My grandpa passed away last week. It was sudden and unexpected and still hard for me to believe. He was 95. Last week I volunteered to put together something to be read at the funeral. For me, writing is a way of processing, but it was too hard for me to put anything down on paper because then it made it all feel too real.
I started off this process by trying to combine what my brother and cousin had written for some family rememberances that could be read at the funeral last Thursday. To make one cohesive piece of writing that could be read aloud by someone who wasn’t one of us. Someone who wouldn’t breakdown sobbing after reading a few words. I soon found it was too hard to condense 95 years worth of memories and do them justice. To do him justice. To say everything he meant to us, without him here to hear.
He’s the reason I make my own yogurt every Sunday afternoon. The reason I love tabouleh. The reason I really enjoy a regimented, three course breakfast, although almost never have the time, since I’m not retired.
Most of the memories I have of my grandpa revolve around food. Actually, after looking through a couple of photo albums with my grandma a couple of days ago, I realized all of my best memories involve food.
So here are some snippets of what I wrote about him, followed by step-by-step instructions of how he taught me to make yogurt. I’ll admit the recipe is very easy, and I omitted gelatin, which he always added.
My grandpa was born on February 5, 1920 (although I have heard many different stories throughout the years about his actual birthdate, some involving a courthouse burning down, losing all of the town’s records) in Granite Falls, Minnesota. His dad was a highway engineer and he traveled around, living wherever there was work to be done and roads to be built.
One summer when I was 12 or 13, we took a day trip, and in classic grandpa fashion, a shortcut landed us on a whole new adventure. We wandered around a cheese factory in Nelson, Wisconsin, were kicked out because he led us into the “sterile zone” and then, since he wouldn’t let that deter us, we enjoyed ice cream cones along the Mississippi River. He gave a full tour of the cheese factory to grandma and me, as well as several other tourists before we were kicked out. He could turn any mishap into an adventure. It was then that I heard stories about his childhood in Wabasha, Minnesota and saw first hand, a town his father had built roads in, which was just on the other side of the river from Nelson. He had a lot of good memories growing up along the river, watching the steamboats, swimming and fishing. “I used to look out at the bright lights of Nelson, and wonder what was happening there,” he said to me. I remember thinking, even then, “bright lights… in Wisconsin?!” And from then on
, the vast difference between 1932 and 2002 was made clearer in my mind and imagination, through his stories alone.
He met my grandma in 1939 when he was working in Rochester and answered an ad her mother posted renting a room in their house. Around this time, he often hitchhiked back and forth between Hokah and Rochester to see grandma. Although her mother was glad when he would be too busy to come visit, she soon realized it was better when he was around because grandma would be too grumpy when he was gone.
On December 7, 1941, he heard the news about Pearl Harbor and asked grandma to marry him, calling her up at work and saying, “let’s get married, I’m going into the navy.” Cue romantic music here—she said yes and, against her mother’s wishes, they got married on December 31 of that year. Grandma says her mom thought that they should have waited longer, but 4 kids, 5 grandchildren, 4 great-grandchildren and 73 years later, I beg to differ.
He was in the US Navy and served in the Pacific in WWII. Life wasn’t always easy, but when he came back, he worked as a Professional Engineer and Land Surveyor. I’m sure most of us who have ridden with him anywhere can remember him saying, “I built that water tower,” or “I remember when this road was built.” Although I was born long after he retired, I always knew of how critical he was to the success of many towns throughout Minnesota. He really wanted one of his grandkids to be an engineer, but that didn’t happen.
He fixed my grandma breakfast every day. I would stay with them every summer, and I remember as the years went on, how the process seemed to take longer and longer. First, he would make coffee, pour milk into a pitcher, and heat it for 30 seconds. He’d set the table with a plate, a bowl of fruit on top (or melon or grapefruit, cut in half and sectioned off), yogurt, toast, jam. Then the oatmeal or cereal would come. Then a glass of water. Sometimes it wouldn’t end until 10 or 10:30.
I stayed with my grandma last week and tried to keep her routine going, but it just wasn’t the same.
He once tried to teach me to golf, but insisted that I kept “whapping it.” Unfortunately I didn’t have his patience for the game, but he never kept score when we played together. I never did figure out what “whapping it” was, but I assume it’s not good.
Luckily we shared many other things in common. A few years ago I had time off work and went to visit over Easter weekend. He taught me how to make yogurt and let me steal some recipes from his Turkish cookbook.
I never thought of him as getting older, and maybe I took it for granted that I would always have him. In my mind he will always be the spry 80 year old who once took me to Mall of America, for some reason we went alone, riding the Paul Bunyan log ride with me, insisting I wear my rain coat so I didn’t get too wet. He will live in my memory as the man who would ride his bike alongside mine, on trails and in life. He is always with me, believing in me and encouraging me.