Sunday, October 09, 2005

COLUMN: Grandpa

Note: This column got SERIOUSLY chopped in the papers this week. It's completely MY fault, as I turned it in roughly 250 words OVER my cut-off size. Sometimes when I do that, it's a slow news week and they run the column bigger. This time, not so much. I have separate copy editors for the Leader as well as the Dispatch/Argus, so the column ran considerably differently in each paper. Here's how the whole thing SHOULD have read, in a perfect world where people just hand me as much newspaper space as I want every week(grin).

One of my favorite songs in the world is by a little-known British pop group called The Bluetones. The chorus of the song goes, "There's no heart you can't melt with a certain little smile, and no challenge should be faced without a little charm and a lot of style." It's a credo that I try and live by -- though sometimes things happen that make that mantra all but impossible to follow. Or so I thought.

Two weeks ago, my grandpa died.

He was a good guy -- a simple man of simple means whose immense pride in his 35 years on the line at the Admiral (Maytag) plant in Galesburg was only overshadowed by his love for his two daughters and the families they raised. Retirement had been good to my gramps, and gave him plenty of time to take care of his lawn, play a tune on the old organ, and hang out on the porch swing in hopes of catching a wave from the engineers and conductors aboard the trains that passed just across the street. (One of the trainmen who always made sure to wave back? My dad.) He was a fairly gruff old guy, but if you managed to tickle his sense of humor, the smile you'd get back would light up the whole world.

As sad as I felt when I called home and got the news, I felt even worse for my mom. After losing my grandma a few years back, my mom spent time daily with my grandpa, filling the roles of daughter, friend, and caretaker simultaneously. His health had been declining lately, but no one (including his doctors) expected him to go so quickly. We had all lost a cherished family member... but my mother had lost a dad, a best friend, and a daily lunch date all at once.

The week of the funeral was the sort of somber chaos that you'd expect. My already stressed-out mother had to deal with the arrival of the extended family, many of whom stayed at my folks' place. My mom, the eternal giver, when put in pressure situations ALWAYS rises to the occasion, but often at her own expense. She was as gracious a host as ever, but I was concerned that she wasn't taking enough time to calm down, breathe, and work through her OWN grief.

My grandpa was a simple guy, and as such, requested a simple service - a quick prayer at the funeral home followed by a quick service at the graveside. The pastor at our church is a great guy, but he barely knows any of us. I can't even call it "our" church without a flash of shame - the only times I've been through its doors have usually involved either funerals or weddings. Before we left, our pastor got together with my mom to ensure he had the names right. My grandfather's clan were Fishels; my grandmother's were Coopers. With that, we adjourned to the cemetery.

At the graveside service, my mother was seated in the front row and wanted me beside her, which I gladly did. The rest of the family and friends gathered around. The service was nice, but perfunctory. At one point, the pastor eulogized my grandfather as "the most even-tempered man" he'd encountered. At this point, my cousin leaned into my ear and asked me if we were at the right funeral. My grandpa was a lot of great things, but "even-tempered" sure wasn't one of them. Well, maybe his temper WAS even - evenly GRUFF. I let it slide; like I said, he barely knew the guy.

As the pastor proceeded, my mind wandered a bit, soaking it all in and remembering all the things I loved about my grandfather. Suddenly, I burst back to reality:

"...and we can rest in the knowledge that, right now, he's being embraced by the Fishel family and by the Connor family."

Wait -- what? Did he just say CONNOR family? My grandma's family name is COOPER, not Connor. Wow, that was a really bad flub. And that's when it happened. When yours truly, at the front row of a somber funeral, did the unthinkable: I giggled.

It wasn't a loud giggle, but a giggle nonetheless. I quickly tried to compose myself and pretend that it didn't happen. But I was too late. Suddenly, I felt the shoulders next to mine heave. Oh no. I had become the world's worst son. I had the unmitigated gall to giggle at my grandfather's funeral. And my mom had heard it. And I had made my mom cry.

I leaned over to try and comfort her, to try and whisper an apology through her heaving sobs. But as I looked at her, realization hit. My mom wasn't sobbing; she was LAUGHING. She was sure trying to look like she was sobbing, but the Connor flub had hit home for both of us, and she was CRACKING UP. That was all it took; suddenly MY giggles were back, too.

It was the 'Chuckles the Clown' episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show come to life. For the rest of the ENTIRE SERVICE, my mom and I sat, heads buried in our hands, laughing uncontrollably to the point of exhaustion. The more I thought about it, the funnier it became.

I envisioned my grandfather at the pearly gates, suddenly being embraced by a family of complete Connor strangers. My "even-tempered" grandpa would undoubtedly be going, "Who are you sons-of-&$&@*es? Get the #&$@ away from me!" I couldn't stop laughing. Every time I'd get it together, my mom would lose it again. Every time she'd calm down, I'd start up again. Composure was NOT an option; if God Himself had hopped down seeking atonement, I would have still been cracking up all the way to Purgatory.

Thankfully, most of the family assumed that the two of us were more grief-stricken than funny-bone stricken. My dad knew what was up, and wasn't too amused, but my mom and I didn't care. My grandpa used to say that the last thing he ever wanted was a bunch of people gussed up and crying over his body. He got his wish. And knowing my grandpa, he would've cracked up over the Connor thing, too.

More than anything, though, our little politically incorrect foray allowed my mom to de-stress considerably. By the time we were back in the car, she was no longer the hypertense Family Rock - she was my mom again, full of life and fun and the sense of humor that she so luckily passed on to me. Our shared embarassment made for the greatest mother-son bonding moment we've had in eons.

Like I said, my grandpa was a good guy, and this was the best way I could possibly imagine to say goodbye. We should all be so lucky to go out the same way. I love you, Mom. And Gramps, may you rest in peace and laughter, with a little charm and a lot of style.


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Kathy said...

I read with joy this column when it first appeared in the paper. I read it again today. I'm the worst when it comes to giggling at funerals. My parents died 13 months apart, both only 64 years old. My family was terribly upset as you can well imagine. My darling nephew, JP, cut the tension at both. He was 7ish, at Dad's, he thoughtfully asked what a "Fun Real" is and why did all the cars have flags with it on it? We still call them that, even after 10 years. At Mom's, he was facsinated with the idea of taking flowers to save from the spray on top of the casket. My cousin had tried to take a flower and found that there was more than one on the stem. She was embarassed when the spray started to fall apart. JP, in the car afterwards, very proudly asked "How many did you get? I got 3!"
You have a gift and I look forward to reading your column weekly!