Joe was the son of Polish immigrants, born in Chicago, the year America entered WWI. At the age of 3, his mother died. His father could not care for 6 children alone and sent Joe to an orphanage. After two years, his father remarried and Joe returned. The reunited family moved north to a farm in Grand Haven, Michigan.
At the age of 15, Joe’s father died…and his step-mother moved back to Chicago. The kids were forced to quit school and fend for themselves. So he and one brother got a job with a local family, the Thomas’s, who owned a small lumber operation.
Through three years of sweltering summers and frigid Michigan winters, he helped clear 140 acres of timber. 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. (As a teenager!) Payment was room & board, plus $2.00 a week. Next, Joe worked construction, putting up buildings and laying in gravel roads. After living and working with the Thomas’s for years, they became Joe’s new family. At 19, he began dating the boss’s daughter.
Joe and his childhood sweetheart, Ollie, married in 1938 and successfully raised two boys throughout the course of WWII. He owned a bakery route then bought the Thomas family general store. In 1942, he began working for Continental Motors Company (now known as Teledyne) in Muskegon. During the war, Joe worked seven days a week, feverishly churning out engine cylinders for wartime vehicles and aircraft. Meanwhile, Olive managed the store and the children and obtained her real estate license. After the war, they bought a Christmas tree farm and flipped houses, toiling non-stop at these outside endeavors after-hours, on weekends and foregoing vacations.
The Golden Years
After 32 years of dedication at Continental Motors, Joe retired. In 1979, they moved to Florida but returned to Michigan & Minnesota each summer for extensive visits. For decades. I grew up during these Golden Years, as they traveled via motorhome around the country, living the “snowbird” lifestyle; I wanted to be just like them. Funny how life works out.
“Daylight in the Swamps!” I can hear Grandpa cheerily bellowing his wake-up call. Before 60, hard work was the norm. After 60, playing hard became the new normal. Each day brimmed with activity, up at the crack of dawn… go, go, going.
Golf was a given. Grandpa played 9 holes of par-3 golf darn near every day. And up until his 90’s, he WALKED the course. At 96, he won the senior tournament at his retirement community course. In his lifetime, he achieved a whopping 5 holes-in-one. FIVE!
Aside from golf, Grandpa loved fishing, often arising before dawn, out on the water for hours. In their Florida senior community, Grandma & Grandpa swam in the pool by day and played cards with a passion at night. They were shuffleboard champions, square-dancing experts. Their daily calendar overflowed with meetings, classes, tournaments and potlucks.
In professional interviews, when asked who I most admired in life, “My Grandpa” was the answer. It was not a cheeseball reply; it was the truth. He was Superman. Not just to me, but to his entire family and the many others who had the gift of knowing him. His easy-going demeanor was such that everyone loved being around him. Inexplicably, we also hated to disappoint him. A man of few words (Grandma was the social butterfly), he was quick to laugh and rare to reprimand. His presence exuded a warm kindness and reassuring calm. Think… Grandpa in The Princess Bride movie. Born to be a doting grandfather, his positive influence on us all goes beyond words.
In youth, he was a fighter…figuratively and literally. Grandpa fought his way through the Great Depression via the back-breaking labor of a lumberjack, making him tough as nails. Consequently, he boxed for a stint in the Golden Gloves. I imagine he relished the competition aspect, but personality-wise, he was more of a fight-squasher than instigator. Think…Roy Rogers. So when friends went out at night, they asked him to go too… no one would mess with them if Wood Choppin’ Joe was around. Judging from early 1940’s photos, his tree-trunk physique and thousand-yard stare probably quelled many a barroom brawl.
With merely an 8th grade education, my grandfather rose from humble beginnings through hard work, honesty, dependability… and extreme frugality. He wore his favorite red cardigan sweater for probably 40 years; a grey Member’s Only jacket from the 80’s; threadbare, shake-your-head-plaid golf pants circa the Parcheta Dynasty. Success followed, allowing them to spend their Golden Years on family, friends and experiences… not stuff.
Show White & Prince Charming
My grandparents were like Disney characters - perfect in our eyes. They loved each other, like nothing else. Married 67 years, I never heard a raised voice in anger. If Grandma got frustrated, she’d huff and say “Oh, Joe.” Grandpa would emit a gruff “Harumph”. That was the extent of their fight. They never complained. They were always content. Snow White and her unassuming, unruffleable Prince Charming. Bluebirds sang on their shoulders; deer followed them around like pets. Angels on earth.
Perseverance is Key
But life wasn’t always rosy. He lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, more war, hard times and prosperity. 18 Presidents came and went. He suffered through skin cancer, vision problems, diabetes-related foot pain & numbness, a broken hip and unbearable digestion complications. His beloved passed away of a pervasive stomach tumor 12 years ago. And yet he persevered. Maybe with abundant sadness, but with just as much pluck. “By golly.”
When they weren’t out seeing the world, come June, Grandma & Grandpa would venture north to Michigan to get out of the Florida heat. For our family, the anticipation of their arrival date was akin to waiting for Christmas or the last day of school. That monstrous motorhome pulling in our driveway transformed us perfectly proper kids into screaming sirens. “They’re here! They’re here!”
