I've been procrastinating on writing this post, because I know no matter what I write, it won't do justice to my Grandpa Herb, who just passed away this weekend. I dedicated my book to him for many reasons, and it made me tear up to know that my birth father, who had been reading a chapter per visit from Driving Sideways for my grandfather, continued to read aloud even when Grandpa slipped into his final coma. They still had a few chapters to go, but I like to think that Grandpa Herb knows how it ends now.
The sole survivor of a plane crash during a training run in WWII, my grandfather was larger than life. He was also a bit eccentric, not one to rigidly adhere to social conventions or even regular family updates. I heard the following story at our get-together in Victoria last month from my Uncle Mike: during his freshman year in college in Arizona, Mike called home before Thanksgiving break to arrange his holiday visit home only to discover that his parents had already sold their house and were moving to Alabama.
(Sidenote: Also in Victoria, I learned that before she was told of my existence, my younger sister Jennifer used to tell her parents she really wanted a sister named Jessica. Preferably an older one. Surprise again! But better than not having a house to return to for Thanksgiving.)
Grandpa loved gardening and history and bad jokes and writing letters. I still have over 100 letters that he sent me over the years, featuring regular updates (in his scribbly, leaning cursive) on his garden, along with the proudly related achievements of family I'd never met. Many times he'd also include some photos of these cousins and aunts and uncles, and I would study these pictures as if there might be a test later: Do these people look like me? Do we have the same sense of humor? What do they know about me? When I was seven, he shipped me an entire set of encyclopedias, and I used to brag to people that I read them all cover-to-cover that same year.
Most of all, he loved my grandmother, who was one of the most generous, compassionate, thoughtful people I've ever met. Right now I'm remembering the story about how she would toss her children's jeans in the dryer to warm them up on sub-zero school mornings when they lived in North Dakota.
The summer after I graduated from high school, Grandpa invited me--by good old-fashioned telegram--to spend the month of August in Alabama caring for my great-aunt Rae so he and my grandmother could take a road trip across the U.S. and Canada to visit their children. I quit my job at a local cheese factory, said good-bye to my friends and the boy I just started dating, and flew to the deep South in the hottest month of the year, becoming more acquainted with loneliness, cankles, roaches, and the rainbow of meds an elderly person could take than I ever dreamed I could be.
I also got to spend some quality time with my grandparents before and after the trip, as well as meet my birth father (not to mention a wonderful brother and sister) for the first time. And now I know more of my fabulous aunts and uncles and cousins, too. All thanks to Grandpa Herb.
I'll stop here for now, because I'm still processing how I feel about this. I'm going to go through those old letters and photographs I've saved and let Grandpa come to life again, just for a little while.