October 14, 2014 by Julia
My grandfather, my dad’s dad, passed away on Sunday at 85 years old. His death was expected, after several days of struggle, and years of declining mental and physical health. Grandpa’s legacy is long: five kids, fifteen grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren to date. I look at the photo of my children on my desk and I realize, with a sense of awe, that they would not be here, I would not be here, my siblings and my dad wouldn’t be here, if it weren’t for Grandpa fathering all of us.
The churning wheel of life and death is sometimes quiet in its turning, and then all at once it puts on a dazzling display of beauty and depth of sadness. When Dennis and I found out I was pregnant with Fiona after a year of infertility, we rejoiced with members of my mom’s side of our family. Just a week or two later, my mom’s dad, my grandma’s husband of nearly sixty years, passed away. But his first great-grandchild had been conceived, the first of the fourth generation, and although Fiona was only a tiny bean inside my womb, he and she existed in this world at the same time. My sister Lisa’s recent wedding affirmed family, life, and joy two weeks ago. Our grandpa’s memorial service this week will also also affirm family, life, and joy – from a different angle, but no less beautiful.
There will be tears and a sense of loss, signs of a life well lived. And the net of family and friends and church who gathered around Grandpa in these last years will serve as a testament that even as he began to get lost in his mind, he did not get lost in the world. I personally deserve no credit for this; the last time I saw him was almost six years ago (he was thrilled to witness some of Fiona’s first steps). So I can only imagine the practical and surely exhausting work that Grandma and my aunts and uncles put into caring for him. But none of them let him slip through the cracks; they tightened up their safety net until it looked more like one of those colorful woven potholders that kids used to make. I am touched by their sacrifice, and am grateful to be born to this family.
As my mom told me over the phone that Grandpa had passed, a memory from my teen years came to mind. It is not a sentimental one, but it made me tear up as I hung up the phone. He and Grandma had visited us from Denver, and somehow he’d found my geometry textbook, which I thought I’d hidden well enough to avoid the anticipated math lesson that he was always eager to give. Grandpa was an engineer of the rocket scientist variety (apparently he contributed to putting a man on the moon? No big deal), while my brain has never naturally worked that way. As a teen, I especially dreaded anything even related to math.
But Grandpa approached me, my textbook in hand, and said in his usual dry, wry way, “Well, look what I found here, Julie…” and being the well-behaved kid that I was, I went along with him to the sliding glass door so we could stand in the natural light that would enable him to make out the problems through his thick glasses. He discussed the diagrams with me, doggedly – although I had nothing to add to the conversation. I remember us standing there, and how it felt like torture, but that scene also inspires such affection in me that it makes me smile now. It was like he couldn’t help himself; he could sniff out the geometry from a mile away. It felt like care for me, too.
Grandpa was also the master of popcorn. He used a real popcorn-maker – none of this microwave stuff – and you better believe there was a difference in taste. It seems that every night when we were staying at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, he made popcorn and we kids loved it. We watched Mary Poppins a lot. I don’t remember much about what else we watched, but I remember the whole family crowding around the popcorn on the couch as we settled in for an evening show.
We also loved when he raced us girls (my sister, my cousin Amanda and I) around in the wheelbarrow in the backyard of their old house in Virginia, a place that has always been a source of storybook wonder in our hearts. It had an attic with old toys and a sleeping area, an apple tree, a forested area we could hide in, a trunk of dress-up clothes, and Grandma’s refined taste lending everything a fascinating sophistication.
And perhaps, my tenderest, fondest memory of Grandpa, is one I might doubt, if it weren’t for the fact that I know this song, and he is the one I remember teaching it to me.
I believe we were sitting on the antique piano bench in the Virginia house when he sang and played “Would You Like to Swing On a Star” for me. In my memory, he was teaching it to only me. Having come from a big family (on both my mother and father’s sides), this was unusual and therefore special.
There are many more good memories, but those moments of individual attention impacted me. It doesn’t take much for a respected grandfather to leave an impression on his young grandchild. I also suspect that many of my favorite qualities in my dad and his side of my family – a quirky, sometimes dark sense of humor, a desire to make sense out of things, a deep love for music – come in part from Grandpa Thurston. When I see that side of the family after a long time, it always hits me once we’ve settled into an evening’s conversation: oh, we all find that deadpan phrase funny! Or, yes, please, let’s all sit around and play instruments or sing or talk music. I forgot that we were cut from the same fabric, and we all get a kick out of this.
So this week, we gather and honor him. I hope to honor him in a small way here. I do feel almost embarrassed to write about him when there are others in our family who will suffer his absence much more greatly than me. But this is my small offering of memory and love, dedicated to Grandpa first, and then my own dear Dad, and then to my elegant, delightful Grandma, and then to my Aunt Diane, Uncle Kevin, Uncle Drew and Uncle Winslow, and then to my cousins, especially the ones who lived closer to him in these later years. I pray for your comfort and peace, and I will see many of you soon. Together we will remember the legacy Grandpa left us, and wish him well on his next journey.
(And to my other family members who lost their mothers this year, my mother-in-law Jackie, and my sister-in-law Destinee, I’m thinking of you both right now, too. Hugs.)