Remembrance is a column dedicated to those who have left us.
When my mom asked me and my siblings if any of us wanted to speak at my grandpa’s funeral I knew I wanted to.
I didn’t feel like I had gotten a lot of time with any of my other grandparents, and Grandpa Verne was that special grandparent relationship for me. But I had no idea what I wanted to say, and as I started to examine my thoughts about him and his life, I stumbled across this line from a Wendell Berry poem that resonated: “Suppose we did our work like the snow quietly, quietly. Leaving nothing out.” That was my grandpa —quietly, constantly doing his life’s work, and leaving nothing out. He wasn’t the most gregarious, or the most selfless or the most anything, but he was consistent and present, and that legacy left me reflecting on all the little memories and moments I had with him that touched me quietly and gently, but with so much meaning.
I don’t have a lot of strong memories of my grandpa as a young child. I grew up in Oregon and he and my grandma lived in Wyoming — usually only visiting once or twice a year — but what I do remember is sharp. Along with my other grandpa, he helped build the house I grew up in, and during that time, lived in our town for almost a year. From that era, I remember his silly stories (that didn’t always make sense to me as a kid, but I laughed anyway), I remember playing games with him, especially cards, and learning that he had a very competitive streak.
My first very strong memory of him is when he taught me how to fish when I was only nine. Along with my mom and siblings, I’d taken my first trip to Wyoming to visit, and while we were there, my grandpa took us out fishing. I remember the patience it took, and being proudly horrified when we actually caught a fish. I was disgusted by the fish and a little scared — it was floppy and slimy and I was afraid of dropping it. So when we posed for the picture, grandpa looped the fish gill on his finger and let me rest my hand on top of his so it looked like I was holding it up, too. No fuss, no pressure, no teasing. I still remember his quiet ability to help support me every time I look at that picture.
When I was 16, his wife, my grandma, passed away suddenly and quickly, and it was heartbreaking for the whole family, but especially for my grandpa. She was his life partner, and life without her was a struggle for him. But that shift also began the close relationship that I was able to develop with him as an adult. This taught me something else: Even the darkest circumstances of our lives have bright elements. Initially,I started spending time with Grandpa Verne on my mom’s visits to Medford to see my grandma during her last months. We went to help out while my aunts and my mom were spending time with grandma and working to get grandpa settled for the future. Because they were busy, I spent a lot of time with just him then: I went to church with him, got ice cream with him, listened to him talk about grandma, and even cry about his fear and sadness. It was a scary time, but it was also when I started to really have a connection with him, partially because I was feeling scared and sad, too.
After my grandma passed, Grandpa Verene moved to Oak Harbor, a city just a couple hours outside Seattle, and he started coming to visit my family pretty frequently. He came down for my high school graduation and we played hooky together on my last day of school by going to an amusement park for the day. I got to bowl with grandpa and lose miserably; he really was that good at bowling. (Although, I think I remember mom beating him once or twice; she is her father’s daughter.) When I moved into my college dorms up in Seattle, my grandpa was there to meet my roommates, help me get settled in, and treat us to pizza after a long day of moving.
Many of the memories I have with Grandpa Verne happened during the many drives home for Thanksgiving every year when I was in college. We’d drive sometimes eight hours or more, trying to get home to Oregon in holiday traffic. Often, we’d talk about bowling, tennis or grandpa’s ROMEO group — that is, Retired Older Men Eating Out. My grandpa loved going out to eat, and he loved to take our family out when he was in town. We talked a lot about my grandma, and his sadness that she was gone first. I always told him I was happy he was around because we wouldn’t have had the relationship we had, and I know he agreed.
One Thanksgiving when I was a sophomore in college I took a psychology class called Lifespan Development. Over Thanksgiving break that year I was given the homework assignment to interview a person over 70 about their life. At first I panicked, but then I realized I got to spend Thanksgiving with my grandpa. So on Thanksgiving evening I sat with Verne for four hours and interviewed him about his life, from his childhood memories all the way up to the present time. It was an incredible experience that I wish I’d had the chance to go through with all of my grandparents. It was one of the moments I had with him that will remain with me forever, and it really taught me what a strong and incredible person he was.
At first, instead of writing something new today, I wanted to read that paper, so everyone could hear how interesting and cool he was. But, I discovered I lost the draft during many computer changes over the years. I hunted for that paper everywhere for a few days after he died, but eventually realized it didn’t matter. I have so many beautiful memories with him, and stories about him that I don’t need to read that paper to convey who he was. Instead, I can share all my memories and moments and impart what he taught me, and continues to teach to me even after he’s gone.
