My Grandfather’s 92nd birthday is today, and he almost lived to see it. He was famous for calling everyone in the family on our birthdays to sing to us, and I think I speak for most of the family when I say my own birthday this year will be bittersweet without having him here to mark the occasion.
However, the fact that he’s no longer with us seems a poor reason not to honor his day. Below is the eulogy I read at his visitation along with a few pictures.
Happy Birthday, Grandpa!
Grandpa was one of the few people to be the Commander of the American Legion post 513 twice — with an almost 50 year gap between his years of service!
Grandpa’s priorities in life were simple: to serve God, country & family. And I would say that these were the secret to his longevity; his dedication to service and living a life of purpose helped him to survive all kinds of health issues that would have taken down a weaker man.
So I would like to reflect on these a bit.
Grandpa with my brother, Greg (left) and I. From their house in Fairfield, OH. (ca. 1982)
Grandpa was, above all, a family man. My earliest memories are of family gatherings downstairs at Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Evalie in Fairfield, not just for holidays, but because it was…Saturday. These were not quiet, tea-sipping affairs. First thing you would see at the bottom of the steps was a bar that sat four or five at least, a pool table to the right, and a living room to the left where everyone could gather comfortably. Grandpa might be drinking one of his beloved Manhattans, or he might have filled his glass from the keg refrigerator. Their house was fun; full of laughter and argument — everyone had an opinion, and everyone was free to share it.
As I’ve sorted through my memories of Grandpa these past few weeks, It surprised me to realize how many of them are of him — and all of us — by water. When I was very young we spent many weekends of the year at Lake Lorelei on the pontoon boat or grilling out in the yard along the water. If we were staying local on summer weekends, then it was a sure bet that we’d be swimming in Grandma and Grandpa’s neighbor, Bob Kay’s pool — a privilege we all enjoyed because Grandpa was Bob’s pool man, more or less.
Grandpa with my cousin, “Baby” Ryan — and Grandma swimming in the background.
When they moved south to landlocked Ocala, Florida, even there the majority of our activities were near the water — renting cabins along or boating on the Rainbow River where we saw all sorts of wildlife I’d only seen on TV. The first time I saw the Atlantic was at Daytona Beach with them, and we even made a stop at Weeki Watchee where they had live mermaid shows. Grandpa insisted I should get my picture with a mermaid…and then Grandpa insisted he and I should both get our picture…(…and then he got one with just him and the mermaid. He was always a charmer.)
In his later years, however, he traded mermaids and pool equipment, lakes, rivers and oceans for the small pond behind their apartment at Regency Run. Whenever I visited, if the weather was nice, I’d see Grandpa as we pulled in from John Gray Road, sitting quietly, watching the fountain and the ducks and the traffic with a statue of St. Francis next to him as his only companion (Grandma was more likely to be found inside playing online poker with college kids from across the country). He was still the life of the party, but it became clear that he had a quieter, contemplative side.
The complete caption reads: Norbert and a glass of beer. Aug. 1944
I got to experience this side of him up close shortly after Grandma’s funeral. My cousin, Nikki arranged for him to meet with Father Tharp, and I tagged along just because. I got to hear Grandpa tell Father in his own words just how much his long life, long marriage, and all the blessings that sprang from them meant to him. He spoke, too, of his military service, which I believe was an extension of his love for his family. Mark Twain said, “Love the country always; love the government when it deserves it.” Today too many people see country and government as being one and the same thing, which makes one very cynical, but grandpa didn’t: he could be very critical of the government, but he loved the people. He treated people with kindness and he served in the military on behalf of the people. Nikki, has described Grandpa as having a servant’s heart, and I think this is an apt description, because he never seemed to demand anything in return.
Grandpa saluting the flag, 2015
Case in point: On our way out from that meeting with Father Tharp, a young man in his twenties was walking towards us. He saw Grandpa walking with a cane, saw his WWII Veteran hat, and promptly took a few steps back to open the door for Grandpa, and said nothing more than, “Thank you for your service.” To this Grandpa replied, “No, why…thank you!” And then he continued on — no further conversation, no smug, self-satisfaction. Something about that exchange was deeply moving, and it was connected to the fact that, while he was able, he would raise and salute the flag on his flagpole every morning when he woke up, and salute it again before he took it down in the evening. When he saluted the flag, he saluted the people. He didn’t force others to do the same, and he didn’t care if anyone judged him: he did it because honoring and respecting people is what you do. It’s why he participated in more than a thousand military funerals; it’s why he called you every year, without fail, to sing “happy birthday” to you. Because honoring and respecting people is what you do.
I can’t say if Grandpa was always this kind of exemplar of grace — I only knew him for the last forty years of his very long life — but I think he was an excellent model to the rest of us of the things that really matter.
He had the heartiest laugh.
It has been said that living with the knowledge that you’re dying is like leaving a party early when you’re having fun and really don’t want to go. There has to be some truth to this, and Grandpa, as stated earlier, was the life of the party, but he was also a devout Catholic who firmly believed in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. For him, we hope and believe, the party has not ended, that it’s only just getting started because now he’s there. He’s left us here to mourn him, but he’s joined Grandma and loved ones he hasn’t seen in many years: his brother Bernard and Aunt Bert; his sister Alma & Uncle Al, their parents, Rose and Clarence. After catching up with all of them, laughing and probably having a bit too much to drink, he’ll step outside to look at the shimmering expanse of heaven as he looked at his pond here on Earth, and he’ll see us in the distance on the other side. Grandma will join him, and so will St. Francis — not the statue, but the man himself — and they’ll raise their glasses in a toast to us, as we raise our glasses in a toast to them, and they’ll continue to watch over all of us in the days, months, years and decades ahead, until we’re all reunited in that celestial home where water is turned to wine — or beer if that’s your preference — where our tears are turned to laughter, and where Grandpa — or Dad, or Uncle Norb, or just plain Norb — will turn to us with that gigantic smile of his, letting us know how honored he feels that we found our way back to him.
Grandpa, we salute you, we love you, and we thank you for your service in all the ways you served this world. We miss you, but we take comfort in the knowledge that we’ll meet again one day.
Given Grandpa’s fondness for St. Francis, I would like to end today by reciting the St. Francis prayer. If you know the prayer, please feel free to recite it along with me.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled
As to console.
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.