It was a hot morning – by 9am it was already 97F. I went to my one of my favorite eating places today – and checked my email. There was a message from my sister that I had been expecting. It said, “Grandpa has finally passed away, I was able to see him and say ‘goodbye’ just shortly before he died.” As I read it, my feelings surprised me: I didn’t feel anything at all. He was 85, had been in a nursing home recently because grandma couldn’t take care of him anymore and had been fading for several years. Fortunately, they were able to celebrate their 65th anniversary together; however he steadily weakened till he finally slipped away.
I went over to my FB page, many of my relatives were posting messages regarding grandpa. I began to think back on my memories of him and the recollections of my father’s stories. Living in Indonesia during the eighties, I remember a picture of my grandparents on my father’s dresser. Grandma, a woman with dark curly hair flecked with grey, big pearled necklace and glasses. Grandpa – a slim man with more-silvered thinning hair, and an asymmetrical smile. This was all I knew for many years, till I visited the USA when I was 7. My father took us to Massachusetts in January; my grandparents had kept the Christmas decorations up so that they could celebrate with us. When I met them, they looked just like the picture on my dad’s dresser. It was a very memorable experience – we had a Christmas party, almost all of my relatives on my father’s side came to visit. The special treat for me was that it snowed, which is something I hadn’t seen living in the tropics. I remember Grandpa shoveling the snow, and me rolling in it.
Growing up on the other side of the world made it difficult to keep in contact, but I always remember getting letters from my grandparents – mostly written by my grandma; sometimes grandpa would write a section himself as well. We saw them every time we would come back to the USA, at least once and sometimes more. When they came to see us in Missouri during 2001 I was 20. It was then I realized that they were getting older; no longer did they look like the photo on my dad’s dresser. I still was able to talk to them on the phone in the following years. Finally, when grandpa had a small stroke in my mid-twenties it hit me – he was not going to live forever. We all know that no-one lives forever, but since I had always had all 4 of my grandparents – it seemed as though this would never change.
I talked to Grandpa on the phone a few times after his stroke; I could tell that he was fading. I should have called them more often than I did, but I was a broke college student with a lot of things on my mind – life got in the way.
As I sat in the café, I began to think of a posting to commemorate him on my FB page. I began to think through the memories of him, and my dad’s stories that he must have told me a hundred times. If I look at Grandpa from an outside perspective, he was a man of his times. He was a child of French Canadian parents, grew up in New England during the depression, joined the military during the War, and when he came home – married my grandmother. He supported a family of five children on a single income. He worked a blue collar job until retirement, never made much money, was married to the same woman his whole life, went to church on Sundays, and took his kids to the lake in the summer. I then thought of him on a personal level – he was a very quiet man. But if I sat with him or drove with him somewhere, he’d begin to talk about things. He was an affectionate man; he’d be out with us in the snow as children, take us out for doughnuts, or go to the zoo with us. He wasn’t an outgoing man, but he was never the stereotypical “grumpy old man” whom everyone has to tolerate. I don’t ever remember him being harsh or bitter.
While I was thinking about this, the sadness swept over me. I was in a restaurant, I didn’t want to be seen crying in public. So I tried to casually reach over to the napkin dispenser – and knocked over my coffee cup which attracted even more attention. Blinking back the tears, I mopped the coffee – and got a napkin to dab my eyes in the most covert way I could. Part of the reason I felt sad was I had lost my first grandparent. But the other reason I felt sad was I realized how much I had not known him. I spent my childhood in Indonesia, then most of my twenties as a broke college student in Minnesota, and the past 2 years as a not-quite-broke teacher in Vietnam. I was never in a place financially or geographically where I could enjoy the grandparent relationship that “normal” people had. It saddened me for losing the man I knew, but also for losing the man that I didn’t know.
I typed a quick memorial message; paid the bill and headed home to sit alone in my room and think. Gramps never did anything that made the newspapers, he worked a boring job his whole life, and he never made much money. He never had it easy: he struggled his whole life. Yet, he stayed with that job to raise a large family. He never seemed bitter, never complained, never threw in the towel, and he always seemed to enjoy his family. He was a responsible, pleasant, positive man and I don’t know if I could have done the same – had I been given in his situation.
I’ll close with the message I finally did manage to post on my social media page:
Grandfather died this week. Born in 1928, high-school education, joined the army in WW2 and was part of the occupation force in Japan, came back, married my grandmother, had five children, worked a blue collar job at Hamilton Standard till retirement, died of Alzheimer’s at age 85 . His life was the archetype of an entire generation, but to his descendants he was also a quiet, responsible, and loving man.