As I sat next to my father in the small chapel, surrounded mostly by family that only gathers now from the far corners of the country for tragedies, I watched my mother and her four siblings take turns to say their parting words for my grandfather, noting their most precious memories of him.
At nineteen, I hadn’t known my grandfather very well. My grandparents lived in Cleveland, and I lived in a small town south of Columbus, Ohio, so the long drives made for fewer visits. When I was in late elementary school, he had already drifted into early Alzheimer’s, and by the time I was fourteen, he had drifted away completely. He no longer knew me—nor my mother—but he knew we were important and was happy to see two kind visitors. Age fourteen was the last time I saw him when he could stand and speak. My mother later told me that he turned to her at one point and complimented me: “Isn’t she leavy?”, meaning to say, “Isn’t she lovely?” By the time I was seventeen, he was nearly a vegetable, concentrating his blue eyes on me as my grandmother spoon fed him, preferring, as he often did, the dessert over the main meal. Sometimes I still wonder what he may have been thinking as he looked me, if I was still “leavy.”
However, the few memories I do have from when I was younger are strong, and when I think of him now, I can still feel his resonating charm, remembering the relaxed stance of his silhouette at the edge of the lake when he came fishing with my mom and brother and me when I was about eight. When I told him I hadn’t had a bite all day, he asked, “No?” and nibbled my right hand.
He was one of few people I’ve known who genuinely enjoyed people. I remember my mom recalling that he used to sit and “people watch” on their vacations, sometimes with binoculars. And he loved children. He came on an elementary school trip once and on the bus, couldn’t stop laughing at Misty Kennedy who had popped up over the edge of the seat in front of him with quarters squeezed in her eyes like little silver monocles.
So at nineteen, I sat in the company of those who mourned him, more with the feeling of him than a long history of memories, the feeling of his charm and good humor.
As the funeral came to its end, we were instructed to turn to the lyrics of “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the back of the program; we were to sing, as it was one of his favorites. The piano player keyed through the first couple of measures of the song, and though a few people began to sing, it seemed the rest of the room was waiting for a cue to begin. Then, various guests began to jump in, looking around, attempting to unify. Within moments, the entire room had finally joined in, but out of the fifty, or so, people present, no two people could find a place together in the music.
The room filled with a strange cacophony of jumbled lyrics and off-key voices, and a few people turned toward each other with knitted brows, pausing, starting again, pausing. I imagined my grandfather in one of the seats among us, in the midst of the absurd disassembly of voices, with his mouth open wide, laughing with his whole body. And I laughed.
Eight years later, I was visiting my parents, and I came across a poem by Bertha Adams Backus, scrawled out on a loose leaf sheet of paper in my grandfather’s handwriting. There on the page—though in the words of another—was the man who would have laughed at his own funeral. On many days when it’s easy to feel low and small and sad, I think of these words that he valued. And his laugh.
“Then Laugh” by Bertha Adams Backus
Build for yourself a strong box,
fashion each part with care;
When it’s strong as your hand can make it,
put all your troubles there;
Hide there all thought of your failures;
and each bitter cup that you quaff;
Lock all your heartaches within it,
Then sit on the lid and laugh.
Tell no one else its contents,
Never its secrets share;
When you’ve dropped in your care and worry
keep them forever there;
Hide them from sight so completely
That the world will never dream half;
Fasten the strongbox securely—
Then sit on the lid and laugh.
Caitlin Stuckey, GR ’10, is an instructor of English at Indiana State University.