My grandfather was born and raised on his family’s farm in south central Georgia. I imagine in his early years he lived similarly to my children, in that he probably spent a great deal of time outdoors. He developed a fascination with reptiles – turtles and snakes specifically. It was a lifelong enthusiasm that knew few boundaries (there are some stories to tell here).
He remembered for us a story of a playmate from his neighborhood who moved to Florida. When she returned for a visit, he asked her what it was like down there. She remarked on the abundance of snakes and turtles, and it planted a seed in his mind that Florida was a place he would like to live someday.
So, years later, when he was in medical school at Emery University and met my grandmother with her sweet way of saying “yeah-yuh” and family in south Florida, he knew he had found his path to paradise. When she agreed to his engagement proposal one winter’s day, he ran outside in his shorts and bare feet and celebrated in the snow, so the story goes.
He and my Nana went AWOL while they were serving as medics (he was a doctor, she a nurse) in WW2. They took off for some beautiful spot in France and got married. And they stayed that way (not in France, or AWOL, but married for sure) for more than 65 years – the rest of their long lives.
My grandfather really loved life. He liked to explore. He drove fast. He learned to fly an airplane, and flew regularly. He rowed and sailed on little Lake Isis, where he and Nana lived in central Florida, and took an annual Christmas day dip in the lake, always emerging refreshed, saying he “felt better already”.
He also loved to serve. He was a family physician in the small Florida town where they lived – and that was his entire career. Each and every time I visited my grandparents in their “home town”, we would go out to eat or make a shopping excursion around town. It was unavoidable that at least one person, and probably more than one, would walk up to me and pat me on the shoulder with a statement such as… “Well, hunny, you must be Sally Beth’s little girl! Your grandfather delivered ALL my babies!”. There’s an official number somewhere on record, no doubt, but I have been told by reliable sources that my grandfather assisted the births of over 2,000 babies over the years. He probably attended to the final illnesses of many of the townspeople as well. He was a family doctor, the way that family doctors used to be.
In his final days, he continued, in his dreamy, drifting way, to sew stitches and do the occasional surgery, asking my mother to find someone’s file for him, years and miles away.
And he loved his family. He was a generous and loving grandfather. Even though we sometimes fumbled in our understanding of each others’ worlds, there was never a doubt that he loved us all faithfully, so much.
As a child, my grandparents’ Florida home was a magical place. The house was large and full of dusty, fascinating family relics, and the grounds were a jungle of flower and fruit, with the lake sparkling, beckoning in the background. I remember getting lost in the tangerine tree branches, eating so many tart and sweet fruits, the tremendous variety of texture and flavor, and the amazement of finding my first ripe mulberry. It felt like Eden sometimes. Until I met some fire ants, anyway.
Nana and Grandpa left their personal paradise nearly ten years ago, when it became clear that they could not maintain their house and grounds, themselves, without assistance. I’m sure it was difficult for them. But they made the most of it, and I am grateful that they came here, close to us. It was precious, to have four generations, together. They became GG (Great Grandpa) and Big Nana (which is funny cause she was a tiny little old lady) to Lulah. Nana passed away when Levon was a tiny babe. It has been difficult, since then especially, to watch my Grandpa slowly fade.
My mother has tended to him faithfully, beautifully, and I have learned so much from watching her about graceful change in the course of life. The approach of death is as trans-formative a process as the approach of birth. The energetic charge of it is different, but no less powerful. With birth, we make room for this new person in the fabric of our family. With death, we absorb the memories, the life story, of our elder into us, then bind ourselves closer to those we love, to close the hole that they make with their departure.