After resting at our house for a couple weeks, they’d move two hours away to a favorite campground in Grand Haven where they could reconnect with local long-time friends and relatives. Our frequent visits there involved a flurry of activity… swimming in Lake Michigan, fishing and boating in the local bayous, walking the boardwalk to the lighthouse, attending the Coast Guard Festival, and viewing Grand Haven’s renowned musical fountain light show. After a busy day, we’d sit around the campfire, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows and playing cards for hours. In addition, we always arranged a camping trip together each summer somewhere else in Northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula. These extended summertime visits, along with Christmas road-trips to Florida every few years, created idyllic childhood memories.
My recollections are scrapbook snippets. I wish I could remember stories and one-liners… it’s more like a movie screen flipping from one scene to the next:
- Playing cards for hours at our dining room table. Euchre, Continental Rum, Hand & Foot. Grandpa and I were partners more often than not. Extremely competitive, he’d correct my strategy in his easygoing, slightly Yooper accent, but never once got flustered if I made a mistake.
- Trips to the pool at their Florida house. Their 55 and older subdivision required an adult escort for all visitors under age 35. It became a running family joke… “I’m 35 now, Grandpa… a real adult! Old enough to go to the pool by myself!”
- Swimming. Always swimming. Pools, lakes, ocean. Grandma in her white swim cap adorned with plastic flowers performing her side stroke; Grandpa floating effortlessly, eyes closed, brown body soaking up the sun. I swear he could simultaneously sleep and swim.
- Wading in the Atlantic Ocean, scouring the sand for cool shells. My seashell-hoarding syndrome was Grandma’s fault.
- Riding in the overhead compartment of their motor home while Grandpa drove. Performing acrobatics on the internal roll bar in the back seat of the Suburban. Before seat belt laws.
- Receiving postcards as they traveled, gifts of a straw doll from the Bahamas, a sombrero from Mexico. Their travel bug became my own.
- Fruit-picking excursions: blueberries in Grand Haven, strawberries in Fowlerville and cherries in Ludington.
- Camping all over Michigan: favorites were Burt Lake, Gogebic, Porcupine Mountain & Ludington.
- Grandpa teaching me how to golf… in vain. I did NOT acquire THAT trait. “Straighten your arm.” “Swing through.” I tried to wear sandals once; he refused to allow such an appalling faux pas. “You can’t wear sandals golfing!”
- We played our last golf game together at age 97. Though he could no longer achieve his normal distance, that ball still flew straight as an arrow. After that summer, failing balance and diminished strength robbed him of his favorite pastime.
- After a hospital stint in his 90’s, I flew out for a quick visit. He wasn’t too happy about it. He could take care of himself and didn’t need anyone making sure he was OK. Anyway, I spanked him at 2-player Hand and Foot one afternoon, gaining three joker books in the 1st round, a rare, high-scoring occurrence. Then I won the 2nd round resulting in a complete and utter massacre. Supremely annoyed at my colossal score, he refused to continue. But I begged and he relented. Ordinarily, our card-playing competitiveness dictates ‘no quarter’. But for some reason that day, seeing him so disheartened flipped a switch. I could have gone out that final round and won by a landslide. But I let him win. And I never let on.
The Battle for Independence
Fiercely stubborn, Grandpa lived on his own in Florida until just a couple years ago, hell bent on not giving up his independence. It was an excruciating process, coming to the conclusion that he needed help. (I told my dad to remember this battle of wills when I’m the one who has to convince him.) Fortunately, an apartment opened up at an assisted living facility in Muskegon, Michigan. Right next door to his brother…who also happened to be his best friend. What a blessing. With inside help and family nearby, everyone felt better.
Feb. 2017 – The Big 100
In February, we celebrated his 100th birthday. A joyous occasion with family flying in from all over. He initially protested, not wanting to cause a fuss on his behalf; but when the time came, he was all smiles. What a joy to see him so happy, surrounded by friends and family, honoring this accomplishment, this wonderful life. My Uncle asked Grandpa how he managed to live so long. What is the secret? Without missing a beat, he bluntly stated: ”Hard work.”
At my next visit in August, Grandpa had just moved to the adjacent nursing home the week prior, independence totally eliminated. He probably should have done it months ago, but no one could tell that man what to do. He eeked out an autonomous life for as long as he could bear.
Now, afraid of falling, the cane he clung to for support has been grudgingly exchanged for a sturdier wheeled-walker. He is interrupted by orderlies every couple hours. Too fatigued to fix his own food and too many pills to track, others now monitor his food, his medicines, his every move.
Sitting in his lounge chair, Grandpa’s bald head droops forward onto a skeletal chest. Exhaustion ebbs from his gaunt visage. It takes an enormous amount of effort just to stand. His body has been failing for the last year. An unfixable ulcer. Everything that goes in comes out, uncontrolled. Who wants to operate on a 100 year old man? The truth is…no one. “You don’t know what it’s like”, he grumbles to my mom and I one day. I have no answer.
