Seven years ago today my maternal grandfather died. I doubt that anyone who reads this knew him, but today he deserves a eulogy.
Because my father wasn't around, he took it as his job--one shared with my uncles and the men in my neighborhood--to be a father figure to me. He taught me how to be a man. He taught me the value of dignity. He taught me how to hammer and how to fix a toilet. He taught me what was important. He taught me about dignity and the value of work, any kind of work. "It all pays the same," he always said. Of course, it doesn't all pay the same, but that wasn't quite what he meant. He made his living as a furnace installer and repairman and finally as furnace salesman. He was just a laborer, I guess, but I don't think I've ever known a man who, through his work, impacted and earned the respect of so many people. I was always proud to be known as his grandson. And, in a town like the one I grew up in, people were always identified by their familial connections.
He helped to teach me the value of curiosity. He was a voracious and promiscuous reader. He watched television next to his encyclopedia so that he could look up anything he didn't know about.
He never got to go to college--his greatest unfulfilled desire was to be a meteorologist--and he was amazingly proud of me, since I was the first of his grandchildren to go to college. He used to come to Notre Dame to pick me up for holidays and he would get there four or more hours before I was done with classes just so he could sit on the campus and imbibe the atmosphere.
He taught me about the value of love and family and honor. After he returned to the farm from World War II, he married a woman that his mother didn't approve of. Grandma's family was Protestant, her mother was dead and they didn't have a lot of money; plus, they were not only not German, they were Appalachians.
His response to her disapproval: "I just spent four years fighting for freedom and I'll be damned if you'll deny me mine." Still, he was by his mother's side through all of her final illness, sitting by her bedside every lunch hour, even if she was sleeping.
I don't think he could have known what effect his choosing love over approval could have so many years later on his gay grandson. I never told him--although he met my partner and treated him in ways that made me think he must have known that we were more than just roommates--but I don't think it would have mattered. (After his death, I had a dream that I cherish more than any other I've ever had. He was with me again and he said, "I know. It's okay." Just thinking about it makes me cry, today.)
He loved Grandma, all of his children and grandchildren, but he wasn't very showy. You always knew that he loved you. And, I think I had a special place in his heart, almost as a third son.
I've inherited some of his less desirable traits, too. He was a worrier, he got depressed a lot, he had a hard time expressing emotion. That's all in me, too. I'm happy, though, that I got that part of him.
I think about him every day. I always have his pocket knife in my pocket and I think about it everytime I touch it. I wear the college ring that he was so proud that I earned and that he kept in his safety deposit box for me when I was studying in London; and looking at it--even if it is a little gauche--makes me think of him. And I often ask myself what he would think about something I'm doing.
I don't know if he lives on somewhere "out there" but I know that he is alive in my mind and heart. And I only hope that I can have something like that sort of effect on someone in my life.
I love you Grandpa and I miss you everyday. And, tonight, I'll have a Johnnie Walker Red for you.