Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Goodbye, Grandpa Ray

Last night, my husband's grandfather died.
It's difficult to explain to someone how this feels. Most people hear "87 years old" and tune out. Perhaps they've never experienced a death in their family, or of anyone close to them. For us, Grandpa Ray's passing will definitely leave a hole in our hearts. The loss of the family patriarch has ramifications that affect the entire family, if only in ways that become apparent sometime in the future.
Grandpa Ray was married to Grandma Marilyn, for longer than anyone reading this has been alive. It is difficult to separate the "himness" from the "herness" when two people have been married for nearly 7 decades. Her recipe for what I call "Rye Bread Thingys" is on an earlier post of mine. It's posted there because we ate them--lots of them. Only at their house, and especially on holidays, which was when we usually visited, and when the incredibly super-nummy food came out of the kitchen. The food that no one checked for "nutritional value" or "fat content" or "whole grain goodness." It was good because it was delicious and it was made with love and served during family gatherings where there was laughter, noise, a dog barking and often a child being scolded by her mother for double-dipping into the Ranch dressing. Grandma Marilyn's Rye Bread Thingys (unfortunately named by me), are my small inheritance from her; my remembrance of her in happier days. They are tradition. Although they are just one little part of who she is they are a tangible legacy for me and my children to pass down to their kids. We spoke of that, my girls and I, just the other day. My oldest has promised to keep them in her (future) family's recipe repertoire as long as she lives.
As much as those little appetizers are part of our memories of the gatherings at Great-Grandpa Ray and Great-Grandma Marilyn's, they are a small part. What else do I remember? Too many people squashed into a house, for starters. G & G had four sons, and they went on to have 2-3 kids each, and those kids went on to have kids in many cases. We all tried to make it to holidays at G & G's house. Consequently, their house was filled with grandchildren and even great-grandchildren who were nearly old enough to have kids of their own. A few years ago, when the gatherings got to be too much for Grandma, we tried to scatter them about to other locations. We soon found out who was the hub of the family wheel. It just didn't seem to be "tradition" if we had to ask around, starting in October, "You wanna do Christmas at your place? Where should we do Thanksgiving?" Someone was always "doing" a holiday at their spouse's family's house, or the new girlfriend's parent's home, or somewhere else. The ease and reliability of a holiday family gathering disappeared when choosing a venue became a weeks-long process in which someone invariably felt left out. While we all managed to make it to Grandpa and Grandma's, that wasn't the case when the location changed. When the foundation of the family gathering crumbled, the tradition itself soon followed. Like a Roman street that couldn't be repaired, our family gatherings during holiday time soon became history. No one did it like Grandma and Grandpa.
My oldest daughter took her time learning how to crawl. Her cousins were crawling around by 5 months, and when my own little punkin' was still sitting on her bottom and fussing to be moved at nearly 9 months, I was getting nervous. On Thanksgiving, at Grandpa Ray's house, wouldn't you know it? She crawled for the first time. Not just a little crawl, either. She crawled all the way across their living room floor, a grand performance, as though she had been practicing in secret for months and was finally ready to debut her newest skill. For me it was a mixture of, "Eeeeee! She's crawling!" mixed with, "Get out of her way! She's finally crawling!", since the house was packed with people. Apparently my baby was just waiting for her audience to be present, with many family members gathered together to ooooh and aaaah over her first-time accomplishment. Now 16 years old, she's gone on to become a performer both on stage and in front of large audiences. Who knew that first time she held court it would be indicative of a future personality trait? One fabulous memory: treasured and stored up safely.
More memories about Grandpa Ray: His chair, and his position in it. His little dog(s); he always had a dauchsund or small terrier that he adored and pampered. His seemingly rough manner, nearly always followed by a face-splitting grin as he watched you realize he was good-naturedly teasing you. His unfailing devotion to his wife, through her spiral downward into dementia. His body failed while his mind remained intact, yet he did all he could to protect and take care of Grandma Marilyn, his bride of 67 years. He and Marilyn raised four sons, all grown and most of them grandfathers themselves now. Grandpa Ray was a man who provided for his family, setting an example for his kids and grandchildren. More memories: stored and locked up safely.
Our last visit to them was a good one. We visited on a very, very hot day, as it often is 6 months out of the year where they live. 100 degrees, my just-turned-6-year-old will tell you. It was miserable outside, but cool inside. Ray opened the door for us, and invited us in with his trademark grin. No Rye Bread Thingys were offered this time around. None were expected. We went with the gut-wrenching realization that this may be our last visit. After a several-month stay in a "Retirement" home that they both hated, G & G were back home, having outside help to cook and clean and drive them to doctor's appointments. I remember feeling grateful they had this time at home. I wanted them both to remember being together, in their own memory-filled surroundings when their time came.
Our latest memories are what we humans seem to remember, even if they are the shortest ones in our decades-long scroll of recollection. I will remember Ray with a beverage in one hand and the TV playing too loudly, while making a corny joke to someone and petting his dog--ever-present and sitting right next to him. I will remember how annoyed he got when his hearing-aid battery squealed. I will treasure other peoples' memories of him and appreciate the stories they tell of his life. Although that may be but a small portion of the man he was, it is what he left for me, his small legacy to me. I will cherish it and pass it along to my own children, for them to pass along to their kids.
Rest In Peace, Raymond O'Brien.
For me and my children, you will always be our beloved "Grandpa Ray".