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I am the luckiest person in the world to have had such a strong and wonderful grandfather. His incredibly positive attitude had a tremendous impact on me. He endured unthinkable tragedy during his lifetime, but he always managed to keep everyone laughing and always had a smile on his face. He always told his children that when bad things happen, “Just bend over, pick up the pieces, and keep going.”
Grandpa was born in 1901 in Kentucky, and he lost his father, Caleb, in 1905. Caleb was also a very strong and likable man although he would become difficult when he had a few drinks. One night while out drinking, he managed to anger a group of men, and they ended up stabbing him. On his death bed, Caleb told the family, “If I live, I will take care of it. If I don’t, I want you to forget about it.” He did pass away, and the family did as they were told. These men were never convicted of murder.
Grandpa was never close to his mother. In fact, when she passed away, it was the first time Grandpa’s children knew they had a grandmother. The story is that Grandpa lived with his aunt, uncle, and cousins, but it wasn’t an easy life. When he was about 11 or 12 years old, the family cow got her tail hung in a fence during a lightning storm. His sister-in-law told her son to stay in the house, but she told Grandpa to “go out there and get that cow loose. If you get hurt, I don’t care.” It was at that point that he ran away from home and ended up living with a farmer helping him to raise tobacco. His wages for a year’s worth of work was a suit of clothes. Eventually he ended up working in the steel mills during World War I.
My grandmother, Mary, was very shy and quiet, and she and grandpa had four children – John Jr., Wayne, Jim and Marian (my mother). Grandpa worked in oil fields, and the whole family lived a very simple life. Although he loved to laugh and smile, he was also a bit onery. At one point he was fired from a job for calling his boss a “lying son of a bitch”, and the family says he really was!
Mary suffered terribly from allergies, and each year they would drive up to Michigan in the springtime so she could get some relief. One year, Mary and their two oldest took off for Michigan leaving Grandpa, Marian and Jim behind in Kentucky. Grandpa went on to work, but an hour later he came home and told them to pack up. He borrowed a 1937 Ford Coupe and ended up arriving in Michigan about an hour behind Mary and the boys, much to their surprise. He was so worried about them driving to Michigan alone!
Mary passed away in 1940 after struggling several years with breast cancer. She was at home and died with family all around her. Marian was only five years old, so my grandpa made sure to protect her from seeing what was happening with her mother. “Take her down to the drug store and get her anything she wants.” He handed Jim, John Jr. and Wayne a $5.00 bill which back then was a huge amount of money. He didn’t want her there when the undertaker came to take Mary to the funeral home. His family was always his number one priority. Even though he clearly was struggling terribly with the death of his wife, his first priority was to make sure his family was alright.
Rhoda was grandpa’s second wife. They had two children together and ended up being married for over 50 years. I always knew Rhoda as my grandma since I never knew my biological grandmother. Rhoda was such a sweet and positive lady. In fact, a priest told Grandpa, “J.C., I will never understand how an old devil like you got an angel like that!”
In 1956, John Jr. suddenly became ill. He came down with a terrible headache at work and went home to his wife. Later when he was taken to the hospital, the doctor determined that he had a ruptured brain aneurysm. The neurosurgeon told the family that there was nothing he could do, and it was just a matter of time. He passed away the next day. Grandpa really suffered with this loss of his oldest child. He always said, “It hurts to lose your mother, and it hurts to lose your wife, but the greatest hurt of all is to lose a child.” Even so, Grandpa again was the rock of the family, and his strength kept him going even through this tragedy.
Even after all these terrible events in his life, Grandpa was still able to maintain his sense of humor. He always found a way to make others smile and laugh. According to Marian, he would always get his words mixed up. Sales tax would be “tale sax” and seat belts were “belt seats”. Marian and her cousins would give him a hard time about this, and they would have Grandpa laughing in no time. He never stayed angry. His favorite songs were “You are my Sunshine” and “Precious Memories”, and he would whistle or sing these songs off key….but he was happy and smiling! His favorite foods were soup beans and cornbread, and he loved to fish, go to horse races, have picnics, watch and listen to baseball games, and tell jokes. Although he liked to fish, he was afraid of boats and water. He had a chance to go to Argentina for a job in the oil fields, but he didn’t go because he would have had to ride on a ship.