There are three main lessons I learned from my relationship with Grandpa Verne, and the first is vulnerability. I struggled with whether or not to use the word vulnerable or humble here, and I think both could be used, but I’m choosing to focus on the vulnerable part. He wasn’t afraid to be honest, maybe too honest sometimes, but he was honest about his thoughts, his feelings, and his emotions. My grandpa cried in front of me numerous times, and he talked openly about his sadness and anger at life situations. He even discussed his anger with God, despite his incredibly strong Christian faith. When we talked about his past he revealed that he wasn’t scared to join the Navy in World War Two because, according to him, he was “too young and dumb to be scared.”
When he talked about his daughter Nancy’s death as a child, he talked about his sadness, his struggles to deal with the pain and anguish of grief, and how he was a mess while my grandma held the family together. When he talked about the hardships in his life, he somehow made all the people around him out to be this brilliant strong lights that kept him going when he didn’t think he could make it. But when I look at the whole of his life, I see such a brave and sweet vulnerability in my grandpa; a vulnerability that allowed him to feel his emotions and verbalize them when he needed too, and to respect and accept the help of his community around him. The older I get, the more I recognize how scary that can be, and I strive to achieve the vulnerability with others that my grandpa revealed to me.
The second lesson I learned from my grandpa was faithfulness. Most of those who knew him later in life knew that Verne wasn’t always thrilled to live as long as he did. He definitely wanted to die before my grandma, and when he was still healthy and living years after her death he’d grump and grouch and complain that he didn’t want to be here anymore. Sure, it was hard sometimes to hear him talk like that, but the fact was that he remained. He found activities, and even if he was mad at God, he trusted him. He continued to try, he showed up to big events, he spent holidays with family, and he found hobbies to keep him interested in life. He was faithful to live out the life he was given to the very end. He didn’t always want to be here, but he didn’t give up, and in the grand scheme of some of the grief he experienced, I wouldn’t have blamed him for checking out.
But instead he continued to be faithful to his friends, his family, his church and his faith. Even up to his last hours, the Tuesday before his death when he was in and out of consciousness and in a lot of pain he was bragging to the nurses about how athletic he used to be, and tried many times to get up and walk. He was faithful until the very end. When I think back on the years my grandpa’s life encompassed I can only imagine that living as long as he did and experiencing so much change must have been incredibly difficult. I hope one day I can remain as faithful to the work, people and life that I’ve been given, and when life becomes difficult I’ll cherish the example my grandpa left for me.
The third and final lesson I learned from my grandpa is when to make time for ice cream. This is a joke, but anyone who knew him knows it’s also entirely true. Grandpa Verne always knew when it was time to have ice cream. From his stories about his college putting in a soft serve ice cream machine, to his discovery of Wendy’s Frosty’s when he was helping us build our house, my grandpa took such joy in a sweet ice cream treat, and it may sound silly but I really loved that about him. To this day, I tell people I inherited my love of ice cream from my grandpa. I have fun memories of being a little kid and hanging out while they were building our house, hearing Grandpa Verne tell my Grandpa Bill that “he heard a Frosty calling his name.” We all knew that meant it was ice cream time.
The many trips home for Thanksgiving always required a stop for milkshakes, a ritual that’s so well-known my old college roommate told me she hoped I’d have a milkshake in his name when she heard he passed away. My final memory of having ice cream with grandpa was when my mom and I drove up to Whidbey Island on his actual ninetieth birthday and took him out for ice cream. He genuinely loved and appreciated that. Every time I eat ice cream for the rest of my life I will probably think about him and his simple enjoyment of that treat and it will make me smile.
When I said goodbye to grandpa it was two days before he finally passed away. I cried when I said that final goodbye. As I was talking to my mom I told her that I felt really glad for him that he finally got to go, and that he would be at peace, but it was also a really odd and unbearable thought to think about his presence being gone from the world. As I wrote this I struggled with how to balance those feelings: To celebrate for his rest, and to grieve for our loss of him.
In acknowledgement of those two extremes, I found another beautiful poem by Wendell Berry that felt right to end with. This is the final poem from a set of three titled Three Elegiac Poems written by Wendell Berry about the death of his grandfather.
He goes free of the earth
The sun of his last day sets
clear in the sweetness of his liberty.
The earth recovers from his dying,
the hallow of his life remaining
in all his death leaves.
Radiances know him. Grown lighter
than breath, he is set free
in our remembering. Grown brighter
than vision, he goes dark
into the life of the hill
that holds his peace.
He’s hidden among all that is,
and cannot be lost.
Rest In Peace: Verne Arthur Robinson.
March 23, 1924 — July 25, 2019.