A child really knows so little about his own father, still less about his own grandfather.
But I guess therein lies some of the magic that a grandfather possesses. God has granted to grandfathers the privilege of being Peter Pan, Santa Claus and Indiana Jones all rolled into one. A grandfather’s hands never reach out to strike, but always to hug. A Grandpa never yells at you in anger, but only knows the language of praise. A Grandpa never takes your allowance away, but instead always seems to have a half-dollar wedged in the palm of his hand. Grandpas are never boring either. Every time you see them, they come up with a new adventure to take you on. Hunting for fossils. Searching for mushrooms. Casting for sunfish. Is it any wonder that God created grandpas to be perfect?
Anybody who would prove me wrong had better find a good lawyer, because with my Exhibit A – Grandpa Clarence Graper – the case is pretty much open and shut.
Grandpa, you’re not here to testify so let me speak on your behalf. Grandpa grew up in Rockford, Iowa – a vintage prairie town bordered by a river to the east, a quarry to the west, and endless miles of corn and bean fields north and south. My earliest memories are of Grandpa and the gas station he owned. Gas stations used to be called “service stations” and Grandpa didn’t redefine service – he wrote the book. After returning home from World War II, he took a struggling little business and turned it around overnight. He flourished without advertising gimmicks and silly promotions. He succeeded just by being himself.
But I never really knew the business end of Grandpa’s life. To me, the gas station meant 10-cent bottles of pop in glass bottles from a vending machine with frost on the windows from the Iowa humidity. It meant taking charge of his swivel chair, being Grandpa’s second-in-command, it meant treasure hunts, as Grandpa would deliberately hide quarters in the station for us to find, then act just as surprised when we found them. Grandma must have been forever mending the holes in Grandpa’s pockets. Grandpa’s generosity went beyond nickels and dimes. He gave sacrificially to family and friends. Making service calls past midnight. Making hospital runs. Delivering meals to shut-ins. What might sound like excess in many eulogies was just the way it was for Grandpa. He really cared for others, for no other reason than that it was the way you ought to treat people.
I never knew a man more creative with his hands than Grandpa. They say that when a man dies, a library burns down. That’s true for Clarence. His knowledge of woodworking, gardening, construction, even cooking was immense. His last gift to me was a hand-carved wooden cross made of eight pieces which only fit together a certain way. He needed weeks to whittle it, but only seconds to assemble it much to my amazement. And now that he’s gone I’ve needed to be careful that the pieces stay in place because I would never get them to fit together again. But that’s how it is when someone like Grandpa goes home. He takes so much with him that you’ll never quite get all the pieces together again in the same way.
I’ll miss Grandpa’s cherry pies. His cooked breakfasts in his cast-iron skillet. His chasing Grandma out of the kitchen so that he could do the dishes. I’ll miss our walks down to the river. I’m sure it’s taken at least three gravel trucks over the years to replace all the stones we’ve kicked off the path or skipped into the river. I’ll miss our visits in your shed, time spent with you shucking walnuts or spying birds, or just sitting there doing nothing, saying nothing. Ten to fifteen minutes of complete silence broken all of a sudden by you saying, “Let me show you something,” and pulling a new wonder out of your pockets or off of the shelf.
And that quietness you had, Grandpa. The Bible says, “In quietness and in trust is our strength” and although you were not an outwardly devout man, I have never met a person who modeled the true spirituality of inward contentment and inward serenity like you. You bore hardship with a grace and patience seldom seen today.
Like many a vet from the Great War, I never heard you speak of the horrors you must have witnessed and experienced, sacrificing for a future generation you could not then see. You carried with you all the heartache of having two older brothers die in that war, but all that sorrow you hid away from us. The sighs you must have sighed were private – between you and your Maker. The tears you must have wept were dried off long before we flung ourselves into your lap. But today I know and today I see, and my eyes run with tears as I write, thinking of the honor and faith with which you lived your life. Your words were few because you allowed your character and your actions to speak for you.
Faithful to his country, faithful to his community, faithful to his wife and family, faithful to his God – these are not exaggerations of virtue but a true and sincere description of the man you were, Grandpa. Were you perfect? As a Grandpa – of course, because God made Grandpas that way. As a man – of course not. But I’ll tell you something Grandpa, if I can prove to be half the man that you were, then I will consider myself blessed beyond most men.
I miss you today, Grandpa, this Veterans Day of 2016, though you’ve been gone now for more than 20 years. I’m experiencing just a glimpse of eternity right now, where there is no sense of past or future. I am in this moment with you as fully as ever in the cathedral of my memory.
Save me a piece of cherry pie. And one day soon, we’ll walk by the river again.