Today would have been my Grandpa’s 92nd birthday, and I miss him terribly. He died from complications from Parkinson’s disease 5 years ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about him, reflect on a wacky Grandpa story, or give thanks for the important lessons he shared with me – work hard, expect challenges, and above all, the value of a strong and supportive family.
This blog is for the most part about our family experiences with autism, and while I’m not about assigning genetic blame for why two of my children have been diagnosed with autism, let’s just say that since one of my sister’s children has also been diagnosed, it does not take rocket science to recognize we have contributed in some genetic way. I can’t say for certain where it came from, but I see elements of autism in some aspects of my life, as well as in the lives of my extended family. Apple doesn’t fall far my friends . . .
I believe Grandpa was one of the contributors. John Elliott was larger than life. He was bold, he was brash, he never thought before he spoke, and he was the very definition of inappropriate. He rarely remembered to zip his pants, and if someone mentioned that his fly was down, without hesitation he would answer “what are you doing looking down there”. He also started stories in the middle, without regard to who was listening, and asked shocking, yet hysterically funny questions just because he liked to see the reaction of uptight people. (This might have been his greatest gift). He spoke way too loud, and swore in front of small children (unless Grandma was around to scold him), and when we were young, my sister and cousin Dave would fight about who got to sit close to Grandpa in church for Christmas Eve service so we could laugh at Grandpa’s off tune singing and laugh again when he yelled at us in church.
Yet, for all his faults, and maybe even because of them, I loved him dearly. His salt-of-the-earth, harshly honest ways were sometimes painful for me, especially as a chubby farm kid from a small town who lacked any special talents and was challenged to drive a stick-shift. But when I look back now, it was great preparation for parenting 3 kids, 2 of whom have autism. It just didn’t feel so great at 12.
For almost a year before Grandpa passed away, our extended family had been planning a trip to England to visit Grandpa’s extended family, and ancestral home, etc. As Grandpa & Grandma had 7 kids and 17 grandchildren, this was no small task to organize. It was a big deal, with lots of representation from the various family groups (not me as I had 3 small kiddos, Ada an infant at the time) but a boat load of people none the less. As Grandpa got more and more sick, we talked with Grandma and she insisted that the trip must go on because there is nothing he would have wanted more. Grandpa passed away just a day before that adventure, and even though his funeral service was delayed for almost 3 weeks because of it, it may have been the best thing for my Dad, his siblings & Grandma. They were together, and they were celebrating family. Grandpa would have wanted nothing more.
It also gave his funeral service a different feel. He had been gone for a few weeks by the time we gathered to honor him, and because we had all had a bit of time to process his loss, we gave him the kind of send-off that we knew he would have wanted. I had a chance to connect with lots of my cousins during those weeks, and was able to write down some of our collective memories and share them at Grandpa’s service.
Today, on what would have been his 92nd birthday, I was thinking of what Grandpa meant not just to me but to my sister and my cousins as well, and I found that memory list that I had shared at his funeral. It’s been 5 years, and I miss him terribly, but I’m grateful that I see bits and pieces of him in my own life (lack of filter, inappropriateness) and in my children. I felt his presence today as we were out walking around Lake Nokomis, enjoying some family time, teasing Henry for saying “blah, blah” too much, being loud and brash with Ada, and reminding Elliott to zip his pants. Some things never change . . .
Excerpt from April 2007
I’m Kammy – the eldest of the 17 grandchildren of John & Beth Norman. We are a group spanning 31 years between oldest and youngest, and as such have lots of different memories of our Grandpa. We’ve spent some time gathering our collective stories and thoughts of Grandpa – and though many need editing to be able to share with you here today in church – we’d like to pay tribute to him in our own way.
Grandpa was just 46 years old when he became a grandfather. Looking back, I’m not sure how excited he was to start that phase of his life considering he still had a 10, 11 and 13 year old at home. As you may have guessed, he was not necessarily a traditional bounce us on his knee kind of grandpa back in the day. Just the same, we loved him for who he was, and who he wasn’t.
I remember my dad telling me once that Grandpa used Lava Soap to wash his hair – and I don’t know if this is true or just a funny story that got passed my way. Either way, I think Lava is a great metaphor for Grandpa – a bit gritty, and a little rough around the edges. Let’s face it – our Grandpa could scare small children. Junice recalls hiding behind furniture when she was young and dropped off for Grandpa to watch. He would say in his Grandpa like way “you might as well come out because you’re gonna have to eventually.”
