phone rang at six the morning after Thanksgiving. Mama got to the point.
Fred had a heart attack. He’s not expected to live.”
blundered around in my head. Yesterday Grandpa had tended the turkey, said the
prayer at the table.
85, Grandpa still walked two miles every morning, stooping along the way to
pick up aluminum cans. He had been moving slower lately, and of course there
was the prostate cancer. But the doctors had given him at least five years with
that. He’d had heart pains for so long that we’d practically stopped paying
kept up a vigorous social schedule. He was treasurer of his Sunday school
class, had recently completed 50 years as a Mason and still participated in
Grandma’s retired teachers organizations. Grandma’s death a year earlier, after
a decade with Alzheimer’s disease, left Grandpa emotionally and financially
freer than he’d been in years.
bought himself his first new television in 30 years. He rode the bus from
California to Oklahoma, where he and 13 brothers and sisters were raised, where
most of his family still lives. Everywhere Grandpa went he made friends. He’d
been waving at and sharing garden tomatoes with neighbors for years. There
were friends at the senior citizens center where he went every day for lunch,
and there were church friends he’d known for decades. The splitting of his
congregation left Grandpa with two churches. Unwilling to give up either one,
he alternated, sometimes dropping off a batch of homemade cookies – like the
ones he mailed to my college dorm – when he couldn’t be there himself.
I drove in the dark to the hospital, it was hard to believe that Thanksgiving
was yesterday. Only 24 hours ago Grandpa had gotten up early to start the
Grandpa Fred, small of stature and
simple of spirit, was an unusual patriarch. In all his years making ice cream
at the creamery and then as a house painter, he had never chased worldly
success. He valued constancy above ambition, and family above all else.
is a time for both celebrating old family traditions and creating new ones. We
do our best on both counts.
five grown children, and now spouses, grandchildren and in-laws, my parents’
house is cramped at holiday time. The “bird” as Mother calls it, is at least 20
pounds. I make the same cranberry relish and Cherry Delight that used to be
Grandma’s specialties. Alicia fixes mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, and Mama
always rolls the crust for her. Daddy and Grandpa tend the fireplace, David
plays the piano, Sabrina gets out the games.
all growing families we have our share of new customs. My husband Jeff runs the
five miles from his parents’ house to mine. Jeff’s parents eat light and leave
early for another Thanksgiving dinner, managing in a more concentrated and
caloric fashion the same two-congregation balance Grandpa always achieved. Our
two daughters, the first grandchildren, are often noisy and irreverent, always
eager and enthusiastic. Because of them we have added still more traditions – a
walk to the playground and story time. And this year there is more reason for
my baby sister, Sabrina – now with a master’s in math – stood at the sink
peeling carrots, she shook her head. Our mother is terrible with secrets. “I’m
due,” Sabrina said, “In the middle of July.”
I walked into the early morning quiet at the hospital, I wondered if Grandpa
would get to see Sabrina’s baby.
Care was quiet, Grandpa tucked away in the corner room, In bed with all the
paraphernalia medicine could muster, he was awake.
Grandpa, it’s Karen.”
It was the most he could manage with the washcloth in his mouth. Drugs left his
mouth dry and sucking on the damp cloth the only allowable relief.
are you doing, Grandpa?”
His hands, with prominent knuckles and little ridges on the nails, looked just
you in pain?”
A nurse said that despite maximum medicine, he was very uncomfortable. I moved
Grandpa’s cloth every minute so he could get a fresh damp spot. My father, up
much of the night, had gone home to rest. I talked with Grandpa about what a
nice Thanksgiving it was.
a volunteer for the worst job, he had peeled several quarts of tiny boiling
onions. “We’re all counting on you to peel the onions at Christmas.”
thought before asking the next question. “Grandpa, would you like to talk with
waited a second, then motioned for me to remove the washcloth.
I don’t think so.”
left with that reassuring thought. The doctor, however, was anything but. “I’m
surprised he’s still alive.”
was better, and then worse. Worse and then better. If he wanted a shave, we
were encouraged. From calm to crisis the family shifted, visiting as often as
hospital rules would allow. We were grateful that he was with the family
instead of at his home 200 miles away, grateful that the crisis had waited until
flying home I went for one last visit. The nursing staff was snippy because I
had brought my daughter Jessamyn, then 4.
time it really felt like goodbye. I teased him about peeling the onions at
Christmas, but it was hard to get beyond the thought that I might never see him
again. I felt sad, not that he wouldn’t see my daughters grow up, but that they
wouldn’t have the opportunity to better know this man.
talks of Grandpa Fred’s skill at removing splinters with his pocketknife. I
remember him caring for us “big kids” as each successive baby was born. But as
we compared notes, my brothers and sisters and I – and even our father,
Grandpa’s only child – realized none of us could remember him getting angry, or
even speaking sharply. Unless you count the time Alicia ran into the street
was 6:30 in the morning when Daddy called to say Grandpa was gone. After twelve
days in the hospital, Grandpa died on the first anniversary of Grandma’s death.
Suddenly it made sense that he
kept asking the date.
learned only later about Grandpa’s friend Mary Duck. She had called Mama while
Grandpa was in the hospital. “Please tell Fred that I called on Friday,” she
said. “Make sure to tell him it was Friday. I always call him on Friday night.”
they spoke at other times as well. At the funeral, when friends were given the
opportunity to talk, Mary Duck was the first to stand. An elegant woman with a
lush halo of gray hair, hers was the only firm voice that day. “After having
been a very lonely widow for so long, the past year Fred has been my miracle.”
She had been even more elegant on the card she sent Grandpa in the hospital.
is no surprise more magical than being loved,” she wrote. “It is God’s finger on man’s shoulder.”
Fred had a friend like that, and we didn’t even know it.
more thing to be thankful for.
This piece was originally published in the Dallas Morning News 28 years ago. This week’s blogs have been seasonal favorites.