I was 19, home in Minnesota on spring break from college, and up in Duluth for two of my cousins’ annual birthday celebration. I walked into the funeral home hungover that Sunday wearing last night’s clothes to say goodbye to my grandfather before I drove the 2 1/2 hours back to Minneapolis.
He was eating breakfast – eggs, bacon, toast with jam, orange juice and coffee – his standard fare. I sat down next to him and asked about his morning, about church.
“I prayed for the sins of my children and grandchildren,” he said, killing himself laughing. I fixed myself breakfast and joined him at the table. That was the only meal I ever had alone with my grandfather.
I saw my grandpa’s younger brother, Uncle John, now maybe 90 himself, a couple years ago. Uncle John said, “Give your grandpa one of these for me next time you see him,” sticking up both his middle fingers and jerking them in the air.
A week later in Duluth, I greeted my grandfather and told him I’d seen his brother recently. “Oh? What’d he have to say?” he asked.
“He told me to give you one of these,” I said – half mortified – and stuck up both my middle fingers.
“Well,” he said, “did you give him the finger back?”
I loved his laugh. I loved that he could spot a nose piercing or a tattoo from 100 paces, even at 97-years-old. That he’d share his 10pm-smoothies. How he looked at my grandmother – after about a 100 million years of marriage and thirteen children – like he’d struck gold. That he believed red lights on Christmas Day were optional. How he’d haul us all to church and then promptly fall asleep once mass started. How he always illegally parked, citing his POW license plate as his get-out-of-a-ticket card. He told me to say hello to the president on his behalf every time I returned to D.C. He believed a good story was better than the truth. He believed in all of us.