A Grandparent, A Speech That Wasn’t

A week and a half ago my grandfather passed away. He was 90. it was fast. This weekend I flew to Florida for the funeral, to Belleview, where there are four Hames generations buried in the cemetery and a street named after us, and relatives in overwhelming number.

Granddad had a church service and full military honors. The 21-gun salute, the folded flag. I had never seen a flag folding ceremony before, the two Navy officers holding gazes as they turned and tucked the fabric of the flag by touch. The grandchildren were pallbearers. Caskets are very heavy.

At the service there was an open moment for family members to speak. I thought about standing up, but didn’t have anything prepared and was afraid, in any case, that I would go to the mic and simply cry. But I wanted someone from our generation to speak, and I think that if the invitation had been held open another moment of two, I might have managed to stand up. Here is what I might have said, if I’d had a little more time to think or a little less hesitation in that moment. It’s raw, and complicated, and perhaps it is best that it lives here and was not spoken then:

it’s a strange road to get to know a grandparent, as a grandchild. You spend a lot of your childhood with these people in your life who are distant monuments to the idea of growing older, whom you love—as you love all of your family, with the blind duty of childhood—but whom you do not understand as people, because they are really much too old.

Then you grown up a little and you realize that it was never that they were that old, but merely that you were that young. You grow up a little more and start to understand your grandparents, like your parents, as complicated human beings with histories, struggles, and triumphs. I am grateful that my grandfather, as with my two passed and one surviving grandmother, have been (are) present in my life as I became (become) an adult. I am grateful that I had the chance to know each of them in turn as more than the caricatures created by childhood. And I regret not knowing each of them better.

Here is what I know about my grandfather. He loved his boat. He loved his wife, and his family. He liked games, and taught me dominoes. He traveled the world, and served in the Navy, and believed in God, and voted Republican. He had a booming voice and a laugh that carried, and a hearing aid that made him lean toward people as they spoke. He played a steadfast counterpart to my Gram’s more fluttering presence. I know that when she died it tore him up. I remember coming back from Australia for her memorial service and being stunned to see him so skinny and sad.

I was my grandfather’s only granddaughter, among six children of my generation. I think that meant he treated me a little differently; that I got different advice and a gentler version of him than my brother and cousins may have had. I know that he loved to have his grandchildren call him. I know because I did try to call him, sometimes, when I was on the road or when given a reminder. I remember talking to him while driving on the highway home in Freeport, maybe three years ago, and he told me that he worried about me and wanted me to find a husband. I was so mad at him. I remember that was one of the first times I moved past being mad at him and tried to share in his perspective. I wish that I had called him more, now. I wish I had come to his birthday party. I wish I had heard more stories from him directly, though I am glad to hear them through our remaining family and explore them through our photographs and books. I wish I had asked him more questions.

You can’t see it now to look at him, because death makes people take on different shapes, but he and I had very similar noses. I used to wonder where I got my ski jump of a nose in a family of more Roman inclinations, until I saw a photo of Granddad from the 40s and realized it was his. That was the first visceral connection I felt to him, as family. That nose hasn’t survived his age and death and preservation, but his ears have. That made me cry more than anything else today, I think, seeing that his ears are still perfectly the right shape.

I’m glad he’s being celebrated today by a family with this much love and history. I wish he were here to celebrate with us; I have more questions to ask him, still.

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