When my grandfather died last week, I was asked by my grandmother to officiate at his memorial service. It was one of the most singularly difficult things I have ever done in my life… yet, I am so proud that she entrusted this delicate moment to me. Within the service, others contributed their own memories and helped tell the story of my grandfather’s life. Below are the words I shared, as I struggled to memorialize a man who influenced who I am as much as anyone else. Memory Eternal!
Children tend to have their heroes—perhaps boys most of all. My friends idolized Superman or Batman or Spiderman, or maybe some popular musician, or Michael Jordan (ok…… everyone idolized His Airness).
But not me. My hero wielded superpowers that defied comprehension:
He was capable of threading a buzz-bait through impenetrable branches……
He reeled in 25 pound stripers on every second cast……
He could play and sing every bluegrass song that had ever been written and some that hadn’t……
He knew every human being that lived or had ever even traveled within any part of Ozark County……
And rumor had it—through a strange genetic mutation, he actually saw colors the way a fish does and that’s how he always picked the perfect bait.
He was larger than life. And he never failed me.
I stuck to him like a bad penny. If we were not fishing:
We were working on the boat or fishing gear, or
We were getting the fishing report at Udall or wherever down-lake, or
If he had to work in his TV shop, I would be his shadow—and I even remember going on some house calls with him.
I would talk him into bringing me to the hardware store, or the local cafe, or literally anywhere he went.
I have a theory that he started taking naps just to get away from me for a while. That’s ok though. It gave me more time to practice casting in the driveway with a 5 gallon bucket.
When I was 16 or so, I fell through that railroad-tie bridge at Tecumseh park and broke my arm. It was early in our vacation and I was devastated; I’d been dreaming of bass for eleven months, and now I couldn’t bend my elbow or wrist. Eventually I convinced my Grandpa to take me fishing—if I could prove I could still cast safely and efficiently; with only one eye, Grandpa was always wary of stray hooks. So back to the driveway. Within a day I was taking my “test” (cast left—switch hands—reel—repeat).
Over the years, he taught me so much:
to buzz for largemouth, to troll for walleye, to jig for crappie, to jump-fish for white bass, and to cast plugs for stripers. But by golly, it took an act of desperation to get him to use live bait.
He taught me how to make a fire, how to camp, how to use a knife, and how to cook over a fire.
He taught me how to tell stories, and to play bluegrass.
He taught me most of what I know about electricity—but I must not have been a very good student, if you ask my spouse.
He taught me some dirty jokes—including what he called the dirtiest clean joke in the world—or was it the cleanest dirty joke? I do remember the joke even still, but suspect if I told it, I’d never again in my life get another slice of Grandma Dot’s apple pie.
Grandpa taught me to love biscuits and gravy, and beans and cornbread. And he was tickled to no end when I told him as an adult that I finally came around to eating leftover cornbread with milk poured on it. He used to gross me out as a kid by eating that mush; now it’s my own kids making the faces [make face].
Only recently did I realize that he taught me that it was possible to live outside what society seems to demand of everyone. Here was a person who chose to renounce the rat race, to work for himself, to work to live instead of live to work, and to truly live life to the fullest. And by golly he did.
It’s probably from him that I got
my under-appreciated sense of humor
my deep appreciation of nature
and my commitment to honesty. Grandma Dot has shared with me that he was most honest man she ever knew. She’s probably right.
As a youth, Grandpa JR gave me permission to explore the woods. As I think back, it may have been my grandpa more than anyone else that really nurtured curiosity in me. And it wasn’t until much later in life that I came to discover how strong curiosity welled up in him, too.
I remember (as an example) when he discovered eBay. He would buy anything on eBay as long as it was $.99 and came with free shipping. I remember visiting one time and he could’t stop talking about some watch batteries he bought for $.99 with free shipping—and they came all the way from China! He marveled that such a thing could exist in the world; yet it brought him no end of pleasure to know that it somehow—inconceivably!—actually did.
