Right before Thanksgiving, I spent a couple days sitting in a hospital, watching my grandfather leave earth. I wasn’t particularly close to this side of my family so my memories of him are few, but distinct. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, pastors, and children rotated through his room. We talked, cried, hugged, laughed, and reflected. My grandmother told us that when he proposed to her, she told him she needed time to think about this decision. She decided that after 66 years together, it had turned out okay.
This part of my family is stoic but very kind. My grandfather spent most of his life doing manual labor – he loved to farm. When farming didn’t pay the bills, he worked other jobs on top of managing the farm. He’d been a milkman, transit employee, and worked as a foreman for NASA’s fuel program. He turned 18 at the end of World War II and as an agricultural worker was needed more at home than abroad. His farm kept him out of the Korean War as well. My dad shared these memories as we drove to the hospital. He was immensely proud of his father — an extremely hard worker with four kids to raise but still found ways to enjoy his life. His gardens have been described as cleaner and more beautiful than most houses. My grandfather made his achievements by working hard and with patience. My dad said that whatever he did, it was done carefully, thoroughly. He gained the trust and confidence for whomever he worked. He attended all my dad’s high school football and baseball games. He helped my dad finance his education by selling livestock.
To me he was sort of intimidating – always sailing by on a big tractor, up before dawn working outside. Into his eighties he still retained significant physical strength. He had a low, rumbling voice, that resonated in every fold of his vocal chords. A country man, his vernacular floated through his drawl. I loved listening to him pray – it was always a short prayer full of thanks. With his accent it seemed much longer. He was not one to command attention and yet the throng of cousins immediately stood stock still once it was time to pray before meals. He loved to eat. My grandmother spent their marriage trying to keep him healthy, but he wasn’t much for salad.
He loved the land where he lived. He knew all the families and their geography. I loved listening to him give directions – he added so much color to what he described. He wasn’t giving directions so much as he was giving an oral history.
His life was a well earned one. He survived farm life, gasoline burns on his legs as a child, heavy manual labor, burying a daughter much too early, and drastically improved the quality of life his children had over his. My aunt looked around his hospital room and said, “this is quite a legacy.” He wasn’t awake, but we all spoke to him, held his hand, and he would sort of nod his head. My grandmother sat with her hand on his head, leaning her cheek down to his, just being with him.
For every action there is an equal or greater reaction.
My great uncle gave me a two minute sermon in the hospital hallway. “Hate is like a boomerang. We wind it up and it just keeps coming back to us. Love is choosing to grab it out of the air and bury it. We stop it from beating us up and hurting those around us. Love chooses to break the cycle. Love is brave.” My grandparents made a lot of hard, brave decisions. They chose to stop many of the things that divide families. They chose to be generous even when it cost them. They always sent us (and many others) home with a cooler full of meat, canned vegetables, preserves, hulled nuts in an old coffee can.
My grandmother selected 1 Thessalonians 4:11 in honor of my grandfather, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands…so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” Often when I think of ambition, it is for huge causes and world changing ideas. This idea of ambition as a sober, gentle life seems just as challenging – choosing to focus on the things that matter rather than be consumed by what matters to everyone else.