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Connections to unfamiliar family members can appear in unexpected ways

Posted January 5

Ten years ago this December, I boarded a plane and flew to the funeral of the only grandparent I had ever really known.

My Grandmother Lenore was buried in Ponca City, Oklahoma, on a gray day that was surprisingly warm for the season. We had a service at her Methodist church, then the interment in the local cemetery and, as we traveled from place to place, we followed a motorcade of police cars. All of the other vehicles on the road pulled to the side to let us pass. It was a stunning sight to see.

I had never really been close to my grandmother. We butted heads a few times and, as she grew older, I spoke to her less and less. I carried an immense amount of guilt about that, but I just didn’t know what to say to her. Her memory was fading, her hearing was hard and I clouded my mind with the distance we’d gained over the years instead of making an effort.

So, when I walked down the aisle of the Methodist church to sit on the front row of her service, I was shocked to find myself overcome with emotion. I was sobbing, gushing tears and snot, and I couldn’t stop. My sisters and brother — all of whom had a closer relationship with my grandmother — were visibly sad, but much more poised than I. I tried to shut down my feelings, but any time I lowered my guard the tears and sobs welled again and I just wanted to disappear.

I don’t remember ever feeling like that before. And I still don’t quite understand it. I think my emotion had something to do with losing a person who cared about me, and I her, who held the only living key to my ancestry. I was a part of her and she was gone.

Her husband died when I was 3 years old.

His name was Homer, but we called him Granddaddy. I don’t remember his funeral because I didn’t go. But I have a few memories of him that I summon when I see his name.

He wore old-fashioned glasses with a black rim on the top and wire on the bottom. He always gave Twinkies to my siblings and me whenever we visited him. He wore a skinny black tie and rolled up his shirtsleeves. He was kind.

When I close my eyes and try to remember what he looked like, I see a picture in my mind that’s grainy and black and white. He’s smiling behind those glasses and wearing that tie. I’m honestly not sure if that photo is real or something I imagined.

At the age of 3, I don’t think I would have understood what was happening or what had happened to Granddaddy. In my mind, one day he was there and the next he wasn’t. I didn’t know how old he was or how he had died. He just wasn’t there anymore.

I didn’t know that my grandfather was a wonderful musician with a concert pianist for a mother or that he could have been famous, as my mother tells me, had he not gotten married at the tender age of 20. Living in Oklahoma in the midst of the Great Depression did not help either. But he chose family and teaching band in the local schools instead of traveling the world as an artist. He opened a local music store in Ponca City, which did very well until he had his first heart attack.

After that, his health was never the same. He eventually closed the store and sold the building in which it was located. Then, after a seemingly successful heart surgery, his heart stopped beating in the recovery room. It was Dec. 10, 1983.

My grandmother died on Dec. 12, 2006, almost 23 years to the day after her beloved husband.

I came across a photo of Homer today that took my breath away, and taught me something new. In the photo, Homer is a baby, probably 1 year old. His chubby hands are folded in his perfect white frock, and he’s looking at the camera with some mild curiosity. Those eyes — instantly, I saw it.

They are just like mine. They’re just like my son’s. He is a part of us and we are a part of him. That fact will never change, notwithstanding distance or head-butting or being hard of hearing or memory loss.

That fact will never change.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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