A Gramp to Remember

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

My grandfather-in-law passed away a week ago last Sunday.  And while I only had the privilege of his company for the past six years, he left an indelible mark on both my heart and my life.

In a multitude of ways, James Grew Wheeler was lucky.  The man I always knew as "Gramp" (and not  Gramps, James, or godforbidyoucalledhim 'Sir') lived until the age of 90 at his home outside Boston with the love of his life, Emlen. They've been married for over 65 years.  And to say that Gramp had his wits about him until his last day would be to understate how brazen and brilliant the man was. I have a video of him dancing a jig with my wife a few weeks ago during his 90th birthday celebration.

But in many more ways, I was lucky to have Gramp. Not having had the pleasure of knowing my biological grandfathers, I am forthright about the fact that I have an elderly-man shaped hollow in my emotional lexicon.  A few mentors have spent moments filling portions of that negative space, most notably a brilliant and caring professor from back when I was an undergraduate.  But gaps as vast as missing relatives almost never get filled, especially as I got older and the number of senior men in my life became comparatively less abundant.

Marriage can be a positive transformation.  I realize the institution has gotten a bad rap as of late, what with all the divorce, exclusion, and government involvement (not to mention you get screwed on your taxes once you get married--goodbye to the days of refunds).  But when done right, marriage is one of the moments when you get to add to your biological family.  This is where the whole idea of joining bloodlines came from.  Retroactive biological intermingling.  With two "I do's," I took more than just my new bride in my arms. I also embraced three new grandparents, a full set of new parents, and an enormous extended family, the magnitude of which I had only ever seen in Norman Rockwell paintings. And while these additions have come as a virtual greatest hits of new life experiences (hello to having a sister!!!!), Gramp and I had a special connection from Day 1.  He was the priceless baseball card I fortuitously plucked from this freshly unwrapped familial deck.

I got in with my wife's Gramp the same way I got in with the rest of her Red Sox loving family of origin: I caught Dustin Pedrioa's first Fenway Park home run on the Green Monster (not on the fly).  If your potential future in-laws are big baseball fans, I highly recommend this strategy to gain immediate boyfriend street cred.  (Perhaps you should be on the look out for the fast approaching Xander Bogaerts' inaugural Fenway smash)  Gramp scoured the box scores in the Globe and was quick to give up on failing relief pitchers.  Every greeting with Gramp was the same, "Hey, how yah doing? (I would then force him to hug me) Whadya think of this Bradley fellow? The one they wanna put in center field." 

It was always a different player, and I always had an opinion to give.  As a rule, my scouting reports were always more optimistic than Gramp's.  If a player blew a game, they were garbage. Forever. But he never interrupted my opinion on the matter and we spent a few mornings on the porch of his house on the coast of Nahant, MA, pretty much going through the entire Sox's roster.  Together we evaluated our year end chances.  These were moments of pure bliss for me.  My family is not baseball crazy, so I didn't realize the camaraderie and affection brought on by these "team pow-wows" until I had Gramp in my life.  In my heart, last year's Red Sox championship forced even his time worn pessimism to consider the ever-present possibility of continuing success.

When I tell people I'm a writer, and that I'm writing a book, I get the same three follow up questions from pretty much everybody.  "What is it about?" "How much have you written so far?" and "When is it coming out?"  These conversations always end with the same refrain:  "Well put me down for a copy when is does come out."  Often an empty sentiment.

Gramp took my writing career seriously from the first time I told him about my project.  Not only did he ask probing question after probing question, but he even would pester me for a chapter to read.  Sometimes these conversations made me uncomfortable, as his thorough line of questioning exposed aspects of the writing process I had yet to fully grasp and grapple with.  Regardless, these grillings always grew from Gramp regarding me as a serious man, despite (or perhaps because) of my desire to succeed in the treacherous, often unrewarding, path of a writer.  When you spend your days in a self-imposed solitary confinement, partnered only with your inner voice and the glowing page, there is no greater gift than to be treated as a driven career-oriented professional.  I will never be able to fully thank Gramp for this gift he repeatedly enriched my life with.  There are no number of "I love you's" that can repay the confidence and gratitude I internalized being treated as an equal by a man whose legacy of generosity and devotion I can only hope to measure up to eventually.

In the absence of an opportunity to express my gratitude for this kindness, its effect has grown roots and dug itself inward to my soul, a life lesson unwilling to be brushed aside.  I won't ever forget the value of showing genuine interest in the eclectic pursuits of the driven.  I can never underplay the importance of not only expressing respect for, but also appreciating the time I get to spend with the pivotal people that pass through my life.  Even if only for a moment.

There are no sufficient words to fill the space between the recent memories spent with a lost relative and the longing for just one more hug for eternity.  It is a distance described in tears and measured in melancholy.  My solace in the face of this lingering emptiness comes in knowing that this new negative space in my heart has only grown as a result of a much larger missing piece in my life being filled forever.

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