Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Eulogy I Wish I’d Given

Grandpa Dick and Grandma Donna's wedding day.
When my Grandpa passed, I didn’t know what his spiritual notions were. He was raised Roman Catholic and we all attended Sunday mass with my Great-Grandma Elsie when she visited for the summer… but I spent enough Sundays with Grandpa to know he didn’t attend church regularly. So, when he died, we requested a simple, generic service performed by the minister attached to the funeral home.
It was humorous. The poor retired minister was so excited to be behind a podium again that he threw every bible story he could into discussing death, including Jonah and the Whale. Yet he couldn’t keep my Grandpa’s name straight. The minister meant well, but he lost me when he started talking about how death was like the small white dead skin cells that fell out of his socks at night. I’m sure everyone behind me thought my silent laughter resembled tears. I hope my Grandpa was amused at the absurdity, too.
I was so overwhelmed with the loss, I didn’t think about getting up to speak. It never crossed my mind that I would look back later and wish the service had been more personal, more about my Grandpa. He was the reason we were all there. One of my cousins stood up to speak to what a wonderful and caring man he was. I wish I had thought to, been I fumble for live words enough, and my grief was so strong… we were just trying to get through it; the strange service held behind stranger walls.

Richard James Riddle
December 23, 1931 – March 25, 2004
My first Christmas, generation portrait.
My Grandpa was everything to me. He was every holiday meal, every Saturday lunch. He would come over at noon on the dot and teasingly ask me, “What’s for lunch today?” and then feign surprise when I answered with the same statement every week; bologna, cheese, mustard and potato chip (salt and vinegar was the best flavor to add to the combination).
He and my mom would sit in the kitchen together, the only time the smell of coffee permeated our house. He had his own stash in our cupboard, waiting for his weekly visit. I loved listening to them discuss the world, the way it worked. I loved the way they talked their way into hope. My Grandpa tried the best he could to see the bright end of things. And if there wasn’t one, well, we’d get through it.
When I was a little girl, I remember lots of summer afternoons at their house, playing in the cool basement and watching Grandma and Grandpa work their garden in the back yard, Grandma in her terrycloth one-piece and Grandpa in his shorts and sunglasses. In my memory they are summer, fresh vegetables and warm afternoons filled with the fragrant smell of roses. They were the spirit of growing things.
We would often have family dinners together and I believed my Grandpa to be an accomplished baker. Grandma cooked dinner and Grandpa cooked dessert. After each meal he would pull out his latest creation and go on about how he had even put it in a special box that he found, to make it nice for us. I was a bit innocent as a child and didn’t notice what a handy coincidence it was that he happened to have a Sara Lee Coffee Cake box the same day he made us one.
One night, he pulled out a cantaloupe and said he had grown it in one day, just for us. It took me a second. And I remember being afraid to contradict him, assuming I was wrong, because he would know, right? I told him matter-of-factly that cantaloupes couldn’t be grown in one day. It is the first memory I have of recognizing that the impish twinkle in his eye meant he was teasing or pulling my leg. There was a pause as the grown-ups realized I had accepted his stories all along, and there was some well-earned laughter at my expense. Thanks to Grandpa and his kitchen skills, one of my favorite desserts is a quarter slice of cantaloupe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sitting in it.
After dinner the family would play Scat together. Grandpa would lend my siblings and me pennies from the jar on his dresser. At the end of the night, we would pay him back the pennies we’d started with, if we had any left. But the rest of our winnings were ours.
I called my Grandpa’s mom, Elsie, Grandma-from-Florida because I thought it was shorter than Great-Grandma. I remember forming that logic in my head. She spent her summers with my family and each year we would take the obligatory generational photo while she was visiting; Great-Grandma, Grandpa, mom, me and my siblings. Grandpa adored his mom- he’d call her “ma” with a smile on his face- as did everyone who knew her.
We spent some of those summer days at the Riddle cottage in Olcott on Lake Ontario. There was so much laughter, so much love and togetherness. I know it’s possible to be surrounded by joy and love, which is the greatest gift my family gave me. It’s the greatest gift my Grandpa gave me, loving me for who I was and as I was. I won’t settle for less than that, looking for the spirit of my Grandfather in the hearts of the people I meet.
Grandpa Dick had a beautiful Cadillac I loved riding in. Sometimes when we stayed overnight, he’d take us to his favorite diner for breakfast in the Caddy. All of the waitresses at the diner knew him. He would happily introduce us and the women would go on about how much he talked about us.
My entire life, I knew that my Grandpa loved me, even when he wasn’t with me. It’s a thing we take for granted sometimes, those relationships we build. Even now, a decade after his death, that love means everything to me.
When his cancer returned, I went home to spend time with him. I asked him for stories about his parents, pushing through the awkward moment where we both knew I was asking him because he was dying… because he might not recover and then there would be no answers. I picked up his prescriptions and took him some groceries one night, after copying some old family photos. That was the last night I saw him conscious and aware. And I learned that we shared a long-time favorite flavor of ice cream- black raspberry. I’ll never forget that last hug, just as strong and firm as every other hug he had ever given me.
There are so many of them, too many to ever count.
He was every Christmas morning, all of my life. I was 27 the last Christmas we had together. My nieces were opening their presents and the youngest said “Thank you, Great-Grandpa!” To which the middle child said, “Don’t call him that. It’s rude!” My Grandpa smiled and said, “Why? That’s what I am.”
And that’s who he was.
Outside his parent's store.
Richard James Riddle was born in 1931 in Lockport, New York. He had a brother and a sister. His parents owned a small general store and his father worked at the local Radiator factory. He was a young boy when World War II began and he later spent some time in the Navy. He was married twice, had one daughter, and three step-children. His second wife, my Grandma Donna, was the love of his life. He outlived her by two years. They loved to travel. They loved to gamble. They either won or broke even at the tables. They brought the fortune and sunshine with them when they travelled.
He was the father of my mother, and father to my aunt and uncles. He became a father to my own, and to all of their friends who became my family. My life is peppered with stories of him dropping in on my mother’s friends and helping them out when they were in need. At the end of his life he was a good friend to one of my favorite high school teachers, who lived a stone’s throw away from him after he moved.
I can see the ripple of his time on this earth stretching out in the wake of his loss. It ripples still. I feel the joy he taught me when the sun warms my skin. And when I sit quietly in the woods, I can hear the sound of his voice in the wind as it blows through the trees. He lives on in my stories and in the memories of those who loved him.
What is remembered, lives.
What is remembered never dies.

[Revamped post originally published March 14, 2012.]

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