It is with a heavy heart that I write this blog post. It has been a few weeks, now, but my dear grandfather passed on March 25. I’ve been wanting to commemorate him somehow, but the emotions were so raw that I couldn’t get out anything very meaningful or coherent. I am grateful that I have this outlet to urge me to pull it together and create a (hopefully satisfactory) memorial piece for him.
It is surprising to me how deeply I have felt his loss. We knew he was dying. It wasn’t surprising when I got notice from my mother that he had passed, but it was shocking. I’m going to get real with you here…my grief was and is palpable. When I was alone I felt like a widowed Italian–sobbing, wailing with tears flowing, lying prostrate with my hands clasped above my head. Every beautiful day (and EVERY day was beautiful from the time he died until the day of his funeral) brought me to tears thinking about how he would never see another beautiful day.
Fortunately, my family and I got to visit with him just ten days before his death. Although he was very old and deteriorating fairly quickly from heart, kidney and liver failure, my grandfather was very present. His eyesight was nearly perfect, and as my mother says, “he could hear a fly fart from twenty paces.” He was a witty, intelligent and kind man. Alex Andrew Griffin will be greatly missed.
In the last year since Fern was born (she turned one the day before his funeral), I’ve had several instances where I imagined my grandfather being born to his sixteen year old mother. My great grandmother Marie had an inarguably terrible life. By the time she was 14 both of her parents had died (her father an alcoholic) and most of her siblings had died in a house fire. She married my great grandfather (at 15, I think!) and had my grandpa. A few years later she lost a son just one day after he was born and shortly after that my great grandfather succumbed to cancer. She was a twenty year old widow with a four year old son and hardly any family to support her. Then the great depression happened. Despite these hardships, I can imagine my little newborn grandpa squirming in my great grandmother’s exhausted arms while she gazed at him with more love than she thought possible. I imagine her rational brain (she was a reserved, almost stern woman) at odds with her hormonal mom brain, and it is beautiful. My grandfather entered this world on June 15, 1924 and cried the cry of a newborn that began his Northwoods life.
He and his mother moved into an apartment next door to my great, great, great aunt (my great grandmother’s aunt) in Duluth, Minnesota. At this point, my grandpa was going by “Jimmy” and he didn’t even know his birth name was Alex! My grandpa was a great story teller, and his earliest stories are from this apartment. His story telling was superb, and i can’t do it justice but I remember them so well…Almost every day he and his mom would go next door to have tea and a biscuit for breakfast. The last visit I had with my grandpa we shared some tea and cookies. He loved Irish Breakfast tea with sugar so that’s what we had while he shared memories with me. He said I made excellent tea and I took it as a high compliment!
In Duluth, my grandpa remembers selling five cent newspapers on the sidewalk for some guy. He was about 5. He knew how to give change for a quarter, but many people would tell him to keep the change. Being an innocent little kid (and adorable! of course they let him keep the change!) he would hand over all of the newspaper money to the guy and get a quarter for his work. The man would also give him cigarettes–and he would smoke them! at five! Can you imagine this little Irish boy wearing knickers and a flat cap, slinging newspapers and smoking a cigarette?! I can and it’s amazing.
You know how people are super concerned with kids and screen time these days? How we’ve come to rely on televisions as substitute babysitters? Apparently that’s nothing new. My great grandma would give a nickel to my grandpa (at five, still), and send him across the street to the nickelodeon. He would watch little films all morning–Rin Tin Tin is the only one I can remember him mentioning. He remarked that it was probably a cheap babysitter for his mom. Another time his mother had made pies and put them atop the china cabinet (I think his father was alive at this point) and grandpa climbed up their to get one and he fell through the top! He couldn’t remember what happened after that–did he get some pie?
After his mother remarried they moved to Crosby, MN–a small town on the iron range situated on Serpent Lake. He remembered fishing for northern pike there as a seven year old. A lot of Finnish people lived in Crosby, and he traded stamps with an elderly Finnish woman neighbor who spoke no English. Up until the last time i saw him he would do little Finnish foot games on babies…”Doller, maller, sculpien, scruplen, tiddle tiddle tiddle tiddle.” By the way–we aren’t Finnish at all!
