Heroes and history

20 Apr

I’ve written enough and spread it around until I can’t even remember where all it is at.  This is it now, barring the normal articles!

Yesterday was my birthday, but today is my “lucky day.”  That may seem odd to everyone, but even as a  kid, the actual birthday wasn’t such a big deal to me as the day afterwards, that’s when the really good stuff would happen!   From what my mother told me, when I was born on that April evening in Minnesota (Yep, I really was born that far north!) the weather wasn’t all that relevant, but the next day, there was a huge ice storm that coated everything with ice, roads, trees, power lines, everything.  Is that lucky?  Well, I was nice and warm!  I guess few family members could come to see me, but my “papa” (great grandfather) did make the drive, every day, from his hometown in northern Iowa to the distant town with the hospital where I was born.  (I think it was like 40 miles.)

Papa was someone I have to say is and was my hero.  He was unflappable, devoted, caring, intelligent, and very moral.  He never needed revenge, nor held himself above others.  He worked hard, he loved his wife and family, and spoke well of everyone, even when it required him to think hard to find something positive to say.  I’ve read many letters he had written, and knowing the things that were going on, could see where he went around the unmentionable.

It isn’t a case of his life was not without sorrow, grief, and disaster.  He lost a child, a little girl, when she was about two.  She was just younger than my grandmother, the eldest of his children.  He had lost a business already by then too, a drug store he had in Oklahoma.  One afternoon, a tornado came and took away the drug store, along with most of the rest of the town.  Back in those days, there was no FEMA, government aid, and rarely any insurance.  When he lost everything, including his home, he just lost everything.  He was destitute with a wife and an infant daughter, far from his family in Iowa.

Grief struck him again, years later, when he lost his youngest son (his wife’s favorite) in the Air Force.  The plane in which he was a navigator went down in the Gulf of Mexico, not all that many years before I was born.  Norman’s picture, along with his folded flag, were kept in a place of honor on top of the piano for the rest of his parents’ lives.

I think the saddest part was that in his later years, Papa had developed Parkinson’s disease.  As the disease wrapped its cruel fingers around the man he had been, he became progressively more silent, at least with the children that he had once taken so much joy in.  He started to scare me with his silent stare and shaking hands, and I spent less and less time with him as he became more and more frightening to a child who didn’t understand what was happening.  I remember feeling deep sympathy for him as my great grandmother’s tirades about him making a mess became more frequent, and he was forced to wear a bib at the dining room table.  Even as a child, I could see the cruelty in her words and actions, and her underlying anger was even more confusing to me about the situation.

The last time that I saw him, my grandmother “snuck” me into the hospital, and it was really against my will.  I was scared of being caught by nurses and doctors, who were scary enough as it was in their white uniforms.  (Remember those stiff hats and dreadful polyester dresses nurses had to wear?)  Arriving in his room, I had been told he was in a coma, and as I looked at him, my feeling was that he was near death, and that he was heartily tired of all of this.  To a child, he already LOOKED dead, not that I’d ever seen anyone who was before, but I couldn’t feel any life in the room with him, even the huge bouquets of gladiolas were cut flowers.  I remember just wanting to cry, I wanted “my” papa back, not this strange looking person laying on this bed in this weird smelling room where any minute now, a very scary looking nurse was going to appear.

I refused to go to his funeral a few days later, it was all more than I could deal with, and my father’s family (papa’s side) was not very happy with me.  My teachers looked at me a bit oddly, and I remember feeling rather odd and out of place all day at school, but I had insisted that I was not going to go, a rare thing for me to do.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my papa, but rather that I didn’t want to think about how much his being sick had been hurting all along, or that I wouldn’t see him anymore.

Papa’s last few years, he had used the room that had once been dedicated to the television and his books.  I suppose it had originally been a parlor–it was a big house and there were two of those massive rooms with columns  off of the “front room.”  I don’t remember that room ever being used again, and the television remained in the front room.  I suppose the heavy drapes that had closed it off for the years it was Papa’s bedroom were opened once again, but it is funny that I don’t remember at all.

I used to say I didn’t think I had a hero at all, but Papa had to have been my hero.  He survived, he educated himself, and somehow in the few short years he had to influence me, managed to influence me enough that I already knew that life was really all about educating yourself, on a number of topics.  He taught me the importance of refinement and courtesy, and to remember the things that really mattered.  From him, I learned the value of good public speaking, and how much common courtesy and communication can mean.  My great grandmother may have shown me old family heirlooms and taught me about quality antiques, but with Papa, I learned the true value of heirlooms was in the stories that they reminded you of, the lessons they carried along with them, and that those things will live on even if the object is long gone.  It was from Papa that I learned (even if it was slowly over time) that love is unconditional, and there is nothing wrong with continuing to love someone even if they do nothing to deserve love and everything to destroy it.  Love doesn’t mean blind devotion, but rather a calm acceptance of someone, with all of their flaws and quirks and qualities.

Thank you, Papa!

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