I’m a little late, but I know he wouldn’t mind. I wrote this in 2007 and am so thankful that I did.
My grandfather died in September of 1997 — my father’s father, an Army veteran of World War II, son of a veteran of World War I, father of a veteran of Vietnam, one of the oldest of 13 children, a father of 5, a grandfather of no less than 8 (depends on your counting method). Circumstances would ultimately conspire so that he would get to spend real time with only one of his grandchildren — me.
It is nearing 10 years since his death. I can still smell his aftershave and the blanket on his bed. I know how his hairbrush felt in my hand, and I can hear his voice humming along with Johnny Cash or Kenny Rogers. I remember the smell of his work van, from those mornings when he would drive me to school; it was pretty much the same smell that was in the blue cap he always wore and his blue coat and pants. I can feel the weight of his boots and remember learning the difference between his boots and my dad’s boots when they were both at the door. When I close my eyes, I can see his smile and hear his laugh, as suddenly I am 5 again and we sit at the table together eating our Cheerios right down to the mountain of sugar in the bottom of Grandma’s green bowls. We’re playing a game, and when I best him, I can hear his jolly, “Why, you little rat!” I know where he keeps his screwdriver that looks like a pen and the real pen and paper pad that he will use to draw squarish pictures of dogs and alligators for me. With the flick of a decade, he is down front in the auditorium–dear Lord, he’s even sitting down amongst the audience this time, and he hates the crowd of people–but it is my senior choral solo recital, and there he is; he wouldn’t miss it for the world. I need only look at him if I am worried; I know that he will be smiling at me. I know that he will applaud with those gentle hands of a giant–joyous, affirming applause. After my recital, he will move to the back for the rest of the concert, where he always stands, but for now, he is in the audience – for me. If he can do it, I can too. The music is starting…
I wrote and delivered a eulogy at his funeral; it was full of the unique details of his personality that made him who he was–things that would touch everyone who knew him, and of the special things that only he and I shared. I’ve never seen so many people at a funeral before; he was well loved and a well-respected man and electrician and knew many, many people. Most of his other grandchildren were there as well. When my heart had been pouring out onto the paper, in the form of heartache and memories-even before he died, I thought that many of these things were memories I would rekindle in his other grandchildren and that we would share. It was only after the service that they told me the truth: My words had introduced them to the grandpa they had never gotten to know. They were devastated, and I felt even luckier than I had before.
I don’t know much about his father: I know that he lied about his age to join the Army and go to war. I also know that he loved to smoke and, even with emphysema, would have his favorite grandson (my dad) sneak cigarettes to him when my dad would drive him into town every few days. I also know that he left the world sometime in the week that I entered it.
I barely knew his mother. Though I lived most of my childhood with the good fortune to have 4 living great-grandparents, she was the one with whom I spent the least amount of time (ironic, as she was the only one who was nearby). We apparently had Sunday meals at her house when I was little, but I was too young to remember it. I believe it was around the time that I was starting school that diabetes and senility started working together to take her mind (16 pregnancies and 13 children… how her mind lasted that long is beyond me). I believe I was 14 or so when she died; do the math–that is 14 years after her husband. My greatest memory of her is only through a story told to me: Her son, my grandfather, was back from the war, married, and had a small child of his own. My grandmother and great-grandmother were in the house, cleaning up the Sunday lunch dishes while my grandpa was out working underneath a car that had no wheels on it and was up on blocks. Something happened, the blocks moved, and the car came down on my grandpa, pinning him under the car. His mother saw this through the window, rushed outside, LIFTED the car up off his body so that he could crawl out, and then set it back down. He was fine, but everyone was completely awestruck that she had lifted the car. It was the first time I really understood just what love could do.
Grandpa had a 6th-grade education. He left school when he was 12 to work as an electrician and help out at home; as one of the oldest of 13 children, you can imagine there was some helping to do, particularly as it was 1933–the pit of the depression.
When I was a child, Grandpa and I did special things together. He would play his guitar and teach me silly songs, like one about a mule in a picture show, K-K-K Katy (a war song, I would learn later, and one that I think his father probably taught to him), and our favorite song about how great life would be if all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops…. I’d stand outside, with my mouth open wide – yes, that’s the life for me, ba-by.
He wasn’t perfect, and since his death and my own voyage into marriage, adulthood, and parenthood, I’ve learned a lot about the reality of everyone being human. There was one thing I was sure of as a child, though, and have only become more sure of since then. That man loved me deeply, and he took absolute and pure joy in watching me living my life. Something about my just ‘being’ and his just being a part of that… it was like sunshine in his day. And sometimes, especially in a household of chaos and angst, his presence reminded me that there was fresh air beyond my front door, a space in the world that didn’t require anything of me, and someone whose reaction to me would only ever be a smile.
