I have been very fortunate to have been the granddaughter to five remarkable grandparents (my gramps got remarried), but the most unassuming of the bunch is my Grandpa Ab. He was a man of few words and lived a life of quiet dignity and integrity. His actions and the way he lived his life guide me in the way that I want to live mine.
He was born to German and Dutch parents in southwestern Michigan and grew up on a farm with his four brothers and one sister. Like many families in that area, they didn’t have a lot of money, but they always had what they needed. In high school he played on the basketball team, and after graduation in 1944 he was drafted into the war.
He served in the Navy and was stationed on the LST in Okinawa. His job was to drive the LCVP up to shore and drop off men. When the war was over, they returned refugees back home. He kept a shipboard journal and he wrote of his ship being hit by bombs and torpedoes. It is scary to think of the atrocities he saw and how lucky he was to not be injured or killed. Each entry is about one sentence, but one stands out for being three lines long and it is very telling about what he valued. One of the refugees gave birth to a baby on the ship en route home, and she had a little girl. He wrote of his and shipmates happiness at this event. He rarely spoke about his war experiences, but I do remember him saying that he was the only son in his family to fight and as he said, “I was proud to serve my country.”
He returned home and began working. In 1947 one of his buddies knew a young lady and disapproved of the boy she ran around with; could he possible set her up with him? My grandpa said yes, met this young lady, and they were married six weeks later. They were married for over sixty years. In 1948 my mom was born and she was followed five years later by my aunt. Being surrounded by girls set the tone for his life as he ended up with two granddaughters and two great-granddaughters. I remember being a little girl and having my grandparents come out to visit. One day he dozed off on the couch and I put all of my plastic barrettes in his hair. Looking back on it now, I think he must have woken up but played possum so I could continue in my delight. Even in his eighties he crawled around on the ground playing with my cousin’s girls; he got as much enjoyment from their toys as they did.
My grandparents worked hard to make ends meet and save money. They were thrifty and resourceful. My grandpa also had a small plot of land that he farmed to bring in extra income. He served on his church council, but because he missed many Sundays due to farming, he was kicked out. His reply was that the well-being of his family came first. It was years before he and his family ever took a vacation, and their first was a road trip through the Upper Peninsula, down through Wisconsin, and a ferry ride back across Lake Michigan. Invigorated and inspired by this trip, he asked my grandma, “Where are we going next year?”. Throughout the course of his life, he and my grandma visited all 50 states, Columbia, eastern Canada, Panama, the Caribbean, and Europe. They took me on trips throughout Michigan, Indiana, and Canada when I went to visit, and once met me in Salt Lake City for a road trip through Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. We saw the Grand Tetons, Jackson Hole, and Yellowstone Park. When my dad had a three month long business trip to Washington, D.C., and my mom and I went out for three weeks, they came out and toured the area with us. They took my cousin to New York City, California, and Florida. My ultimate favorite memory is when they learned that I had a really long layover in Detroit when I was flying back from Europe. They drove four hours to the airport just to see me. I will always remember entering airport and seeing my grandpa there holding his camcorder capturing my surprise. (This was way before 9/11 changed everything.)
My grandpa loved learning. He had a variety of interests that ranged from gardening, woodworking, and flying. He worked tirelessly on his garden growing vegetables, apples, pears, peaches, berries, and his favorite, sunflowers. He built me a rocking horse that we named Muley, a big barn toy box, a doll bed with matching chest of drawers and clothes closet, and my play house with real glass windows that slid open. He had always had an interest in flying and got his pilot’s license. One of his proudest moments was taking his mother when she was in her nineties on her very first plane ride. I was lucky enough to go up in the air with him, too. Even after he retired, he was always busy doing something. Although he was a quiet man who would often just sit and listen and respond with “yep”, he had a keen sense of humor and was quick with a one-liner.
My grandpa had a real strength of character. He always made sure that his family was taken care of and served his community well. He was liked and respected by all. He believed everyone deserved a fair shake, and he always believed the good in everyone unless he had a real reason to think otherwise. His true strength shone through when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2008. He had surgery to remove the cancer, but the doctor soon realized that the cancer had spread too far. There was nothing for my grandpa to do except wait. Soon his kidneys began to fail, and my parents, who were in Michigan at the time, informed me that I needed to be there, too. When I arrived, he greeted me with good cheer. It was obvious that he was in pain, but he never complained. He did his best to help the nurses out when they had to move him and didn’t fuss. He handled everything with grace and dignity.
Saying goodbye to my grandpa was the hardest thing I have ever done. He and I knew that it was our last goodbye. He passed away at home a few days later on a snowy Michigan afternoon. The snow collected into snowflakes, a reminder that there will never be another man like him.