22 years ago yesterday, my grandfather, William Emmons, passed away. I remember it so clearly, it’s hard to believe it’s possible that it could have been so long.
I was 14 years old at the time, and it was the summer after 8th grade. I had just visited him a couple of days before. He was in home hospice care, lying in a hospital bed where the dining room table had been during all those Christmases we spent in his house with our many cousins. He’d had several strokes in his later years, and the most recent and severe of these had paralyzed his right side. As I had waited to be picked up so I could go see him, I dealt with my teen angst by listening to Nirvana on a cassette tape I had made, and recording my thoughts in the space left empty on the back side. I had managed to pull my head out of wherever it was, though, when it was my turn to sit by his bedside. I made jokes as I nervously held his hand, doing my best impression of his doctor, who was from India and had a heavy accent. Grandpa couldn’t speak, but a smile creased the left corner of his mouth as I carried on with my impersonation, and his hand made a wide arc from where it lay beside him up and over as he touched the tip of his nose. I didn’t know what it meant.
“On the nose.” My aunt Sharon said with a big smile. “He’s saying you got it on the nose.”
It was a huge gesture for a man suffering so, who could barely communicate. It made me happy. I didn’t know it at the time, but that visit would be the last time I ever saw him.
I really wish I had known him better. I spent 8 years of my childhood in Connecticut, my family only making the 5-hour drive to Binghamton, New York — where my grandparents lived — once or twice a year. Later, when we moved back to New York, age and infirmity had already taken a toll on his mental state and mood. He had a tendency by then to be a bit grumpy, and since I saw him with the mind of a child, I didn’t understand the reason why. Instead, I tended to just avoid him, thinking it was the best way to steer clear of unnecessary trouble. Unfortunately, this is why I also didn’t understand or appreciate him for who he was.
He served as as a Seargent in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. As I recall the story, he had wanted to fly, but problems with his vision lead to him instead taking care of the vehicles on base. I don’t know if this is where he fell in love with doing mechanical work or if he was already well-suited to the task, but I never saw him do any other kind as long as I knew him.
He had a strong mechanical aptitude that lent itself to many things, and particularly when it came to cars, it wasn’t just a job to him. He had a love affair with the automobile that was surpassed only by that for his family and his faith. He always had a car or two at the house that he was in the process of fixing up so he could sell. Later in life, when his vision had all but completely failed him, he could sit and listen to the engines of passing cars, and more often than not tell you the make and model.
In fact, he met my grandmother in part because of a car. It was after the war, and he was working at a gas station in West Virginia. She drove in one day in a Ford Model T — already a classic at the time — and it was hard not to notice.
“Well, will you look at that!” he exclaimed.
“The car? Or the girl?” his co-worker asked.
“You can keep the car. I’m talking about the girl.” he responded. (I can just see the grin on his face in my mind.)
It wasn’t long before the two of them were an item. My grandmother was a Methodist, however, and my grandfather a Catholic. There came a point where he knew he had to lay it on the line.
“Nina,” he told her. “This is getting serious between us. But I’m not going to be able to continue unless you’re willing to talk to a priest about coming into the Church.”
As it turned out, she was. She had already been soul-searching, feeling that there was something more out there that she needed to discover about God. I’m awfully glad she felt that way, or I doubt I’d be here writing about anything at all. He was a man of his word.
It was only in his final year, as I started to grow ever-so-slightly in maturity, that I began to realize I was losing a man from whom I could learn so much. To my shame, there was a time when, as a frustrated teen, I was having an argument with my parents about the dignity of certain kinds of work. I acted as though I was above working in a gas station like he once did, doing the honest sort of work my grandfather had done that I thought was embarrassingly menial.
What I failed to see was that he was a man full of a goodness and integrity that I couldn’t grasp. He loved the work he did, and he did it well. He also loved the family he did it for. He was also a man who would stop to help any stranded motorist he saw, day or night, rain or shine. He could certainly be strict, but he was also full of joy, ready with a joke or a story or a laugh. He was rarely able talk about his faith without it moving him to tears. He saw the good in people, and he never thought twice about going out of his way to come to the aid of a stranger in need. He married an amazing woman, raised eight children, and had 34 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren and counting (and that’s just my rough estimate).
The thing really woke me up — and has stuck with me ever since — happened in the days leading up to his funeral. That June in 1992 when God finally called him home, I stood with my mother and aunts and uncles at the wake. Never before and never since have I seen lines like that, with so many people coming to pay their respects to a man who held no public office, had no claim to fame, and seemed, from the outside, to have lived the sort of life that would not necessarily be noticed by the world. My eyes were opened that day. It’s something I’ve thought about often since.
“Who will come to my funeral? Will they come out of a sense of obligation, or out of love? Will there be so many whose lives I made better like he did?”
I still don’t have satisfactory answers to these questions. I have such a long way to go. As I approach forty years of age, I now see the terrible deception I was under as that proud, stubborn teen. It’s not the work you do that gives you dignity or status, it’s the man you are. And at this point in my life, I’d give anything to be half the man he was. I’ve spent a long time learning lessons I bet he could have taught me if I’d had the sense back then to ask him. To sit down and just listen. And I’m still not even close to done yet. Maybe that’s why, for years after he died, I would have dreams that he would come home, as if he’d merely gone on vacation for a while. And for those moments, until I’d wake up, there was a sense that something broken had been made whole.
Life has never felt quite right without him.
Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine
R. et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Requiescant in pace. R. Amen.