The only grandfather I knew passed away in 1978 when I wasn’t quite 4-years-old. As with most people’s childhood memories, I have doubt as to whether what I remember of him is true or whether I fabricated him from the family stories I’ve heard.
I am confident I attended his funeral. I was too young to understand what was happening, but I remember my mother sobbing next to me; I’d never seen her so upset. I grabbed a tissue from my tiny suit jacket and offered it to her. She smiled sadly as she took it. That smile told me what I needed to know to feel safe again.
Memories of Grandpa that I’m not sure about:
- Grandpa sitting in his recliner near the living room window reading a newspaper. Lawrence Welk waved his baton on the tv, his trademark bubbles falling diagonally across the screen. Grandma was shouting accusations at him about not cleaning up after himself. She did not see him roll his eyes, turn down his hearing aid, smirk at me, and go back to reading.
- I was spinning around on a merry-go-round in the park near their little house with the car port in town. My brother was eating an enormous scoop of ice cream that was seconds from falling into the dirt. Years later, my brother confirmed that Grandpa took us to the park after church most Sundays as an excuse to buy us ice cream cones without my mother knowing. Mom didn’t like us to have sweets.
- Grandpa and Grandma in their kitchen arguing over whether my brothers and I wanted pickles with our peanut butter sandwiches: Grandpa for, Grandma against. He cut our sandwiches on the diagonal and used a brand of peanut butter that had a logo of a boy with a pompadour and freckles. I still cut my sandwiches diagonally in his honor.
These memories probably make Grandpa sound more mischievous than he was. Grandpa was a quiet, humble man most of the time. His parents owned a farm just outside my hometown in Michigan where they grew flowers for florist shops. Before the 12 of them immigrated across the St. Clair River in 1919 my great-grandfather owned another flower farm near Hensall, Ontario. Flowers were the family business until auto factories in the area started hiring in droves.
Mom loved visiting her grandparents’ (my great-grandparents’) farm. She remembers watching the fish in the man-made pond at the side of the house. She loved the sight of the differently colored flowers in the fields.
Every fall, Grandpa dug up his dahlias— his favorite flowers— in the small garden at the back of the house in town and stored them for winter, and every spring he’d bring them back out and replant them. Grandma would see mud tracks leading through the house and out the back door and she’d be livid, yelling that he wouldn’t rest that night until every speck of fertilizer was scrubbed out of her carpet.
James Nelson Harburn left us at the ripe age of 77, but, being his youngest grandchild, I only got 3 years and some odd months with him: not enough time for me to know him well or vice versa. His 114th birthday just passed. Happy birthday, Grandpa! You are remembered and loved.