Today would have been his 90th birthday. And one of my most profound lessons from him is in relation to this birthday he did not reach. One summer a few years back, my mom found the first ever bottle of maple syrup he had made on their farm in upstate New York. I want to say it was from 1967. And he had saved that syrup all these years, for a very special occasion, perhaps a momentous birthday. But he decided upon seeing it to bust it open and make pancakes, because all the special things we keep for “later” you might not get to enjoy at all if you save them forever. It was his last summer. And they were the best pancakes I ever had. Lesson: enjoy what you have while you have it.
He and my grandma raised the kind of children that, when before my wedding I said how sad I was that he wouldn’t be able to dance with me, my uncle wore a pair of grandpa’s old shoes to the wedding so I could still have a dance with him. He taught us so much about love, being good people, working hard and not doubting our abilities. My cousin sweetly stated this morning the things she learned from him and I couldn’t have said it better myself:
“Work hard, love the people around you, waste not want not, make homemade ice cream with those you love, rebuke those you love in love so that they can grow to be a better person, wear shorts even in the middle of winter, and eat strawberry short cake whenever there are fresh berries to pick.”
My grandpa taught me nearly everything I know about carpentry, electrical work, and home improvement. He was a man who would say, “I won’t do it for you, but I’ll show you how” and guide you with gentleness to the solution. He did things the hard way if it was also the best way or the right way. He had a quiet righteousness about him that came out in the way he “grandparented” us cousins. He did not tolerate meanness in any form from anyone. At his funeral someone shared the memory of being on his school bus as a little girl (he was a school bus driver for many years) and kids were teasing her because she had a nosebleed. Grandpa stopped the bus, got out of his seat, and explained to the children that he would not tolerate meanness, as he used is own handkerchief to stanch the bleeding. It was not a problem again.
He and my grandma were both heavily involved in Grange, even as state leadership. They taught us to be community minded. Church and civic organizations are a foundation of family life, if not for what they provide for you than for how you serve others. I didn’t know until after maybe my third sermon that my grandpa had been a lay preacher at their church and had filled in sometimes when the pastor was gone. My mom mentioned it in an offhand way as if it was the most obvious thing about him that of course I already knew (I didn’t). I guess it runs in our blood, I guess that is where my vocation ultimately traces back to. In fact, I have a hard time figuring out what good qualities I have that can’t be traced back to my grandparents. I know my mischievous streak comes from him and my dad’s mother who both had blue eyes that twinkle when they’re up to no good.
He also gives me a lot of insight into DH, although they never met, which is one of my great regrets. Grandpa served in WWII and Korea and he did everything his country asked of him, even when he was called up again with just weeks left on his inactive reserve time. He was a plane mechanic, and actually knew how to fly. He could have, and should have been a warrant officer but the Army kept him where they needed his big strong hands and sharp mind: as a corporal fixing planes. He spent much of the war in India with the planes that flew “over the hump” to resupply (He blew us all out of the water in his 80s at an Indian restaurant when he started chatting with the waiters in their native tongue). This, from the same man who on the way to a Yankees game in 2003 told the conductor it was his first time on a train since his troop transport home from WWII. There are parts of his service he wouldn’t talk about. All his ribbons and medals were found tucked away in a manilla envelope after he passed. “Veteran” was not a big part of his identity, he served because that’s what men did, and then he quietly put it behind him. When DH struggles with serving the needs of the Army, when he is put in roles that massively misuse his particular talents, I see a kindred spirit in his reaction. They serve out of duty and honor, and while they didn’t sign up for the glory, it grinds away at a person not to be allowed to live up to their capacity. I see two remarkable, commendable men who give their all because it is the right thing to do even when it hurts. Things I didn’t understand about my grandpa’s war experience also start to make sense in light of DH’s time with the Army. I am coming to know each of them better through the other. Their servant hearts bless me, and my grandpa’s spirit lives on in my husband with his big strong hands and wise eyes.