Grandpa would also indulge me with photos and more photos. We’d sit and look through the shoebox of his photographs from war time. I never got to just dig through on my own, though, and as a normally very respectful child, it never occurred to me to wonder about that; I simply accepted that I would be shown what I was allowed to see. I vividly remember pictures of Grandpa standing in the snow in the Alps. I remember the ski lift in the background, him kneeling with the snow in his hands, posing with his rifle over his shoulder. Dapper and dashing in his uniform–Grandpa was a handsome man on any day, but his uniform made him swoon-worthy to be sure. Picture a young Ed Harris, but better, and with bluer eyes–gorgeous bright crystal blue eyes. My father has that color too. I had it when I was younger, but somehow mine have dulled where theirs did not.
He never talked about the war, not the realities of the war. He told the funny stories of being abroad, silly things that happened, crazy situations he and his teenage friends found themselves in while they were in Europe. I wish I could remember those stories, any of them. I can’t think of a single one.
There are two stories that I most remember, both are somewhat vague, one moreso than the other, and both he told me when I was 25 and he was dying.
I was living in Virginia with my then boyfriend now husband, and as was habit, we went home in early August for my birthday. My grandpa had been diagnosed with ALS–amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig disease, which weakens and paralyzes the muscles of the body in a way and for a reason that no one can understand. Looking back, he had been deteriorating for years, but the workups and diagnosis had just come in the last few months. No one knew just what to expect or when to expect it, but when he could swallow nothing but soup or Pepsi (and sometimes not even those), we knew that it was coming sooner rather than later. On that visit home, I made a point of spending time with him. In just a few months, I would be planning my wedding, and it was one of the saddest things in my life that he was not alive to be with us that day.
He sat with us at his dining room table, and I remember basically ignoring my aunt and my grandmother. Honestly, and somewhat guiltily, I wished they weren’t there or wouldn’t speak, though I think they somehow knew that to a point–or at least understood that this was my time with him. For the first time in my life, he took out his Army books and the photos that I had never seen and started to tell me about his experiences, the things he saw, the horrors of the war. He wanted to make sure that I knew; I think he suddenly felt the need to ensure the passing of his memories to a younger generation. He spoke so freely and so openly about the atrocities; he remembered it so well and spoke with emotions I’d not seen from him before. He showed me his book with photos of mass graves, dessicated corpses piled high, and the odd skeletonized form that had tried so futilely to crawl out of the pit of death. Then there were the photos that were even harder to grasp–the men, women, and children who looked as though they too were dead, but they were not. He described these people and their ‘joy’ at seeing Americans. It was not like the joy that we exhibit when something seemingly miraculous happens to us. It was tempered, not by a distrust or a disbelief, but by exhaustion, starvation, and the fact that virtually all of them had already accepted that the only change in their situation would come in the form of death. There was a will to survive, to not give in to those who would wish them destroyed, but there was no hope of actually being ‘alive’ again. And so, when these young American boys approached, they were met by eyes that were hollow and souls that were broken, and after all these boys had been through to arrive at this moment, they looked into those eyes and felt guilty for being so alive.
He remembered being in northern France when the Germans were in control of the area. He and another man from his unit were together–maybe separated from their unit? I can’t remember clearly–and came upon a small home. A woman was there with her young son but no husband. She invited them into her home, and though they were wary, it was winter and they were also cold, tired, and starving. They accepted and took shelter against the raging cold outside. She fed them warm soup, and they played music with her son after they ate. They slept, one at a time, for a few hours each, and then left before dawn, with bread stowed in their packs and fresh water in their canteens. As he told me of her kindness, this woman who was on her own and should really have been terrified of these two foreign men, I could hear the amazement in his voice, the respect, the honor, and the sorrow as he wondered if she and her son survived the war and what became of them. I know that it was hard for him because all he wanted to do was to thank her one more time – for reminding him that our basic humanity is worth fighting for.
It is difficult to express the magnitude of that simple message, and we can’t offer our gratitude directly to every person who stands up for basic human decency.
Sometimes, all we can do is to say thank you and promise to do our very best to learn from their experiences and the past so that we don’t make the same mistakes, ignore the same warnings, commit the same atrocities.
Thank you, Grandpa, to you and all those like you.
I love you, Grandpa. There are no words to tell you how much I miss you, and I promise you that I will try harder every day to remember that I make you smile. It’s the least that I can do.