I’d ask acting students to bring an object to class that’s “important to them,” with no other instructions. This exercise produced: Bibles, guitars, knitted sweaters, photographs of sisters and plastic swizzle sticks. Some were beautiful keepsakes, almost holy ones. Once a student brought a graceful vase of cremated ashes.

A frugal and hardworking Dutch immigrant, Lee Van Dyke’s grandfather nonetheless had a sunny smile and a sense of fun. Photo courtesy of Lee Van Dyke

What turns mere things into keepsakes? Once I brought my grandpa’s ashtray to class. It is made of dark brown wood, carved with leaves, fruits, wishbones, pine cones and anchors. It is heavy, solid wood, with a 4-inch-long concavity for holding pipes or cigars, and perfect for tobacco ashes. You could call it “butt-ugly.” He’d smoke his cigars down till they were too short to hold, and then smoke the rest of them in the bowl of his pipe. Frugal, these Dutch guys. The ashtray really is pedestrian and crude. It reminds me of a narrow bowl that has been rubbed till it looks like a parched lakebed above an ancient waterfall.

My grandpa lived to be almost 100. He emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands the same year Dutch Master Cigars were introduced, in 1913. His skin, like his ashtray, was weathered and brown. Maybe it got that way as Shakespeare’s gravedigger says: “Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade that he will keep out water a great while.”  

He had been a tanner but had also: sailed to transport lumber up the Rhine to Germany, picked crops at the side of a polderdam and, with his wife and two of his first children, came to make a better life. He understood enough English to work, got a driver’s license and qualified for citizenship and Social Security. He attended a church that held services in Dutch. In his 80s, he would circulate between a rotation of eight of his “kids” for a month each. We got lucky. He’d stayed with us all summer. 

I only gradually learned that he used to carry a bucket of beer home on a Friday night, snapped a steel knife in half when his son had threatened somebody with it, could do handstands for fun, had not been on an ocean that was rough enough for him, played hymns on a pump organ, loved watching “Yeopardy” on television and never lost at checkers. He prayed in Dutch at our evening meals, and I was convinced God’s first language was Dutch.

Lee Van Dyke’s grandfather would “smoke his cigars down till they were too short to hold, and then smoke the rest of them in the bowl of his pipe.” Photo courtesy of Lee Van Dyke

His skin may have been weathered, but his smile turned it all into sunshine. His ashtray looks a little like a fallen pine cone. It still does. I consider it a keepsake. If anyone was ever blessed with a warm spirit, he was. His skin tight, his working hands gnarled, his frame lean. I grew up loving him. 

I never learned many Dutch words, because his broken English served us. One of the few that I remember and the one I use to describe this ashtray is “mooi.” It means “beautiful.”   

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