My grandpa played a significant role in my life. Growing up, we lived not far from him, so he and Mimi were very involved in my childhood. Most memories hold him in the pictures I have in my mind of my major and minor life moments. I can see him in the audience at my piano recitals and choir concerts, the bleachers at grade school softball games, the living room on Christmas morning. I smell his coffee that he dunked his oatmeal cookies in, and the aroma of the woodchips from his workshop at the green house off of 41st street. I can hear him snoring in the next room when I used to spend the night at my grandparents’ house, his voice egging my brother or Uncle Jerry on during a card game, and his laugh, the loudest one in the theatre, when he went with Mom and I to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding – the first theatre movie he had watched in a dozen or so years. I taste the fresh raspberries he picked from his backyard, and I can feel his whiskers scratching my cheek and his hands showing me how to hold a golf club. I do not have photographs of all of these moments, but they are carved in my mind.
And carving is something Papa loved to do for many years. He showed me how to carve, he even came to my class in gradeschool once to do a lesson on carving. Although I appreciated his craftsmanship, the lessons on carving never really took hold for me. However, there are many other lessons that did.
The first was to not be afraid to tell people what you think, even if they do not agree with you. My grandpa was good at letting you know what he thought. He gave me a few pieces of advice as I grew up. When I was very young, the obvious things like looking both ways before crossing the street and being nice to my younger brother. When I started to drive, he always asked me if I was checking the oil. Every phone conversation I had with him from college until I got married included this question, “Have you checked the oil lately?” When I went away to college, I think he wanted me to find the one. “Spend time in the cafeteria. Go to the football games. The boys are there.” he would tell me. Yet when I left college, single, and moved out west on my own to a Marine base town I heard slightly different advice, “Don’t marry a Marine.” So I followed that advice and married an Air Force man. My last phone conversation with him a week ago was actually Papa giving me advice. It was almost as if he knew he wouldn’t be around much longer, and he wanted to give me his two cents on what to do with the next phase of my life.
Another thing I learned is that you do not have to become a statistic. Papa grew up poor and without having a father around very much. He wasn’t an outstanding student, but he made something with his life. He worked hard and eventually became a fire chief for the city of Moline. He stayed married to one woman for over fifty-seven years. He raised three successful daughters, and has five hard-working grandchildren.
Papa taught me that love can last a lifetime. My grandfather married my grandmother when they were just eighteen years old, and although I was only able to witness the last twenty-eight or so years of their marriage, I am confident that their love was even stronger in 2009 than it was in 1952. The seasons and storms of life did not wear them down as it does so many, but instead renewed their comittment to one another. One of the sweetest things I have ever heard was the many times Papa told me in earshot of Mimi how lucky he was to marry her, and wasn’t she just the prettiest wife ever? One of the best compliments I received from Papa was a note he wrote for my wedding album – “... thank you for being like Mimi. I hope your marriage is as good as ours.”
I have learned by obvserving Papa that people can change. Although I would consider my grandfather a vocal man, I would not consider him an overly demonstrative man. As his health deteriorated, I watched my grandfather become more aware of the importance of telling people how you feel about them. For those who spent time with him in his last years, we have been blessed with a gift. The gift of seeing a slightly different Don. Still stubborn, yet so much softer. A Don who told us often how much he loved us. “Forever and ever” was what he said to us lately. I knew the healthy and active Don loved me – it was evident through his actions – but how precious were the words that finally, easily came out of his mouth as he was less able to show his love through his actions.
The most important lesson I have learned from my grandfather is a lesson on faith. Amidst the excrutiating pain Papa was in, he still clung to his Savior. Due to various circumstances, we were not able to bring my baby boy up to see Papa right away when "C" was born. On the phone one time, Papa told me, “I love C - even though I haven’t seen him. Just like it is with Jesus. Even though I haven’t seen Him, I love Him.” When I was up visiting Mimi and Papa this fall, he had to have help getting out of bed, if he was able to get out of bed at all. On that visit Papa mentioned in conversation, “The Lord has answered all of my prayers but one. No, He has answered. He gave me thirty minutes without pain today.” Very few would be able to remain so strong in their hope during such an ordeal. Yet even with all of this optimism, Papa was ready to go home. “C’s coming, and I’m going.” he told me this fall. Long ago Papa gave his life to Jesus, and though he spent time in his bedridden days worrying about all of us, I know he was not worried to leave this world. He is now in the place where he has no more pain. He has a new body, a body that once again works. And while we are sad for ourselves to be losing such a special man, we rejoice that not only will we see him again, but we will see him again pain-free.
Papa had a t-shirt once or a picture or something that had this slogan, “Woodcarvers never die, they just whiddle away.” I know that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, Papa has eternal life, and lately I can just picture him sitting with Jesus, Master Woodworker, just whiddling away.
Thank you, Papa, for the lessons you taught me both through your words and your actions. I will love you forever and ever