Lessons from my grandpa on art, life and community

From as early as I can remember, my grandparents’ orchard was my playground.

From as early as I can remember, my grandparents’ orchard was my playground.

My sister and I would chase each other around the apple, pear and plum trees, push each other on the creaky old swing, and roll in the grass, staring up at the blue summer sky above Vashon Island.

When they visited us at my dad’s house in West Seattle, Grandpa Bill eagerly observed me draw in my sketchbook. He’d lean over with a jovial nod, proud of my work, and then showed me cool new drawing tricks, like how to use overlapping circles to get the proportions right.

The first thing Grandpa taught me was how to draw a hummingbird. I must have been eight or nine years old. It took me a few tries, but I got the oval torso and circular head down, the shape of the wings, one peeking out from behind the body, slowly whittling the bird into view from these rough shapes like carving a statue out of wood.

I must have drawn a hundred hummingbirds in one summer, and I continued to use this “whittling” technique when I became enamored of Japanese comics, and tried my best to sketch my own comic characters.

I saw his drawings and paintings both at home and in the small house he shared with Grandma Millie. Fish and pheasants, fields and fishing rods, the light exquisitely reflected on a sea glass float. He taught me about proportion, shading, and perspective. One sunny day, we sat in the orchard together, and he helped me to see the angles stretching away from my plane of vision, the pear tree at the far end of the orchard smaller in the eye than plum tree up close.

As the years went by and Grandpa Bill got shaggier in the eyebrows, and more brambly in the beard, the orchard too became overgrown.

My husband and I moved to the island from West Seattle in 2019, and as we started a family, it has felt good to help carry on my grandparents’ legacy here on Vashon. We kept a few Coors Banquets in our fridge for whenever Grandpa Bill would visit.

On Sunday, August 20, the whole family met up at the orchard for Grandpa Bill’s 91st birthday. The neighbors set up chairs and helped decorate the fruit trees with streamers. Grandpa Bill pulled up a few minutes late, and he told us that he’d had a pancake breakfast at Sporty’s, where the waitress had given him a kiss on the cheek.

Grandpa Bill got to see all his great-grandchildren that day—my daughter Eureka and my sister Deanna’s two little ones, Holden and Harper. Over a dozen neighbors brought their dogs over so Bill could feed them treats. It was as good of a birthday as anyone could have wished for.

Sometime that night, Grandpa Bill died peacefully in his sleep.

I was a little shocked at the news. He was so lively and in such good spirits the day before. But then I recalled my conversations with him that day. He’d been saying things like, “I’ve had a good run,” with a lilt in his voice and a twinkle in his eye. I think on some level Grandpa Bill knew it was his time, and he left on a high note.

We returned to the orchard a few weeks later for his memorial, on Saturday, September 9. My dad Curt, my aunt Jenny, and plenty of the neighbors who’d grown close to Bill and Millie over the decades, helped transform the orchard, clearing brush, chopping dead wood, mowing the overgrown grass, and arranging small clusters of patio furniture and umbrellas.

A dozen easels on the perimeter showcased Grandpa Bill’s paintings, and his old musician pals from Wild Blackberry Jam strummed banjos and sang soft and uplifting bluegrass.

Chatting with many of Bill’s friends and neighbors, I learned a few funny and surprising things.

One reason he’d stopped mowing the orchard was so the deer would have a safe place to give birth. It was their grassy haven, and they were so comfortable with Grandpa Bill that he could feed them apples from his hand. I laughed out loud when one neighbor told me she’d seen Bill buying apples at the grocery store (even though he had an orchard full of them) so that he could “feed the deer.” He also used to bring half of his Sporty’s pancake home to share with a friendly neighborhood crow.

Looking around the orchard that day, I saw so many lives Grandpa Bill had touched with his art, his music, and his generous spirit. Plenty of them were strangers to each other, but in those rough, overlapping circles, I could see the community Grandpa Bill had drawn around him, as energetic and bright as a hummingbird.

Rest in peace, Grandpa Bill.

Amanda Knox is an author and podcaster who resides on Vashon with her husband Christopher Robinson and her daughter Eureka.