what I've learned about family
Monday, February 24, 2014
I don't think I've shared this on the blog yet, but my sweet, sweet grandfather passed away a few weeks ago. It wasn't sudden. He had been ill for a few years, mostly because he spent the last sixty plus years of his life smoking and drinking nothing but coffee and Coke. He had to take his oxygen tank everywhere and walking was a bit of a job for him. But it was a stroke that finally pulled the last ounce of energy from his body and, in the stillness of a quiet February morning, he slowly took his last breath with his only daughter and youngest son - my aunt Christy and my daddy - by his side.
What a guy he was, my Grandpa Pete. I wish you could have known him. From the outside, his life didn't look like much, I suppose. He lived in an old mobile home in Wedowee, Alabama for as long as I can remember and he was a mechanic for many years. But he was incredibly smart and innovative, constantly reading and learning. He once invented a machine that would gather rain water and disperse it to the tomato plants growing in his backyard. He restored an old John Deere tractor from the 1930s to its original glory, just for fun. He loved karaoke. There were probably a thousand cassette tapes and CDs in his home.
My favorite memory of Grandpa Pete is probably from my junior year of high school, when my dad took me to his house so I could interview him for a World History project. The assignment was to interview someone who lived through either the Great Depression, World War II (or both), tape the interview, transcribe it, and then write a paper on what we had learned. The tapes and transcripts were then given to our local library to store in the archives. Grandpa Pete - whose real name was John Thomas - was born in 1936 so he was still very young at that time, but he remembered ration cards for butter and sugar, the contagious excitement of D-Day, and listening to FDR's Fireside Chats.
But, still...the best story about my grandfather comes from ten years ago when he was summoned for jury duty. After receiving a small check for his service, my grandfather proceeded to write the district court a letter about how it was an honor to serve his country and to be paid for simply fulfilling a role that many people in this world would love to have was absolutely ridiculous. He sent the check back and the letter along with it. The story was printed in the local paper.
That's just the kind of guy he was. Not perfect. But good. All the way down to his bones.
On Sunday afternoon my family spent the whole day together, celebrating a man who had given us so much. We listened to a tape of him singing an old hymn, and we all blubbered like babies. We scattered his ashes in the mountains of Alabama and shouted "Pete, you were a good ol' boy!" into the breeze as what remained of his life here on earth slowly floated down and settled into the water below. It was a really good day.
There aren't many things I know, really. But what I do know is that our families are a part of us, even if we deny them. Even if we're angry at them. Even if we love them to the moon and back. They are stitched into our skin and if we feel the bones beneath we'll feel the long lines of our father's arms, the wide, round nose of our uncles, our mother's high cheekbones, the birthing hips of our great-great grandmother. We will never be removed from them because they're inside us...and we can't get away from ourselves.
Being a family is hard. The people we love can be difficult to like sometimes. But it's worth the effort to push through the things we struggle with - loud voices, interruptions, stubborn refusals to change - in order to find what's underneath all of that: tenderness, compassion, fierce loyalty, laughter, and love. If we don't make the effort, who will tell our stories when we're gone? Who will remember the way we joked with one another? Who will remember my grandmother's dressing recipe? Who will tell my children's children that they are a chapter in an ongoing tale of grace? Because that's the most important lesson my family has taught me: we might shout at one another...we might gossip just a little too much...and we might get our feelings hurt...but there is grace for all of us. More than enough of it, in fact. And it's what keeps me coming back to this crazy, obnoxious, amazing, fun-loving group of people time and time again.
They are mine. And I am theirs. And I wouldn't have it any other way.