Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Gifts from my Grandparents

There are few relationships in my life so uncomplicated as the early ones I had with my grandparents. I could do no wrong, and any slight accomplishment was a herald of genius and overwhelming success. They showed abundant parental affection without the extra dimension of reprimand, and they were always liberal with sweets. That helped.

My first grandparent to pass away was my paternal grandmother, Lois (Nanie). My first theological debate was with her on the way back from church one Sunday. I must have been five or six, but I had a list of questions that I thought dismissed the idea of the Trinity. (Yes, I've always been insufferable.) Of course, she had a thousand years of exegesis on her side, but she really had the upper hand as soon as she suggested we go to lunch at McDonald's and forget the whole thing.

I remember her taking me on frequent trips to Discovery Depot, where I would stare in terror and awe at the remains of preserved mummies. Nanie was always concerned with my education. Once I was watching Nickelodeon on her TV when she walked into the room, turned it off, and handed me the book she authored on John James Audubon. I didn't understand the book, and to this day I know precious little about the artist, but the gesture had lasting significance.

She had a hard life with some harsh disappointments and betrayals, which left her scarred and a little austere. She survived cancer and divorce in a time when both of those calamities were much less understood. But my earliest memories of her are full of warmth and kindness. I still remember how soft and plump her cheeks were, and I can still hear her voice reading The Rainbow Goblins as I was tucked  neatly under a strawberry comforter. I catch traces of her voice in my dad's speech at times, especially when he reads, and it hits me like music from the great beyond.

Of all the people in my life, she was most responsible for developing a love in me for my native land of Louisiana. She taught me about Carnival and Lent. She told me about the history of Elmer's Candy Company. And I still remember with clarity the propaganda poster in her kitchen for Louisiana Shrimp, not to mention the countless crawfish boils we passed on her back porch, sipping Barq's root beer on heavy summer nights.

My paternal grandfather, Lew (Bobie), followed Nanie just a few months after she passed. He was 89 and had previously been in perfect health. I don't think any of us knew how deeply and completely he loved Nanie until we saw him on his deathbed. He's not my biological grandfather (I never met that one, actually), and he and Nanie got married when they were both past middle age. They had both been wounded by bad marriages and played close to the chest. They spent all their time in separate wings of the house.

But in his bereavement and death, we all saw that Nanie meant the world to him.

Bobie was one of my childhood heroes. He invented rubber for Esso, he flew planes, he studied astronomy, gemology, and computer science. He seemed to know everything. When I would spend a week with them during the summers, my favorite thing to do would be to sit in his study (it was actually more like a lab), listen to his music and talk with him about science. He taught like Socrates. I remember once how he asked me a series of questions about how we could identify intelligent life on a distant planet. I said that we could watch to see if water was disappearing. Seeing a deep misconception in my understanding of the universe, he taught me about the water cycle.

He never had any children of his own, but he readily adopted us and I loved him completely. He had a camp out in the middle of nowhere, and he used to take us out there exploring. We'd hike across its cliffs and streams, or we'd ride his huge industrial tractor to try and clear a trail. I often find myself exaggerating the stories of his camp just because I want people to get it. To get across the emotions of seven-year-old boy when he's confronted with all that is wild and wonderful about nature, you have to exaggerate.

I still think of him often. He financially facilitated my education and my extracurricular studies of piano and cello, but he passed away before I was any good at either. I wish I could play for him now. I tend to have awful dreams, but one of the sweetest dreams I have is that I sit down and talk with him again. Thankfully, it's recurring.

And this morning, about an hour and a half ago, my maternal grandfather, Lawrence (Poppie), passed away. One of my earliest memories of him is us all sitting around his glass table, listening to him tell a story while we munched on Tommy's Pizza. Tommy's Pizza, by the way, is the greatest pizza in the world. There are some things from childhood that, upon revisiting them, lose their magic. They weren't quite as good as you'd thought. But Tommy's Pizza is as good as it was twenty years ago.

I got my middle name from Poppie, among other things. That's kind of a big thing—a name. Because of the remarriage, I never had a grandparent with my same surname, but even a middle name was a strong tie.

Poppie taught me how to love movies. Bad movies, great movies, all movies. In fact, I remember the day when he showed me how to enjoy a really bad movie. You could either have fun at the movie's expense by laughing at its failures (think Van Helsing), or you could study it to try to understand why it didn't work. That's a skill I've developed over the years, and it's been invaluable to me as a music critic.

Whatever love I have for musicals, which admittedly is not great, comes from him. He showed me a lot of musicals growing up, and most of them didn't take, but I'll always remember his reaction when he heard I'd never seen Fiddler on the Roof. We raced to the nearest Blockbuster while Grammy whipped up some homemade popcorn and rootbeer floats. I still haven't gotten over that movie and its music. In fact, I think the only reason I took Hebrew in college was because I like Fiddler so much.

One thing I share with Poppie is that we both communicate much better on paper than in person. He was an excellent writer, and I find myself using writing as my primary way of making sense of the world. Like now.

Although my mother had an enormous influence on my love and study of Shakespeare, Poppie certainly helped. I saw Hamlet for the first time at his place. I couldn't understand a word, but I was captivated by the language, if that makes any sense. Not Shakespeare's particular use of language, but just the language itself and how it managed to be at once familiar and foreign. As I grew older and understood more, Poppie and I would have long talks about Hamlet, Othello, et al. in his living room. I loved how animated he got about it. As a speech professor, Poppie was prone to monologue, so it was sometimes hard for a little kid to follow him in conversation, but I treasure those hours spent with him when I finally found a voice. A few years ago, Poppie gave me his beautiful, illustrated copy of the Complete Works. The subtext is much more valuable to me than its gilded pages.

I also loved listening to his stories, even the ones I'd heard dozens of times. I would try to catch any alterations in how he told it, but he was too polished for that. Plus, he had a phenomenal memory. I remember one time sitting in his living room and wondering how something as small as his head could hold all these thousands of names and faces—his old students, professors, roommates, colleagues, neighbors, friends. My memory now is nothing like what his was, even when it was in decline. I wonder, though, if that wasn't as much a curse as it was a blessing. Sometimes we all need a little sip of Lethean springs just to keep our chin up.

No Christian is perfect, and every disciple has a thorn in the flesh, but Poppie loved Jesus. He spent his last days searching out the mind of Christ by writing a book-length study on how Jesus taught. Poppie is certainly not the only key figure in building my testimony of the Savior, but he played a critical role, and that is far and away the greatest legacy he's left me.

My sweet grandmother is the only one remaining. Sadly, her picture at the top is the only one I have of any of my grandparents on my computer. It's from her wedding announcement. I won't eulogize the living, but my heart and prayers go out to her. They've been married for over fifty years, and I just can't imagine the magnitude of her loss.

All my speculation and theorizing about death seems cheap in moments like these, but I believe in a life after death and that families are eternal. Donne speaks much more eloquently on death and marriage than I can:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.


  1. Michael, thanks for those sweet and tender thoughts. I am going to print your posy for Grammy to read. I am infinately grsteful that the Lord has blessed us so. See you soon.

  2. I'm glad of how proud you are of your grandparents, Micheal. To have a grandparent like Bobie, who knows how to fly a plane, astronomy (which I'm fond of), gemology, and computer science - that's genius! Anyway when it comes to movies, my favorite director is Danny Boyle. How about you?