But under that abrasiveness, when you really got to know him, Grandpa was much more Dove than Lava. From a very young age what we all remember was having Grandpa very present in our lives. What Grandma and Grandpa established before we ever came along was a very strong family bond. We were raised with this great big fabulous and sometimes strange group of people that gathered frequently and were always there – in times of happiness and times of trouble. No matter what, even when we made big mistakes, this loud crazy group of people – with Grandpa in the lead – was in your corner. He’d still yell at you and call you on the carpet for your actions – mention for years afterward what mistakes you had made in your life – but frankly that was one of the things that made Grandpa who he was. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth, and everyone was an equal target. As Grandpa liked to say on the numerous occasions we gathered in restaurants and were told to keep it down “we’ve been kicked out of better places than this.”
Grandpa meant lots of different things to each of us:
Sarah remembers working at the Farmers Market with Grandpa – and that a good day was when they sold all the sweet corn that Grandpa so proudly raised.
Laura mentioned how Grandpa loved it when grandchildren would bring their new significant others around, and ask them things like “what are your intentions” and question their sexuality – basically anything to make them feel uncomfortable, yet usually not wait around to hear their answer(s).
Rachel recalls getting off the school bus – and hearing a loud “hey” usually coming from the garden where Grandpa was busy at work and how nice it was to be greeted with such exuberance.
Dave (who Grandpa has always called Davy) remembers Grandpa and Grandma traveling across the country to visit him in the Navy and how all his Navy comrades were so taken with Grandpa – who was, as usual, controversial and spicy in his observations. Dave also remembers how important it was as a very young man to have such a strong male figure – a man’s man if you will, in his life during the 70’s when many of our parents were living in the “Age of Aquarius.”
Heather shared that she admired Grandpa’s spirit of fun, feared his kisses, and now watches as her own father’s hair is becoming as wild and wiry as Grandpa’s.
Steven shared the following, and I quote: “One memory that sticks with me is from when I was in third grade and Grandpa came to talk to my class about his experiences in World War II. In a slow and weathered voice, he told my class of about 25 what it was like to enlist in the military, what it was like being away from his wife for so long, and, finally, he told us about his last night aboard the Franklin. His story had every kid in the room hanging off his every word. As he talked about the Franklin and the loss of so many friends, his voice started to get a little shaky. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything rattle him. It wasn’t long before he regained his composure and finished his talk, and the third graders received him with a huge round of applause. As I walked home from school that day, I was overcome with a feeling that still resounds with me today – a feeling of immense pride to be able to call him my Grandpa.”
“On a lighter note, after I reached the age of 13 I can hardly remember having a conversation with Grandpa where he didn’t ask me at least once whether I was still “chasing the ladies.”
Allison remembers asking Grandpa to read books to her as a child. She always chose the same one – “Good Night Moon” – to which grandpa would note “you picked the same damn one” and then had her sit in his lap and proceed to read.
Kristine (my sister) talked about being a young adult, and moving out of state – but making sure to check in with someone once a week so that we could read her the Mayor’s column during Grandpa’s tenure as Mayor of our hometown. If she called me – I usually read it to her imitating grandpa’s voice – just for effect. The best ones always contained the words “and you know who you are.” So maybe Grandpa was a little too candid and to the point, but (and I quote Kristine) “sometimes I wonder if more people just said what was on their mind, like grandpa, the world wouldn’t need as many therapists.”
Colleen told of how not so very long ago, as Grandpa was having more difficulty getting around and his voice getting much quieter due to his medications, she introduced Grandpa to her new boyfriend. Grandpa shook his hand, and then whispered to him “if you hurt her, I will kick your backside” (again, some content edited for this venue). Still, Colleen believed him, and so did her boyfriend.
There were several grandchildren who remembered with fondness the wonderfully unique family prayers that Grandpa led with his loud strong voice and his deep faith. As can be expected in a large group, there is always someone trying to make you laugh at inappropriate moments (engaging in any number of inappropriate gestures/poses). Grandpa often facilitated this by thanking the Lord for such things as “the trees, the shrubs and our problems” You never knew what was coming – but it was always unexpected, and always from his heart.
I like to remember all the memories of Grandpa from our bean field walking days. It was then that I learned so many of life’s lessons. Things like waking up early, working hard, being accountable for my actions and having a laugh or two along the way.
I also remember so clearly how proud Grandpa was when my first born was named after him. We heard again and again that Elliott was to be spelled with “two L’s and two T’s.” Later, after Grandpa learned that Elliott had been diagnosed with autism, he made a point of telling me every time I saw him that he could tell Elliott was making great strides. Of course, this was after he would say upon our arrival “Kammy, which one is the bad one?” I can’t imagine tolerating this from anyone else, and few people outside this family would understand that in Grandpa’s own way – that was a show of affection.
The world seems a little bit emptier without him, but to be sure, it is full of our memories. Grandpa taught us all so much, and we were lucky to have him as long as we did. Because of him we will always know how to identify a good ear of sweet corn, and appreciate humor – both good and bad. So, thank you Grandpa – thank you for sharing with us the love of life, the love of laughter, the love of Lava, but most importantly, the love of family.