When my grandpa passed away over two months ago, one of my friends asked if we were close. I remember responding, “You know in school when you’re asked to write about a person who inspires you? He has always been that person for me.”

Throughout my life, my grandpa, Charles VanHampler, inspired me in many ways. In the way he patiently raised five daughters in a two bedroom and one bathroom home. In the way he loved my grandma, bringing her flowers and holding her hand through the hardships of her dementia. In the way he’d sit in the bleachers for each one of my brother’s hockey games, standing close up against the glass to get the best view.

Grandpa was a carpenter for over 45 years. I do not know many details about the specific work he did except that he helped build the middle school I attended, even losing his wedding ring during the construction. Every time I would walk in a certain hall of the school, I would point to the ground and tell my friends, “My grandpa’s wedding ring is somewhere under these tiles!” Grandpa has always been drawn to fixing and building things, especially in creative ways. I was fortunate enough to grow up learning and participating in his creative processes.

At a young age, I spent most of my days at my grandparents’ house, which was thankfully a few blocks away from where I live. As a little 3-year-old who barely knew how to count, I would dial my grandparents’ number on my house phone, saying “Papa, come pick me up,” and his car would pull into my driveway five minutes later. 

The time I spent with my grandpa was not ordinary: Our go-to activity wasn’t going on walks or playing with toys. Instead, Grandpa always envisioned a project for us to do, some artistic vision that we would work to bring to life over the course of the day I spent there, or even lasting weeks. These projects depended on how old I was at the time, but all consisted of innovative ideas, a large set of tools and would end with us celebrating with a trip to get ice cream.

Our projects started quite simple, like when we painted trees on a canvas and then glued whole walnuts on the branches to make a walnut tree. In the winter, we used snow to build Barney and poured cranberry juice all over our sculpture to produce Barney’s purple hue. We constructed homemade puzzles, too —  I would trace a drawing onto wooden tablets, paint over it, and then my grandpa would carve the wood into little puzzle pieces. 

As I got older, the projects became more complex and were constructed on larger mediums. After my grandparents got a new TV, we used its box, which had been laying around idle, to construct a 3-foot cardboard cruise ship, which we called “the Queen Elizabeth.” We glued on details like windows to the shift and small dinghies hanging off the side, making the ship a perfect place to play with my Polly Pocket dolls.

With each project, I was in awe of how we could create something special together with just the tools and objects sitting around in Grandpa’s house. I was proud of how meticulous we were in making sure our projects turned out precisely as we wished. Even though I was young, Grandpa let me work on much of the construction, trusting me to carefully carve with an Exacto knife or diligently spread Gorilla Glue on a surface, thus giving me hands-on experience with building and designing.  

However, as I got older and busier with school, I spent less time at my grandparents’ house. Our projects became less frequent and more oriented around school assignments I occasionally needed help with. A fifth-grade project requiring a presentation on tectonic plates led us to continue our favorite activity of making puzzles, but this time the puzzle was made up of plate boundaries. My favorite was an elementary school science assignment where I had to create a circuit that lit up a lighthouse. With Grandpa’s help, I was able to set up the web cables and circuit board quickly. But we always had to go above and beyond, so we spent the next few days perfecting a paper mache mountain that the lighthouse was built upon. 

During my childhood, I thought the activities Grandpa and I did during the day were common between granddaughters and grandpas. I just assumed that my friends were doing the same thing during their summer break — at their grandparent’s house sawing pieces of wood and drinking Boston Coolers on a swing they constructed just a few hours before. As I got older and noticed our relationship was unique, I realized how special it was for him to share his passion for design and construction with me. It is even more special for me to have gained that same passion as I watched him work. We were two minds with different ages and perspectives, but were able to envision and accomplish such innovative projects.  

At the time, each project felt like fun, not work. Yet each day, my skills were evolving, and as I watched my grandpa lead us through each creation, my imagination was growing. I mimicked his meticulous craft, not moving on to the next step of a project until we mixed the perfect sky blue shade of paint or until a shape of wood was completely sanded evenly. I learned that hardwood stores are not a necessity because any spare pipe, string, or slab of wood lying around Grandpa’s garage always became an essential part of the project. I reflected on Grandpa’s drive as he tinkered and toyed with the positioning of materials until they fit as perfectly as he envisioned them.

For most of my life, I thought of myself as analytical: I love numbers and was planning to study an analytical subject in college. Yet, my creative, artistic side had been brewing within me since the time spent in my grandparent’s basement. It first made its appearance when I started working with graphic design in high school as a designer for my high school newspaper. It continued growing when I got to college and continued with newspaper design at The Michigan Daily and graphic making for an application being built in BlueLab. It finally established itself as part of me with my recent acceptance to the School of Information.

Now, I plan to carry out my dream job as a user experience (UX) designer, working with the branding, design, usability and function of a product. More specifically, I want to work with the redesigning of websites and apps. This “designer” identity I so often felt with my Grandpa is now becoming a truly important part of my identity and career. I wish I could tell my grandpa, because I know how proud he would be. I also believe he would feel gratified to know that all the time and energy he focused on me throughout the years has impacted my life goals. 

As I carry out my future experimenting with the usability, usefulness and desirability provided in the interaction with a product, I plan to approach these situations the same as I did when we drizzled our snowman in cranberry juice, built puzzles and crafted ships. Though my imagination is not as vivid as it was when I was seven, I plan to channel the work ethic, attention to detail and innovative values that I learned with Grandpa.

Saying goodbye to someone you love is never easy. Especially with being away at school for the past two years, it made me feel like I missed out on more time I could have spent with him. Those first couple weeks after he passed away I felt regret and grief. However, thinking about his creative impact on me, especially with my admission into School of Information, has helped process that grief. Even though Grandpa is no longer physically here, I feel closer to him now than I have in a while. 

Elizabeth Bigham is a sophomore planning to start in the School of Information next fall. She is a Statement Design Editor and can be reached at ebigham@umich.edu.

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