I sat alone in the empty sanctuary and soaked in the silence. The beautiful, fragrant flowers circling the room contrasted drastically with my sorrow. A tear ran down my cheek, but I quickly wiped it away. This wasn’t the time to cry. There were too many people in the fellowship hall next door that I needed to go visit. I’d snuck away for a moment to think and reconcile my mixed feelings about the man, my grandfather, who we’d just buried.
My husband peeked in the room. "You okay?"
"I just want a moment."
He nodded as he shifted our two-year-old daughter to his other side. I could almost hear my grandfather’s words as my daughter tugged at the elastic headband bow she wore around her head. "Get that garter off that baby’s head," he’d growl. "You’re gonna give her brain damage." I smiled at the memory.
My husband looked at me for a moment longer, then left. Alone again, I wondered why I suddenly had such an overwhelming desire to evaluate his life. Was it okay to mourn and miss this imperfect man? Memories flashed through my mind like a movie.
Like it was yesterday, I remembered the weekend my grandparents surprised my sister and me with brand new matching cars. My grandfather had only a high school education but could afford such lavish gifts because of old-fashioned hard work. The thriving steel company he’d founded would ensure college educations and an inheritance for his descendants for generations to come. I admired his success and accomplishments.
I reflected on the sickening moment when I discovered an unpleasant truth about my grandfather. I was serving as a youth leader to a racially mixed group. I decided to bring the teens to our family land for a weekend retreat. The one-hundred acre property was beautiful, containing stocked ponds for fishing, dense woods for exploring and grassy meadows for playing. There was also a fully equipped, unoccupied house. The "ranch" had been my grandfather’s lifelong dream. He loved taking his border collie there to fish and secretly smoke the cigarettes he’d supposedly given up. A few days before the retreat I asked my dad if Papa knew we were coming.
"Ummm, sort of," he responded with a suspicious tone.
"It won't bother him that all the kids aren't white, will it?" I’d asked on a whim.
My father paused. "I’ll keep him away this weekend so he won’t know."
I felt like I had just been kicked in the stomach. "You’re kidding, right?"
"No," he said quietly.
After that, I looked at my grandfather differently. Others tried to justify his racism, claiming he was from a different generation. But to me, racism was racism. I felt sorrow and shame at his prejudice.
I shifted on the hard pew as I recalled the only time I’d heard my grandfather talk about his military service during World War II. I’d listened intently as he described how his plane was shot down over Germany.
"We’d been taught to count to ten before opening our parachutes. I counted ‘one-ten’ and pulled." He’d chuckled at his joke. "I was a tail gunner, so I was the seventh man out. The guy behind me didn’t make it." I knew the injuries from that day still bothered him. I’d sat spell bound for an hour as he described life as a POW. My heart swelled with pride at my grandfather, hero and defender of freedom.
The abundant floral tributes around the room were as varied as my conflicting feelings about the man they honored. How would I remember him? With pride or shame? As a war hero or racist? I walked to the adjoining room where my extended family was eating and visiting. As I entered, I noticed an elderly black man standing bashfully at the back door.
"Can I help you?" I asked.
"I just wanted to express my sympathies to Mr. K’s family."
"Thank you. I’m his granddaughter. Did you know my grandfather?"
"Yes’m. I picked up his trash. He helped me and my family out at times."
"What do you mean?" I asked, surprised.
"We had some hard times. Mr. K always seemed to know. He’d give me extra money, even paid a big hospital bill once, but made me promise never to tell. I reckon’ since he’s gone, it’s okay."
"Yes, it’s okay," I said as my eyes filled with tears.
"He was a fine man."
"Yes," I said with pride. "He was a fine man."
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