Marian attended Nazareth College in Kentucky, and at one of the campus concerts which were very formal affairs, Grandpa’s sense of humor reared its head again. While walking into the concert, a student handed a program to him. He looked straight at her and said, “I can’t read.” My mom was so embarrassed! Of course he could read! He walked into the auditorium laughing and smiling, yet again.
Grandpa chewed tobacco for most of his life, and I vividly remember him sitting in his favorite armchair with an old red Folger’s coffee can next to him. He would sit and spit into this can while telling us old stories and smiling. Many times, he would ask his grandchildren if we “wanted a chew”. Of course, he was kidding as my parents would have had a fit if we did that, but he would always ask us and laugh about it.
Grandpa also used to love to tease my dad. Every time we went to visit Grandma and Grandpa, my dad would forget some item of clothing – belt, shoes, socks, and the like. One time, my dad forgot his sport coat, and grandpa let him borrow one of his. My dad didn’t get away with it without a smart remark from Grandpa. He said “I hope you don’t ever forget your pants. Son, in this state, they’ll put you in jail if you come down here without your pants!”
My biggest memory of my grandpa was his storytelling. One of his favorites was about his father-in-law. While working in the oil fields, Dan (Grandpa’s father-in-law) flew up to Winchester, Kentucky in an open cockpit airplane. He chewed tobacco and would spit through the cracks in the floor of the plane. Suddenly the plane hit a downdraft, and the spit came back up and hit him squarely in the face! I can still see it today – Grandpa sitting at the end of the dining room table and laughing while telling this story!
One of my cousins recently shared a story with me about a visit with Grandpa. They were talking about how smart their dogs were, and Grandpa insisted that his dog was smarter. My cousin said “Maybe, but I can tell my dog to go to the pasture and get cow #32 and bring it back to the barn, and he would do as told.” Grandpa chuckled, said a few choice words, and then got up and went home.
Even though he loved to laugh and smile, things still bothered him. One day, he and Jim were riding in the car, and he suddenly blurted out “That son-of-a-bitch said he got it all.” Jim replied, “What are you talking about?” Grandpa said, “That damn doctor said he got all your mother’s cancer.” Even after 45 years, she was still on his mind!
In the late 1980’s, Grandpa had the first of several strokes. After the second stroke, he was confined to a hospital bed in his home, and Rhoda cared for him. I went to visit him, and it hurt me to see this vibrant man in such a condition. He called me over to the side of his bed, pointed to a picture on the wall of him and Rhoda and said, “You see that picture?” I said “Yes”, and he replied “You know I had to marry her. I was her last chance.” I looked at him and a huge smile came across his face. We both started laughing, and that sadness quickly left me as I knew Grandpa was still happy even in his weakness. Rhoda went walking by, and she saw he was up to something. She said “What’s he saying?” I told her, and she just waved him off saying, “Aww, you know how he is.” She walked away smiling. Even though he was very sick, he still was able to make us all laugh and smile.
Eventually, Grandpa had to be moved to a nursing home.
The last time I saw Grandpa had the most impact on me. It was a visit with him that I will never forget. I was told before this visit that he may not know who I was. I walked in, and Rhoda introduced me as Marian’s daughter. Grandpa looked intently at me, but there was no reaction. I knew he didn’t know who I was, however he never took his eyes off me. I talked to him, and he looked like he was just trying so hard to figure out who I was. I was so sad, but I never let him see those emotions because I wanted this to be a good visit with him. I just knew this would probably be the last time I would see him. When it was time to go, I said goodbye, and a flash came over his face, like a light bulb just turned on. Rhoda saw this reaction, and she said, “This is Maria, Marian’s daughter. Do you remember her?” He smiled and gave me little nod to indicate that he knew who I was. That was the last time I saw him. I will never forget that the last memory of him and his precious smile.
Even though grandpa had some deep valleys in his life, he was always able to keep a positive outlook. My memories of him were always accompanied by a smile on his face. He constantly looked for ways to laugh and joke around. I was so amazed at his strength and his ability to smile even under the bleakest of circumstances. He has taught me so many lessons, but the most important is that we have the choice of how we respond to the events in our life. Even in the darkest valleys, we can choose to respond with a laugh and a smile.