Larger than Life


Grandpa Gil holding Baby D in late 1978 or early 1979

Gilbert Emmanuel Larson was larger than life.  No, really, he was.  You’re probably thinking that I am just a little bit biased, because he was my grandpa (and maybe you would be just a tiny bit right), but I’m pretty sure most of your grandpas couldn’t do this:

See how big that guy is?  See how he was able to crush that apple after a few seconds?  Grandpa Gil could do it even faster, and he wasn’t the size of that fella.  His forearms put Popeye to shame.  He would take the apple and ask you to start counting.  1…2…and by three, there was applesauce pooling on the counter beneath his hand.  Some of you are probably thinking that I am exaggerating or that there must of been some sort of trick, but those of you who knew Grandpa Gil are nodding your heads knowingly right now…  I mean, he was the armwrestling champion of the Boilermakers Union, and those men aren’t known for being small and wimpy.

Armwrestling?  Who cares if he could beat a bunch of boilermakers?  Well, there was the time that my aunt brought home one of the Chicago Blackhawks on a date.  Grandpa Gil, well into his 40’s, decided to challenge this “young buck” to an armwrestling match.  Mr. Blackhawk, of course, deferred – its not polite to defeat your date’s dad in a test of strength.  Gilbert insisted.  They squared off.  As Grandpa Gil put it (in his Swedish accent), “I let him try, den I trew him out of hees chair.”

As a boy, I feasted on these stories.  Tales of fights at the golf course, fights at the bar, fights when he and his friends were cut off by some teenage punks and they followed them and then smashed the hood of the car with their fists.  I was in awe of my grandpa.  His life seemed brimming with adventure and heroism.

Of course, the reality was more than just stories.  While he was certainly still powerful, he had given himself over to food and drink in a way that made for a truly enormous man (5’10” and 280 lbs).  His forearms looked like small tree trunks and his calves like mini-boulders, but the rest of him was pleasantly plump to say the least.  In fact, it led to problems in my young life.  See, Grandpa Gil had developed a pair of enviable bosoms.  When visiting grandma and grandpa’s house on Fridays, he frequently would walk around with his robe loosely tied in the front, his chest orbs free to the wind.  One day, an artistic vibe captured me, and I committed Grandpa Gil to paper with pencil.  It looked much like this:


Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my masterpiece, my mom happened by.  Say one thing for my sweet mama, she has a flair for the dramatic.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING????”  Note the multiple question marks.  This implies a question asked at 4 times the normal human volume.

5-year-old me thought, “Huh?”


My mom also had a quick trigger finger on the wooden spoon (don’t worry mom… I won’t tell about the time you spanked me for falling down the stairs… yet).  As I was hauled into position and the spoon started flying to meet my tender cheeks, I cried out, “but mom, its GRANDPA!!!”

There are countless other stories I could share here, and someday I may.  The time I locked the bathroom door and closed it from outside just to see what would happen (as Grandma Ruth said in her even thicker Swedish accent, “Oh Derek, don’t eeven talk to Gran-pah right now.  He weel not be nice.”  The time I jumped directly into the middle of the newly planted garden despite being warned not too.  The time my dad teased Grandpa just a little too much at Thanksgiving dinner, leading the whole family to worry about what was going to happen next (“Keep it up, Keet.  Keep it up.”)

Of course, as is apt to happen to grandpas, Grandpa Gil began to lose his “larger than life” persona.  Diabetes brought him down to size.  Although his mammoth hands retained much of their strength, the rest of his body shrank and sagged.  His voice box never gave out though.  He had a built in trumpet to the end.

But that end did finally arrive.  The Monday before he died, I received a call for help.  Grandpa had fallen again, and no one could get him up.  They called me to come pick up the strongest man I ever knew off the floor.  When I arrived, I found basically a skeleton on the floor next to the bed.  It was my Grandpa Gil, lying in a pool of his own urine, unable and unwilling to get up just yet.  He asked me to give him a minute (which turned to 45), and so I sat down on the bed next to him and we had one last conversation.  We talked about his life, and he told me “I wish I had done so many tings diff-rntly.”  I didn’t wish that for a second.  He said, “I coulda quit smokin’ and I didn’t.  I probably coulda lived to 104 like Farmor (his mom).”  I agreed with him there, cancer be damned.  “I tink I lived a pretty good life.”  Legendary, in fact.

Then, in a moment of great daring, I said something to him that I had never said before (he just wasn’t the type of person that you said this to…).

“I love you Grandpa Gil.”

And for the first time, I heard the words, “I love you too, Derek.”

A few minutes later I picked him up off the ground and got him situated in the bed.  I left that night and sobbed most of the way home, because I knew it was coming.  As it happened, Grandpa Gil closed his eyes the next day, and never opened them again, though he continued to breathe for another 4 days.  On Saturday morning, with his wife and daughters holding his hands and most of the family in the room, Gilbert Larson breathed his last breath.  I found a secluded place in the house where I could be alone with my tears.  Even our heroes, those that are larger than life, meet their end.  How else can we keep them alive except by telling their story?


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8 Responses to Larger than Life

  1. J. Larson says:

    Thank you for that Derek; this brought tears to my eyes..It took Dad and I a long time to say those words to each other too, even though I knew he loved me…Thanks for capturing the essence of the man who was larger than life, my dad. Maybe THAT explains the Larson sisters a little bit better!!

  2. Kimberly Ervin says:

    Wow! What an honor to have a Grandpa like that! I never really knew mine (never really knew them as kids, moved to michigan but even then it was only holidays and the time missed together always made it uncomfortable) and I think about it at times and wonder what it would have been like to hear him tell stories and play with him like my imaginary grandparents do..(not that I have them but in my mind I have an idea of what it would be like to have the loving, story telling kind)…Im all teared up about how wonderful this story is. And also knowing your family and the Grandparents your children have on both sides! What a wonderful thing to cherish!

  3. Gayle says:

    I remember your grandparents from when your Aunt J and I were in Jr HS. I was a little bit afraid of your Grandpa Gil, but OH my goodness, when he looked at his wife or either of his beautiful daughters…he glowed. He obviously adored them. I envied them that.

    Your tribute to him is moving. Thanks for sharing.

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