My grandfather passed away today. He’s struggled with Alzheimers for the last 5+ years and seemed to go downhill rapidly after my grandmother died 3 years ago. Earlier this summer my family made the difficult decision to place him in a retirement home. I can’t help feeling that his death is a blessing in some ways, but I’m mourning the amazing man I grew up with: a schoolteacher and a football coach, a World War II veteran, a generous and gregarious father and grandfather.

Here’s something I wrote about him back in 2006.

When I was a little girl, he and I played school bus, lining up smooth wooden chairs in a double row and placing a doll or stuffed animal in each seat. We took walks through the fields behind the big red barn, my hand in his leathery one, carefully avoiding cow pies, to visit with the horses. We went swimming, and he threw me up in the air so I’d land with a splash and a shriek and sink into the icy-cold lake water.

As I got older, there were stories. They begin in his high school days, how he struggled with shyness and undiagnosed dyslexia under the shadow of Dan, his track-star big brother. He tells of being a young Marine stationed on an island in the Pacific during World War II — how beautiful it was, like Paradise; how he supervised some island women on laundry detail and then how some of the other young soldiers cried to leave them, their first girlfriends; how he wishes he’d written to his dad more after Dan was killed. After the War, he enrolled in teacher’s college on the G.I. Bill and met my grandmother in a music-appreciation class. He jokes about how, even though he’d been engaged to another girl throughout the War, he saw her legs and that was it.

My dad and my uncles talk about playing ball and running track while their father, like his dad before him, coached the teams to championships. They talk about how he threw clipboards in a temper and pushed the boys hard, but always let the second-string play and harped on sportsmanship. They speak with pride, with obvious fondness —as did my high school teachers, many of whom knew my grandfather and taught with him. When I started high school, I was horrifically shy, but he walked me through the cool, silent halls one summer day and showed me where all my classrooms would be. On the first day, when the teachers took attendance, they spotted my last name and looked up with interest. “Emanuel? Are you related to Jack?” When I nodded, they grinned. “Which of the boys is your dad?” Wherever we went — football games, dinner, Disney World — we always ran into people who knew Papaw. And he’d always stop to talk to them. I get my chattiness and my love of the water from him. When he retired as a coach, he took up swimming. He went to the local Y almost every day for 20 years.

He still loves to talk, to tell stories. But now his stories are fractured, interrupted by my grandmother’s exasperated, “Jack, you just said that!” He can remember the War with perfect clarity; three minutes ago is what he loses, so he repeats himself frequently. He still loves to swim, but he’ll disappear for hours and then return to my worried grandmother, unable to recall where he spent the afternoon. When he runs into old cronies while getting his morning coffee, he can’t always remember who they are.

Now, when I tell him I’ll see him in two weeks at the beach, he brightens. “Am I going to the beach?” Yes, in a few weeks. “Did anybody tell me? Did I know that?” Yes, I think so. “You’re coming too?” Yes. He nods, then announces that he can’t remember anything anymore. I say it’s okay; he might not remember we’re coming, but when we show up it’ll be a good surprise, right?

This will be different from the dozens of other beach trips we’ve had over the years. I worry that it will be the last vacation I’ll ever take with my grandfather.

I know he won’t remember it afterwards. I’ll make sure that I will.

And I do. I remember playing Canasta with my grandmother, who schooled us all, and walking on the beach with Papaw. He talked about my dad, how he was a good kid who never gave them any trouble, and said that having kids was the best thing he ever did. And then he promptly joked about how his dog was the best of them all.


Me, with my grandparents, Christmas 2006


The blog may be quiet this week while I’m in Pennsylvania with my family.

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