As a school boy in Crosby grandpa went to school wearing knickers on his first day. Coming from the big city of Duluth, his mother dressed him up for school. All of the other kids were wearing jeans and, embarrassed, he refused to wear knickers ever again. Come to think of it, I rarely saw my grandpa wear anything but jeans.
He lived in this small town during the depression, and the city allowed the residents to live there tax-free and mortgage-free as long as they kept their homes in good order. Cows lived in the alleys and chickens, too, they belonged to specific families but everyone fed them and got some of the goodies. It sounded like a nice little community, albeit very poor. His mother and step father ended up having one more son and four daughters in the following years.
As a teen, Grandpa Jim (we always called him by his nickname) worked for a New Deal work program to build an ice rink and other local spots for his town. He made something like $17 per week. Later, he moved back to Duluth to work…I can’t remember exactly what he did…but he made $40 per week and had to spend most of his money on room and board, so he returned to Crosby to work in the iron ore mines. While working there he froze his feet and got one of his legs terribly crushed. This is also when he was diagnosed with asthma and got some terrible illness that took almost two years to recover from. These health problems culminated in him not being eligible to join the army–something that he wanted to do so badly, but I’m happy he didn’t have to fight in WWII.
He later met my grandmother, became the county assessor and moved out to Perry Lake, Minnesota where my maternal grandmother grew up. Her parents sold 70 something acres to them and they built a house on the lake. It is the house my grandfather stayed in until just a few months before his death. He was a great outdoorsman–hunting deer, grouse, squirrel, ducks and geese and fishing year round in the lake. Even just a month or so before he died he talked about getting out on one more bird hunt. He taught my brothers the secrets of deer hunting, and I remember fishing with him as a kid, often getting bored and turning to reading and writing poetry while floating on the water.
My grandpa also golfed two or three times per day in his retirement! He got a few holes-in-one over the years and made great friends with golfing buddies and personnel. We met a man at his funeral that had golfed with my grandfather for forty years!
He flew on a plane once–from Brainerd to Hinckley MN, probably an hour or so long flight on a small plane. It was so terrifying that he never flew again! While Ireland called him, there was no way he was going to get there unless he could take a boat. Besides that, he was a major homebody–traveling to Montana, Canada and Michigan were about as far as he would venture from Minnesota, and he wouldn’t even do that for more than a couple of days.
In his last months, I asked my grandfather what the highlight of his life was–what would he call the “good ol’ days.” He gave a very him answer–one influenced by the Depression and his love of the outdoors. I imagined he would talk about his three lovely daughters growing up and having a nice job and house or something but this is what came out: “Ooooh, I’d say 1965 to 1980. There were plenty of deer and grouse and fish and I could eat all that I wanted!” he followed that up with lamenting that he couldn’t eat all of the good food that was offered in his assisted living facility.
As a kid, my grandpa was always there. We would stay at my great grandparents house quite a bit throughout the year and we would walk the “old road” (it used to be the highway, but it is now a wide grassy path) to his house or paddle boat to his dock. He always had ice cream for us. I remember him walking in the woods with his fly switch–a branch with fly tape spun around it, and doing tick checks after romping outside. He taught my brothers how to deer hunt and he taught me how to shoot a .22. We caught lots of fish with him and we played lots of Pictionary with him.
I wish I had told my grandfather just how much he meant to me and our family. He left behind seven grandkids (plus my brother who died 16 years ago) and seven great grandkids. We are spread throughout the US and all embody different parts of him–his love of nature, his fiscal responsibility, his love of golf, his wit and sense of humor, his reclusiveness, his love of home, his lightheartedness…
It’s hard to believe he is gone, it is hard to accept that he will never be here again. It’s shocking to experience how real the grief is even when he died an almost perfect and expected death–it is the purest grief I’ve felt…the grief that only relates to loss, not also the circumstances related to the loss.
Here’s to you, Grandpa Jim. We love you and miss you so.