My grandfather does not complain. Not from work, not from pain, not from heartache. Pessimism is a side of him I had never before seen. Now, this very proud man has been reduced to requiring nurses clean his fluid malfunctions. It clearly makes him uncomfortable. Physically, of course… but most of all, I think, mentally. He is self-conscious. Indignity is worse than pain.
Frustrated with his failing strength and debilitating digestion, gloom pervades the room. “All I do is move from the chair to the couch to the bathroom and back again. This isn’t a life.” Certainly not HIS kind of life.
In our conversation, it’s evident he can see the finish line. “Ah, but I have no regrets.” He answers himself matter-of-factly, briefly regaining that essence of perseverance so deeply ingrained. No Grandpa, you should have no regrets.
A week later…
Brian and I, my brother and his wife drive over for a visit. We convince him to play cards… Hand and Foot. Since we were little, playing cards when Grandpa & Grandma were around was a daily activity. And we LOVED it. So to be able to do this with him was a miracle. After thousands of hours over the years, he could play this game in his sleep…and today he practically did. He was merely going through the motions, by rote memory, speaking very little. But he & Andy still won. After an hour, he was exhausted. I fear this will be the last time. But I shake it off. Each time I left him I’d wondered that… and yet he persevered.
After his nap, we just sat and visited. “Remember Grandpa, how we used to go camping at Ludington State Park? And Burt Lake?” He chuckles, eyes brightening. “Oh yeah, all those trips were great! Oh, the fish we caught!” We talked about the first house he built as a young man, digging the basement himself… with a shovel…using re-purposed cement blocks for walls... hand-scraping plaster off every one. How his wicked step-mother made him sleep out in the barn when her grandchildren visited for the summer. He recalled his daily childhood chore of tending their 5 cows, swimming and lazing on the banks of the Grand River while they grazed. He talked about working as a foreman 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, churning out engine cylinders… without CAD programs. I thought about recording our impromptu interview; but I couldn’t make myself do it. Somehow, it felt an invasion of privacy. I told myself, “Maybe next time…”.
A week later, the dreaded word pops up: Hospice. My Uncle prepares for a visit, so we all plan on coming over on Sunday, Sept 10th.
Sept 3rd. My parents drive over to visit for the day. He wants to go to Pizza Hut, a good sign.
Sept 4th. He weakens drastically, everything snowballs downhill. His brother urges him to sign hospice papers, but he initially refuses. Not until his two sons arrive. He finally relents.
Sept 5th. My mom & dad return; my Uncle & Aunt arrive early from out-of-state.
That same day, it’s two days into our impromptu 22nd anniversary camping trip. We’re at Algonac State Park, steps away from the St. Clair River which adjoins Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair before emptying into Lake Erie. People visit this park primarily to watch the freighters. Campsites are just a road width away from the water where dozens of freighters march down this narrow superhighway daily. Campers sit outside in lawn chairs facing the river, waiting for the behemoths; everyone has a camera.
Facing the river, we can sit on our bunks and watch them pass by through our front windshield. Each time we’d see movement out of our periphery we’d look up to stare. The parade is mesmerizing.
Mom calls after a hectic day. Hospice has taken over but Grandpa is content now that both his sons had arrived. Too weak to walk, he is bed-ridden. Mom asked the nurse her gut feeling. 1-2 days. No one was prepared for that blunt answer. My brother and I agree to leave early tomorrow to drive across the state. But I can’t sleep. I’m up playing Canasta on my tablet ‘til midnight. I keep losing.
A Freighter Farewell
Sometime after midnight, I hear a low, steady rumble and look up. Outside the small confines of our van, a near full moon shines on windowpane water. The red bow light of a large freighter enters my view through the windshield. I close my tablet and watch, like every other time these past two days. But something about this one was special.
A hulking shadow appears, ghosting down the channel, slow and steady. Its string of pinprick lights glide through the darkness, hovering single file far above the moonlit velvet roiling beneath. After a mesmerizing moment, the aft superstructure emerges into view like an illuminated goliath. An angelic crown of yellow halogen lights pierces down into the dark void.
As I watch the great ship pass, it seems a living, breathing entity. The personification of everything my Grandfather was: A weathered ship run by hard work and perseverance. A vessel of constant kinetic energy. A silent nomad, imparting smiles at each port. A tower of strength. A dependable engine. A no-nonsense, steely exterior. A container of treasured cargo, his heart of gold. An angel in disguise.
And as tears flowed uncontrollably down my cheek, I whispered to myself...
“There he goes…”
Resolute. Unwavering. Persevering.
Moving along an arrow-straight path. On course to a new port.
To be with Grandma once again.
One hour later, my grandfather passed away.
Grandpa persevered just long enough to see his two sons together again, a blessing. While we were a day too late, my last visit was as it should be: playing cards with my brother and talking about the good old days.
Writing this post took forever, heartbreaking every time I started in again. But it was something I felt inordinately compelled to do...my own paper eulogy to honor his memory, since I could not bear to speak them aloud at his memorial.
And my final farewell via freighter? No poetic license taken…I truly did say those words and felt his subtle presence in that moment saying goodbye. Active imagination? Maybe. Don’t care. It is something I’ll never forget.
Thanks for stopping by on your way home, Grandpa.