My paternal grandfather died on Saturday. He turned 87 at the beginning of this month.
I’m doing my best not to focus on the loss, on the fact that (more than likely) whoever I marry will never have met my wonderful grandfather, and think instead about what time I did have with him. After all, my maternal grandfather died when I was about four years old, and my memories of him are limited to an impression of pale plaid and beige, of the smell of pipe tobacco, and an overall sense of being loved. Which is wonderful, but different from the memories of a man who I knew for almost thirty years.
My grandfather was a living connection to the events of the 20th century. Not just for me – a few years ago he sent me a clipping from his local paper, talking about the travelling portion of the Vietnam Memorial Wall and how Vietnam vets were talking with the junior high kids, helping them to understand the reality of that history. My grandfather was named in the article, and his picture was there too. I have that clipping somewhere. He loved talking about history, whether it was his, our family’s, or the world’s.
He was career military, which is part of why he was in Vietnam when many of the soldiers there were the same age as his son (my dad). He fought in the Korean war, was stationed in Italy and Iran, and met all sorts of interesting people, only some of whom make it into the history books and wikipedia. Just knowing him made me feel connected to the major events of a century I mostly missed, and helped me to understand that even my socially focused history education was sometimes missing important points.
When I was 16, the summer after 10th grade, I was sitting in the kitchen of my grandparent’s house in Alexandria, VA, and my grandfather somewhat haltingly told me that if I loved a man, and he loved and respected me back, then it wouldn’t matter what color or religion that man was. I was kind of surprised, because, with the arrogance of a teenager, I had assumed that my grandparent’s generation was conservative and backwards. He explained that the military had seen interracial/international marriages before they became common in the rest of the US, and that the military community had learned to accept those marriages. Thinking back, I realize that his own marriage, to an Austrian woman in 1947, must have raised some eyebrows. While I had studied the civil rights movement in bits and pieces, no one had ever mentioned Executive Order 9981 in which President Truman implicitly ordered the desegregation of the US Military, or that the military was almost completely integrated by the mid 1950s.
My period of focus is the 18th and sometimes 19th century. I can’t talk to these people, or even their grandchildren. But knowing my grandfather, and listening to his stories about things like the Berlin Airlift or Iran before the revolution, made me realize that you can’t assume you know how other people think , regardless of when or where they live(d).
Grandparents are voices for the past, reminding their grandchildren, the future, what is important, and also telling them how proud they are of what is to come.
Light perpetual shine upon you, GrandRock. Thank you for everything you taught me; I’ll try to remember it