Thursday 5 September 2019

The last of his generation

It’s been an eventful few weeks, but before I wrote about anything else, I wanted to note the passing of my grandfather. A few years ago I wrote a piece commemorating my great-aunt Imy, leaving my grandfather the last of his generation. As much as I will miss him, I’m blessed to be one of the few men in their 40s who had a living grandfather – many of my peers don’t have living parents – and that he stayed with us into his mid-90s and passed quickly, surrounded by a large and loving family.

One of my first memories – I couldn’t have been more than four – was of fishing with my grandfather in a rowboat on a warm summer lake, catching bluegill and throwing them back. Then we were caught in a surprise shower, and I remember watching with alarm the water collecting around our boots, and the view of the distant shore disappearing around us, replaced on all sides by grey sheets of rain. My grandfather calmly rowed us to safety, and we trudged home.  

I remember staying at my grandparents’ house, watching him staying up late reading or laying out blueprints; I remember his voice carrying over the crowd as he played cards with cousins and neighbours; griping at recalcitrant vegetables that he grew in the backyard; taking part in his local library board or Kiwanis; meeting and becoming friends with his neighbours wherever he lived. He was the kind of civic American that Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone, the kind we don't have enough of anymore. 

He grew up during the Great Depression, entered the Army in World War II, trained as a mechanic and repaired airplanes during the war. When the war ended he studied to be an engineer on the GI Bill, met my grandmother, married her and had my father, all in what must have been a whirlwind few years. 

They didn’t start out with much; he used to tell me how their low-rent neighbourhood flooded one summer, and their apartment was knee-deep in water. He had to keep the furniture raised on blocks and store his clothes on upper shelves, he said, and a neighbour with a boat came along every morning and took him to work, but he went to work all the same.

Eventually he founded his own surveying and engineering company, and surveyed the foundations for what would become Busch Stadium and the St. Louis Arch. He and my late grandmother had three more children -- my amazing aunts -- and the family eventually swelled with children and grandchildren.  

I came back to Ireland with a stack of things he left me – his slide rule, his pipe, his book of Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics, his Carl Sandburg biography of Lincoln. And a lot of memories. I couldn’t make it to America for the wake, but apparently hundreds of people came, including people who hadn’t seen him in many decades. He left quite an impression in this world, and his passing is the end of an era.  

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