Though it coincides with the 2007 election, I’m taking a break from politics to commemorate this special day. Today – November 6, 2007 – would be my grandfather’s 100th birthday, were he still alive. A full century ago today, my Grandpa was welcomed to this earth.
I didn’t know him until he was over 70 years old, but only as time has passed have I come to appreciate him more fully. My Grandpa was a man with a tremendous work ethic and incredible moral character. He was honest to a fault. Faced with many difficulties, he showed remarkable loyalty and fidelity to his family. He saved his money, and used it wisely. Yet he was very generous, always willing to help his family or his neighbors. I never knew what to get him for Christmas. He never seemed to want anything.
My Grandpa was full of vigor beyond his years. At my age now, I couldn’t keep up with him. Well after 80, he would mow the lawn or fix something “for the old neighbor lady.” And he could get away with saying it because he always looked many years younger than his actual age. It’s a family trait, one whose benefits I look forward to reaping more in the future. My father is the same. And no one I’ve ever met has over-estimated my age by my appearance.
My Grandpa also was a patient man. He taught me many basic things like tying my shoes. Whether in his well-shaded yard or his “Michigan basement,” I also watched him do many practical tasks, too many of which sadly I have forgotten and suffered the consequences of my inadequacies.
We were always much more alike in temperament (and physical build, though not height) than in skill sets. I still have some of the letters he wrote to me while I was away at camp as a child or when I first went away to college in later years. His words were terse, direct, practical – with playful touches. Writing has assumed a much more prominent role in my life, but how often do I just pour out on paper the simple words of encouragement that someone needs to hear?
My Grandpa was a man of good humor and good spirits. He loved a fine joke, or rattling off nursery rhymes like “Hey Diddle Diddle, the cat and the fiddle….” At the same time he was full of quiet strength but also of gentleness and courtesy. I learned a lot just by watching him. He represented well a generation that is all but lost to us now, and in my adolescence was foolish enough to think many of those qualities outdated.
It wasn’t his to say “I love you” that often. Words and signs of open and honest affection were not his style. But his acts of service and his dedication to spending quality time with me spoke loudly.
We went fishing together. We watched boxing (his sport) or baseball (my sport) on television together. He made the best popcorn in the world that I’ve ever tasted before or since – oh, if I could ever find that cast-iron kettle of his! He cooked pancakes for us on lazy Saturday mornings, something I now enjoy doing for my own family.
My Grandpa grew up on the farm, in the middle of 9 children. He stayed in touch with all his surviving brothers and sisters as the years went on, while some of them preceded him in death. He didn’t marry until after 30, worked on the assembly lines during the Second World War, raised two fine boys, earned his retirement, and didn’t waste time being lazy.
During my last year of high school, my Grandpa blacked out while driving and experienced a crash. He moved in with us for awhile to recover, a difficult transition for all, especially for the hard-working, independent man whom I admired so much.
It was the beginning of his bout with Alzheimer’s Disease. In the coming years, I saw my Grandpa gradually fade away – though for much of it, too much of it, I was away at college. Whenever I visited him in the group home where he stayed, there were occasional glimpses of the man I had known but they became fewer and further between. It was even harder for me to see him not recognize my father, his own son, than it was to see when he didn’t remember me.
Then he went downhill fast. The last time I saw my Grandpa, I gripped his hand tight, prayed and thanked God for him, and choked out the words “I love you” through tears. (I never have been as stoic as my father or my grandfather.) Shortly thereafter, he was gone, 90 years young. At the funeral visitation I saw people I knew and met others I hadn’t known, nearly all of whom could tell remarkable stories exemplifying my Grandpa’s character.
It’s an unfortunate truism that you don’t realize how special and important someone is until they are gone. And this has always been true of my Grandpa to me. We had an indescribable kinship. But I only appreciate him more and more as time goes on and I experience more of life.
He comes to my mind now and again. I wonder what he would think of the world we live in now that is so different from the one he knew, yet so much is the same. I think how much he would have loved to meet my wife and daughter, what spirited good fun we all would have. It seems sentimental, almost foolish, to say this now so many years after I bid him farewell. But I miss my Grandpa.
I miss him mostly because I am so grateful for the positive legacy he left behind, one that overwhelms me with respect and gratitude. But I miss the times fishing, watching baseball, and eating popcorn, too.
Dedicated to Raymond E. DeGrow (1907-1998)