Requiem

My grandfather died in 2003, and if it were true that time heals all wounds his death is one I should be long recovered from, but I’m not. The missing waxes and wanes, but it is never entirely absent. This month, this year, I have missed him more than at any time since he left us.

We seem to be having quite a conversation about men recently, and perhaps that is part of why I am missing him. He was one of the best men I’ve known. My grandfather was, in many ways, a guy’s guy. I’ve seen photos of the strong young man he once was, and I know there was some turbulence in his youth. I know he had no trouble holding his own, at any time in his life. He was a tough man who spent his life doing physical labor, but he was also a gentle man who wrote poems to his grand-daughter:

Because his father, an immigrant from Germany, died in a construction accident when my grandfather was still a teen-ager, he was not able to pursue a formal education as he would have liked to. Instead, he became a machinist and welder and served our country working in the Bremerton shipyards during the second world war. Later, he owned his own small business, Ott’s Welding and Machine Works. He was a lifelong Republican and a devout Catholic. He was also the person who taught me about the injustices committed upon native people and black Americans. He hated Hitler and the tactics he’d used to gain and keep power. One of his favorite sayings was, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This, during an era of so much protest against actions with which he likely agreed.

He also taught me much about how men should treat girls and women. I remember only one time in which his anger was directed at me. I made a face at the asparagus my grandmother had made for dinner, and both the words and tone of his rebuke were sharp. Later, he apologized for the sharpness and explained what had made him angry. He did not want to see my grandmother’s work disrespected. He adored her and viewed her as his partner in their business and home. They were always a team.

As I became a young adult and developed my own political views, we both became aware that mine were different from his. That never changed our relationship. We knew that despite our different ideas about how to achieve the kind of America we wanted, what we wanted was the same: a country with equal opportunities for everyone, in which who you are matters less than what you do. He taught me that it is important to play by the rules and to play fair. To be honorable and to have integrity. He never suggested, in words or actions, that I mattered less than anyone else because I’m female, or that any person mattered less than another because of their skin color. Those were not his political values, they were his human values, and he imparted them to me.

I know that many of the ideas and beliefs I had for decades about what our country is and how it works were, at best, incomplete.  I know there are things he never saw or knew about what has created and denied opportunities for all of us, but that doesn’t change the goodness he embodied. I miss him, and I miss living in a country where I felt confident that most people wanted those same things for everyone that both he and I wanted for them. Where I believed that our systems were strong enough to protect us from those who did not.

I know that my grief and sadness and feelings of loss for the man my grandfather was are all mixed up with those I have about losing the beliefs I once had about my country. The country he taught me to believe in because he thought it was what I know he was:  decent, fair, just, humane. What I wouldn’t give to be able to talk with him again, and to feel about all of my countrymen what I once felt about and for them. To believe in them–in us–the way I still believe in him and what he stood for.

6 thoughts on “Requiem

    • Rita says:

      I’m sorry you never got to meet your grandfather. Both of mine (and my grandmothers, too) were some of the greatest gifts I’ve been given in this life. I don’t know if anyone can love any more unconditionally than a grandparent.

  1. Kate says:

    Oh Rita, I love this. In part because it makes me think of my own grandpa. Their stories are similar and the way you describe him sounds a lot like how I would describe mine. Last night I sat seething and told Jesse about some of my more grievous paper cuts (to borrow your term) and how I don’t know one woman who doesn’t have stories. To wake up and read about a good man. To remember them instead… I’m grateful for that. I’m glad you had him and I’m glad you shared.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Kate. I was talking about him with a friend last night and she said, “I don’t think they make them like that any more,” but I felt myself pushing back hard against that idea. Sometimes I’ve wondered if I’ve got an overly idealistic view of the kind of man he was, and if that has not served me well, but I do think we still make men such as he. As a mother to a son, I have to believe that.

  2. Marian says:

    I can see why you still miss him, Rita, and imagine he would be very moved by this piece of writing, and by knowing you still hold him so close in your heart. I loved reading this snapshot of your history, and his, and am reminded of the book you blogged about several years ago, one that had to do with either working with your hands or being part of the “working class,” and the dignity and worth that is inherent in all that. (I forget the title, and although I want to say it doesn’t tie directly in with your topic, I wonder if there are still threads that might intertwine on a broad level throughout this particular discussion … i.e., respect and having the sense of doing a job well and having pride in workmanship, all of which can affect us on quite a deep level, and which can then go on to affect how we treat others.)
    I also love the handwritten note and his poem. We may be hyper-connected nowadays (and it’s wonderful that distant grandparents can FaceTime and text), but something wonderful has most definitely been lost.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. Been a week. The book was “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” which I think is a terrible title but which made me think a lot about my grandfather and my dad. The author makes a case that some kinds of hands-on work–the kind my dad and grandpa did–is more creative, intellectually challenging, and meaningful than most of the work done in cubicles. I thought it was a convincing case.

      As for handwritten communication–well, that’s something we can do. We can choose it. It’s one of the things that others can’t take from us. I know it’s harder and not everyone will play, but the possibility is there. I am so glad that I have the few letters from my grandparents that I do. It’s a mixed thing, though. I was just about to say that I wish I had tangible artifacts of communication I’ve had with my daughter since she’s been at college. I don’t. It’s all lost in the ether. But if she had to write on paper and find a stamp and get it in a mailbox, I wouldn’t hear from her nearly as often (if at all), and I’m profoundly grateful for my frequent connection with her. There’s a yin and yang to everything, isn’t there?

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