchen.”
Gramps pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue - a scotch that existed only in legend to me. We drank expensive scotch on the rocks in near-silence, as men do. The drink was sublime; the company, even better.
I’ve said in this space before that, with a terminal illness, I sometimes feel like I have more in common with the elderly than I do my middle-aged peers. It was true with no one more than Gramps, who even had the same kind of cancer as me. I could talk to him in a different way than almost anybody else in the world.
I saw him one more time last Friday. Even less than 24 hours from death, if you looked at him with the right set of eyes, you’d swear he could still whoop someone.
I am terribly sad that he’s gone. The world is a worse place without him, and those other men of the “Greatest Generation” like him. Their faith was unshakable. Their devotion to family was total. And when they shook your hand, it meant something.