My grandfather, Curtis Humphrey, passed away last night at the age of 88. Since I’m in Italy for a conference, and funeral plans are moving forward too quickly for me to make it back to the states in time, I thought I’d share a few of my memories of him here.
For starters, he was kind of foxy in a Welsh sort of way including big, bushy eyebrows. In his teen years, he looked a little like Eddie Munster, with jet black hair and a pronounced widow’s peak. I only remember him salt-and-pepper, and then grey, first in suits and then gradually retiring into khaki and tevas.
Here he is last week (see right), the same day my family decided he should start with palliative care. You can tell from his expression he’s kind of fed up with the whole “cocktails on the porch” thing.
My grandfather grew up in Wisconsin, adopted by my great-grandmother’s second husband after her first (my grandfather’s father) ran away for reasons, and to parts, unknown. They ran a family store (kind of a general store) during my grandfather’s childhood, and once my grandfather came back from college and service in WW2 he started his own store selling womens’ garments.
Grandpa told great stories, but I had two particular favorites. The first was a kind of generic story (with variations) that focused on his WW2 experiences. He went onto Normandy Beach a few days after D-Day and made his way to Paris over land. As a highly qualified tank repair expert (training was the strategy he claimed to use in order to avoid infantry duty), he was a valuable Allied resource. The Army billeted him in a chalet near Versailles with other officers. (They had German prisoners of war at the chalet, for reasons that were never clear to me, but Grandpa emphasized how well they were treated.) Anyway, one night they drank a little too deeply into the chalet’s wine cellar and ended up pushing a pianoforte off the balcony of the chalet. Of course, the story was told in various ways over the years–sometimes it was a castle, sometimes the instrument was a rare 14th century harpsichord, and sometimes the performer was the assistant conductor of the Berlin symphony. Grandma jokes that Grandpa had an affair with “one of the nice Red Cross nurses”, which I hope he at least considered at the time, although he was newly married and expecting the baby that would become my aunt Nene.
My second favorite story was a description of the trips he took as a kid to see the circus with his mom. My great-grandmother loved the circus and she’d take my grandfather with her to see each one that came within a 50 mile radius of their house. They’d drive during the night in order to see the circus trains arrive. They’d pack a picnic meal, and spend the day watching the circus tents go up, the performers practice, and the guests arrive. After watching the show (or two, if a double-header), they’d watch the troupe break down the same tents, with elephants doing the heavy lifting. There’s no drama in the story–no story line as such–but I just adore the love of systems, and craftsmanship, and the simplicity of the joy he must have felt as a boy, watching all this unfold, and knowing how much his mother loved it, too.
Thankfully, I got both these stories on tape during our Christmas visit. I knew it would probably be the last time I saw Grandpa, although Mom snuck in another visit last week. Like my friend Pete, who also passed away this year, Grandpa’s final illness was relatively short and painless, although it followed a rather more extended lower-grade infirmity. I know he was done with this world, and ready for whatever was next. He had a really amazing life and I know he was glad for it. Grandpa loved Italy, and loved watching a sunset with a glass of wine. I’ll do that tonight, for him.