Alongside it all was Dorothy—my Grandma Dot—his “long-suffering spouse.” Every now and again someone would ask him how he stayed married to the same woman for 60 years—to which he would respond that he never allowed her enough money for a bus ticket home. Every time I could come with to the music, he had some joke to offer—and (more often that not) Grandma was the butt of it. But she weathered it all—on account of the deep love they shared, and the joy, and the laughter: there was always laughter. Looking through photographs these last days, there were so many with goofy expressions, or silly hats or outfits, or just all around ridiculousness. One could not take themselves too serious in JR’s presence, nor could one put on airs.
His greatest gift is one that I always envied him for—and I still do. You see, I was an awkward kid—some of you remember that for yourselves!—and it seemed that for my grandpa all that interpersonal stuff was easy. People loved him and responded to him. He inspired loyalty and love among most everyone he ever knew. His friendships have proven to be lifelong. He seemed to have superpowers to the young me.
To the older, perhaps not-wiser but certainly more reflective me, I’ve realized that his gift wasn’t about getting people to like him. He was gifted at showing people that they mattered. Everyone he met was someone who mattered, and somehow he showed that.
Now I don’t care who you are, how old or young, where you are from, what language you speak, or whatever—we all need to feel like we matter. And for more people that we can possibly count, my Grandfather JR demonstrated that they mattered in this world and in his life—however brief their connection. Because they knew they mattered to him, he ended up mattering a great deal to them too.
The last part of John chapter 13 verse 1 reads: “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end” (NRSV). I happened to read that verse again earlier this week and it really struck me—that’s a pretty fitting description of my Grandpa too: Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
In death, we don’t often allow ourselves much grace. We think of things we never said. We think of conflicts that now seem petty. We think of how much they gave to us that we never fully acknowledged or even knew.
But I believe we should give ourselves a bit more grace. I know God does.
I’m reminded of when Jesus raised his best friend Lazarus from the dead in John 11. Even knowing that he is about to raise Lazarus from the dead—that he will see his friend restored to life in just moments—Jesus is still deeply overcome with grief. There is a heaviness in the verse “Jesus wept” that belies its brevity. If Jesus—who will see his friend alive again in mere moments—is overcome with such grief, perhaps we can grant ourselves the same grace—knowing that we may not see our beloved friend for yet some unknown time.
We can also be encouraged by what we read in 1John: that in God, we never lose a relationship of love; 1John 4:7 says “everyone who loves is born of God.” “Not that we loved God,” the writer goes on to explain, “but that he loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Death has taken JR; but, in Jesus, God has overcome death. We have the strongly assuring words of Jesus that He is “the resurrection and the life; and though a man die, yet shall he live,” John 11:26.
As a Christian, I believe that God created humanity with purpose and dignity and love. There have been all sorts of ways over the millennia that we humans have failed to live into God’s desires for us—this book [BIBLE] is full of such stories, and I know I could add some stories of my own.
But more and more I am realizing that being a good Christian is really rooted to being a good human being—being, to put it simply, what God made us to be. If we believe that God made us, then we have to also believe that God wants us to be the best “us” we can be. There’s so much overlap between the Way that Jesus taught and simply being a good human being that I’m less and less convinced there’s much of a gulf between the two.
Grandpa JR was never someone who would club you with his faith. But anyone who knew him—anyone who knew his love of nature, his value for the rest of us humans, his commitment to honesty and truth, and just that abiding devotion to taking care of the people he knew—to know him was to see his faith lived out. And what a debt of gratitude I feel I owe for an example such as him.
There’s a verse at the end of the Gospel of John that reads: “there are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25 NRSV). I feel like we find ourselves similarly confined today.
Just like all the time in the world would not have been enough to prepare us for his passing, there just isn’t enough time to share all the stories of JR’s life. But I know that for my family and my children and beyond—we will be trying. Generations to come will hear of Grandpa JR—his jokes, his fishing exploits, and the love that he taught us to share.
Scripture also says: “Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days you will get it back” (Eccl 11:1). In some ways, this is what we do today: we commit this body back to the dust from which it came. And while we know JR isn’t coming back to us, we know that—in Jesus Christ—we can go to him.
So Grandpa JR, you might as well cast a line out while you wait. There’s a lot of people here looking forward to that fish fry in the sky. There might even be a few coming from far-away California.