We stood in the basement of my grandma’s old house, the place I visited every Sunday afternoon as a child. I was now an adult. While I knew she had passed away years ago, as had the man with me, the moment felt so real.
The security of his arms around me, the steady rise and fall of his chest, his breath warm in my ear as he whispered, “I know you never knew me, but I wanted to tell you I love you.”
He wasn’t much taller than me, if at all. His voice was kind, gentle…grandfatherly.
I woke in awe, a tear in my eye. I never knew my grandfather, yet he had spoken to me through a dream.
I have seen many pictures of my grandfather. He passed away four years before I was born. Being nearly 11 years older than my grandmother, he would have been well into his seventies by the time I came along. My grandparents were older than most in that generation, she at 28 and he at 39 when they married in 1942. My uncle was born in ‘46 and my mom in ‘49, so my grandfather was 46 when my mom came into this world. With my grandparents being older, especially my grandfather, I don’t suppose chances were favorable that even if he had lived longer, I would have remembered him much or known him long… But I digress. It’s a sad reality, but true, and I cannot undo the past.
So, that dream held and holds significance for me, seeing as my grandfather was just a man I knew from pictures and from my grandma and mom’s memories of him. He was among the tallest in his extended family. All of the Grundmans were short, so at 5 feet 9 inches, he was a veritable giant! His mother passed away from breast cancer shortly before my grandparents married, and his father was never in his life. His parents divorced when he was a baby because his father was an alcoholic. His mother remarried a man named Samuel Winhold when my grandfather was seven. Samuel must have passed away some 20 years later, as he no longer showed up in pictures.
My grandfather was Howard Grundman. That’s a good, strong German name, isn’t it? In fact, my mother’s side of the family is completely German, although they have been living in the United States (on both sides) since the 1880s. What’s funny is that when growing up, I often referred to my grandfather as “Howard” when talking about him with my mom or grandma. We visited my grandma every Sunday afternoon for many years, and one of the things we often did was get out all the old pictures and look at them at her dining room table. I had an interest in my heritage from an early age, asking my parents and grandmas to tell me the names of their direct ancestors, so I could write them down. I had a family tree going back to my great-great-grandparents when I was eight, and since then, I have done extensive genealogy research, but that is another topic.
Getting back to my grandfather, or Howard, I feel the need to make the distinction of personalizing him. He will be Grandpa going forward, as it has been in my head and in my writing that I have remembered him in a roundabout way.
I was fortunate to know my grandma, Emma Grundman, until I was 15, when she passed away. I was close to her, as we saw her weekly. When she died, a void opened in my heart that I spent years (and still do) trying to fill. How can you replace a loved one? You can’t, of course, but you can help them live on by remembering them, by sharing stories, writing down memories, looking at pictures. I am a writer, and writing a story based on my late grandma’s life was inside me. I didn’t know it until 11 year later, when at age 26, I woke with a fictional character’s name on my lips: Hannah Rechthart. Hannah would become my grandma in the story, and her husband would be Edward (Howard).
I wrote a couple of chapters and then a couple more over the next few years, but nothing came of that story until March 2015. I was tired of waiting: waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting to achieve my dream of writing the story and maybe even publishing it. So, I sat down with the intention of writing for at least fifteen minutes a day. That’s it, I told myself, 15 minutes. And do it every day.
I stuck to that, and in the process, the fictional name of Edward Grunner became a character who seemed to breathe and walk off the page. He shared a lot in common with my grandpa: being raised mostly by his mother, being an only child, working in accounting, marrying later in life, being drafted during World War II but only serving for three months, and in love with his dear wife. Edward was an admirable man in many ways. He was kind, patient, and supportive. He was a hard worker and went to church with his family every Sunday. But doubts of being a good father figure plagued him because of his own lack of a good fatherly role model. He questioned his ability to be the type of dad his children needed, especially where his son was concerned.
For the first time, the ache of not actually knowing Grandpa hit me. I looked at the old pictures of him with my grandma and their kids as if for the first time. I wondered what he sounded like. What was his laugh like? There’s a picture of my grandparents sitting on the couch laughing, and the sound almost escapes. It’s like a phantom room right next door, but I just can’t enter.
What was his favorite food? Did he enjoy Grandma’s pork chops as much as the rest of the family? Did he play that old Monopoly set from the 1930s that Grandma had, the one where I only wanted to play the banker because I didn’t want to lose? Did he sit in the pew and listen to his wife play the organ in church like Edward did in my story? What did he think of his in-laws? Were his grandparents really as stern as they looked in their pictures?
So many questions and only my imagination to answer them!
I mourned Grandpa as if he had just died in 2015 instead of 40 years earlier. For me, by making him alive in my story, I felt that loss penetrate me in a way I never had before. I remember setting an extra place at the table at times when I was a child and we’d be at my grandma’s. It was for my grandpa. Now I have set a place in my heart for him.
I remember him in this way. It’s all I’ve really got.
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The book I refer to in this post, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.
My other book, Lorna versus Laura, is available for $4.99 here.
Also, don’t forget my next book, A Laughing Matter of Pain, is now available for pre-order here.