Tuesday, March 18, 2014

One Wise Cookie

It has been a little over a year since my Grandpa Don passed away, and his birthday would have been this past week. I've never posted what I read at his memorial service, so this feels like a perfect time. 

I wrote this over a matter of a few hours--it's certainly an amalgam of everything I've ever written about Grandpa Don--some of my favorite bits of older pieces. I hope it would ring true to him, too. And I hope he heard me. I think he did. 

Donald Whitney Munson

If I were to write a biography of my grandfather, it would have a one-word opening. Helllllloooooooooooo!!

If I were to write a biography of my grandfather, I would use thick paper with weathered edges. I would tell the stories only a granddaughter could tell; how grandpa always wore a clip-on bow tie at Christmas: two holly leaves with berries in the center. How he told me I had his mother’s hands. How he taught me to parallel park in the Littlefield Lake parking lot, telling me to make sure not to hit the imaginary pink Cadillac with purple polka dots. Grandpa, as we all know, turned every possible moment into a teaching moment, and did so with a firm grace.

I would open the book with a North Chester morning, the quiet rolling over the meadow like fog, the smell of ferns and damp firewood. This is where my Grandfather’s heart has always lived. Even when he’s not there you will find hints of him everywhere.  His black comb, the kind that James Dean and Fonzie used, sits on the dresser in the bedroom, a carved ivory shoehorn hanging on the mirror. His hand-written notes are pinned up in the kitchen as reminders on how best to take care of the house. His gray-brown firewood gloves sit next to the wood stove, shaped like hands are still in them, like Grandpa just took them off and is settling down to a game of cards with the family. 

If I were to write a biography of my grandfather, I would write about family dinners that always ended with blueberry pie and grandpa declaring: “Good Dinner, Ruthie!” I would write about Don’s children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, all of whom are his heart of hearts, because nothing is as important as family. I would write about how Grandpa could make even the youngest member of the family feel important and valued.

I would write about how grandpa would give hugs and then put his hands on your shoulders and squeeze, and when you told him about your trip, your grades in school, your sports, he would nod and say: good, good. And he would smile his proud smile, the one that makes you glow warm inside, makes you want to do even better.

If I were to write a biography of my grandfather, I would never be able to say everything I’d want to say. I would finish and realize that I forgot to include how, despite decades of Grandpa trying to teach me what poison ivy looks like I still can’t identify it. I would realize I forgot to mention Grandpa’s yellow plaid pants, and how he told me after my daughter was born that “we specialize in girls.” And I wouldn’t be able to capture all the moments that he was able to step in and set everything right, be the pillar of strength that I needed. There were so, so many of those.

If I were to write a biography of my grandfather, I would stop. Because I don’t need to write a biography of my grandfather. Look around. His biography is every single one of us. Each one of us is a product of Don’s work: his teaching, his values, his love, his legacy. And I know, if he were here, he would tell us how proud he is. He would put his hands tight on our shoulders, his lips pressed firmly in a proud smile.

As we celebrated the start of 2014, I received a small package from my Grandma Ruth. The note said: a very special gift for Katie. And it was. 

I opened a small plastic box and moved away the tissue to find Grandpa's Christmas holly clip-on bow tie. Holding it in my hands was hard. There's no other way to say that--it was just hard. But it is a very, very special gift and I feel honored to have it, just as I am honored to be Don's granddaughter. Happy Birthday, Grandpa.