Remembering Grandpa by Creating Him

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.

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My grandfather in 1903

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.

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My grandfather, his step-father, and his mother (Amelia) in 1923

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.

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My grandparents on March 21, 1942

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.

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The Grundman family in the early 1950s

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?

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My grandparents laughing in 1956

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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“As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on – in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.” -Tuesdays with Morrie

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My great aunt Alma and my grandma, Emma, circa 1931

Today, I am going to share something very special to me, something close to my heart.  Below is the true story that inspired my first novel, Hannah’s Rainbow:

When I was fifteen years old, my grandmother was terminally ill. Months earlier, she had had a sarcoma removed from her leg and had undergone radiation therapy. She was given a clean bill of health in February of that year (1995). Shortly thereafter, she went to the hospital because she had fluid in her lungs, and when they did a scan, they found a spot: the cancer had metastasized to her lungs in a matter of months. Although given two to six months to live, her time on Earth would be much shorter than that.

The day she was released from the hospital and placed under Hospice care, I wrote a letter to her, telling her all that she meant to me, how much I loved her, and how much I would miss her. I expressed my heartfelt admiration of her courage to face what lay ahead. And I asked her to send me a sign once she reached Heaven, not because I was afraid she wouldn’t go there, but because I needed the comfort.

Two weeks later, she came to our house. It was the week before Easter, and she was to spend the time with us, and her sister from California was to come in as well. On the night she arrived, she was still walking and talking. Although thin and weak, she was still herself for the most part. I remember her eating an orange in the family room as I talked to my best friend on the phone.

The next morning, she never got out of bed. The day was gloomy and overcast with thick clouds of early April showers. We thought it might just be the weather or the fact that she had been transported the night before. I overheard my dad speaking to his brother on the phone that morning, saying he didn’t think she would live more than 24 hours. In denial, I refused to believe such nonsense. All I had ever known was a life that had my grandma as part of it; to imagine otherwise was unthinkable!

The pastor from her church came that afternoon to visit, and while doing math homework in my bedroom, adjacent to the room she was in, I heard his voice through the walls, uttering the twenty-third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff: they comfort me.”

She was asleep most of the day, and the couple of times I approached the darkened room where she lay so still on the bed, I think I was afraid. At the time, I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way, but I think now it was because I couldn’t reconcile the figure I saw in that bed with the figure I knew of her warm smile, cheery eyes, and rosy cheeks.

Some relatives came to visit in the mid-afternoon, and she seemed to brighten some, even laugh at a few jokes. My family was originally planning on attending a concert at the high school that evening, but due to my grandma’s condition, my parents remained home with her, and my brother and I attended by ourselves.

A couple of hours later when we returned home, it was dark and still raining slightly. We parked on the street because there were a couple of other cars in our driveway, and I felt my heart skip a beat as I rushed up the driveway and into the house, not wanting to believe the worst. The first sight that greeted me was my mom walking toward me, her face lined with tears, and she was shaking her head. I knew without having to ask. To this day, over 20 years later, the events of that entire day as are clear as if they happened yesterday.

Standing in the kitchen were my uncle, my dad, and the pastor. We held hands and formed a circle as the pastor said a prayer. I left the kitchen to go to the spot where Grandma had been, but she was already gone from the bed. I saw the men from the funeral home carrying her out, covered in a sheet.

She was truly gone. That night, I dreamt that my mom died, too. While my parents were away the next day taking care of everything, I was at home in the company of my best friend, and it continued to rain. I found it in me to laugh some, finding a pair of checkered pants that was so hideously out of style, but my grandma wore them, anyway. I pulled them over my own clothes and just laughed, mostly because my best friend could always make me laugh. We were visited by a cousin and her husband, who had brought over dinner, and the four of us laughed some more. There was something therapeutic in this, although it was also a brief escape from the reality of the situation.

The wake was two days later, followed the next day by the funeral. It rained in all the days between my grandma never leaving the bed and on the day of the funeral. My letter to my grandma was read at her funeral by the pastor. The Lord’s Prayer was sang by the co-pastors, a husband and wife team. My grandma’s favorite hymn, “The Lost Chord,” was played. As the family followed the casket down the aisle, I was a sobbing mess, and my brother, who was walking alongside me, put his arm around me. I remember briefly trying not to laugh, as we had this weird thing about never touching each other as teenagers, so hugs were forbidden.

Much of the graveside service was a blur, but we stood under a tent as the rain continued. A dinner was served, and then it was over. We were on our way home. That evening, the rain finally stopped. I was in my room when I heard my mom exclaim, “Cyndi, come here!”

I ran into the front window and looked outside. Stretched across the sky was a rainbow! I smiled and knew this was my grandma’s sign to me! There was no doubting that, and to explain this away as mere coincidence is an insult to her, her memory, and to our Lord of miracles. My mom and I turned away for just a moment, and when I looked back, it was gone. To catch such a brief moment in time when that rainbow appeared was not coincidence in the least. Only my mom and I saw that rainbow; it was meant for us.

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My grandparents, Howard and Emma Grundman, circa 1942

I had the idea for the story back in October 2006.  I woke in the middle of the night with the name “Hannah Rechthart” on my mind.  “Hannah” means ”favor” or “grace.”  “Rechthart” means “right heart.”  I started writing down character names and researching.  Many details from early in Hannah’s life were taken from an autobiography my grandma wrote in high school and another she and her younger sister, Ida (whom Irma is based on), wrote later in life about growing up, called “The Billhardts of Fuller Avenue.”  I also spoke extensively with my mom and had my own memories to work with for Hannah’s later years.

I composed four chapters between October 2006 and January 2009.  Then I had my first child and my second, and the story sat for years, until I started writing in earnest in March 2015.  It may have taken a decade to finally sit down and write it all out, but only by God’s grace and my grandma’s legacy was that inspiration possible.

It’s been over twenty years since my grandma passed away, but in writing this story, I hope I was able to convey with the love I’ve always had for her that she was a wonderful person.  

May you see many rainbows in your life, wherever you go.

The Letter I Wrote to Grandma:

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Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available for $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful