Saturday, January 14, 2012

Grandpa Emil

Several years back, I wrote a piece about my late paternal grandfather, Grandpa Martin, to help a friend deal with the loss of his own grandfather. I may have posted it here, I'm not sure. Anyway, writing it helped me come to terms with Grandpa Martin's death, something I hadn't really done fully, even though it had been a few years. I was seventeen when Grandpa Martin died, and your world's a smaller, more selfish place when you're seventeen. It wasn't until I was able to fully appreciate the man he was that I was able to fully mourn him, if that makes any sense.

Well, now I'm thirty, and my other grandfather, Grandpa Emil, died this morning. And I don't have to wait this time to be mature enough to understand how much I'll miss him.

The one thing that will tell you everything about Grandpa Emil was that his middle name was Joe. Not Joseph, just Joe. I guess his parents could only afford the short version of the name. They were a poor family, even before the Great Depression (Grandpa Emil was born in 1922), and afterwards, they became dirt poor. Unlike many other Oklahomans, though, they never left the state; they stayed there and toughed it out. Being only on the edge of the Dust Bowl helped, certainly. But anyway, the great wilderness of the American Midwest is where he grew up, and in many ways, it's where he spent his entire life.

Grandpa Emil was the epitome of the Great Outdoorsman. As a boy, he helped his older brothers hunt game, often performing the all-important task of reaching into a possum burrow to see if it was occupied. That was one of many great stories he had to tell, and would at many opportunities. (The afternoon he and a friend ate their way through a neighbor's entire pea patch, plant by plant, was another). As an adult, after the war, he went to school on the GI bill, and then worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, overseeing a dam and some state land near Kanopolis, Kansas. This was the perfect job for him, essentially an excuse to hunt, fish, and hang out with hunters and fishermen every day of his adult life. He picked up a permanent suntan then, one he had for my entire life, and probably beyond.

He never lost that love for the outdoors. My grandparents' garage in northeast Arkansas when I was a kid had two things in it that no one else I knew had: a boat and a golf cart. These were Grandpa's main sources of pleasure in his retirement (except for the time my mom crashed the golf cart). When my brother and I would visit (and we did every summer, albeit separately, to save their sanity), you can bet we'd go and do one or both of them. I took to fishing better than to golf, barely. Outdoorsmanship takes patience, something I've never had in abundance, and it must have been trying for him, but he never showed it. And I liked spending time with him all the same.

And he did all the things grandfathers do: took me to movies (always "the show"), bought me toys I didn't need, even taught me gin rummy one afternoon. He loved the silly things I loved, or at least pretended to, would listen to me go on about whatever new thing I was obsessed with, and seemed to live to see me smile. I know his eyes always lit up when he saw me, right to when I saw him for the last time, this past Christmas. He loved Christmas; I think he might have been more excited that time of year then we kids were.

He was a joyous man. He loved a joke or a funny story, and, as I've said, had plenty to tell. Around the dinner table, he'd often pass me a quick look and seem to wink, as if we were sharing a joke. He would comically mispronounce words, or just make some up (like "arriven", as in "we have arriven"). He also had a trick with his hearing aid, where if he didn't really feel like tuning in to the conversation, he'd reach up real quick and turn it down a bit at a time. I imagine this made living with Grandma easier at times. To say nothing of watching televised sports.

I think that maybe, after he got back from the war, he'd seen so much human misery, he wanted to spend as much time being joyful as possible. I know he never talked about the war, except for a handful of stories about Basic Training and one of his classics: The story of Christmas dinner, 1944, which he ate while sitting watch in a ditch on a farm somewhere in Belgium. I suppose it would be impossible to find the place now, but a part of me would like to go there and see it, to walk in his steps for a bit.

It's been difficult, these past few years, watching him get smaller and frailer. He was so big, and so strong, when I was a boy. He was never meant to live his life in an easy chair, or a bed. He would have hated that kind of confinement, and he'll be spared that, at least. But I'm going to miss him. He was my grandpa; he taught me joy and patience and what a wonderful world we live in, and I'm going to miss him. Goodbye, Grandpa. And thank you.

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