It’s hard for me to feel truly comfortable in a place. Maybe it stems from being teased as a kid. Maybe it’s genetics, the hereditary hyper-sensitivity I garnered from my father’s side of the family. I think that it must be the latter, because at thirty years old, I’m still uncomfortable in most social situations. The older I get, I find it more and more difficult to relax and just “be myself.”
Does anybody have it figured out? I think my grandfather did.
“All I remember about your father is that he had a big bald head,” said my Aunt Mare to my mother, a few weeks ago at the shore. “He had a big bald head and big round eyes.”
He did have a big bald head and big round eyes. Also a big nose and saggy jowl, strong hands and bad knees.
He died this past Sunday night. Natural causes. He was ready to go; he’d been saying it for months. He could no longer walk, hold a pen to do crosswords, remember long enough to joke with people or enjoy music. For the last month or so, we’ve all been praying that he’d get to his rest soon. And he got it.
Still, my family is sad. He was a remarkable guy, the kind of personality that makes you mad that there’s this thing called death that has to happen to everybody. He was so good-natured, and it was catching. Even in the planning of the arrangements, flying the family down to Florida at the end of the week, we’ve been slightly jubilant.
“Six of us on a plane for two days?” said my twenty-seven year old brother. “This is gonna be awesome!”
Grandpop would appreciate the sentiment. Not to be ear-twistingly cliché, but it IS how he would have wanted us to be.
So many people say in mourning: “So-and-so wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad.” Most of the time, I think it’s bullshit. I mean, who doesn’t want people to cry at their funeral? If I attended my funeral as a ghost and saw nobody crying, I’d be like: Well, thanks a lot. I want melodrama. A mire of people emotionally embarrassing themselves. Crying. Sobbing. Throwing themselves on my casket. Like the end of Godfather III.
That’s not my grandpop though. I know this because he made everyone’s happiness his priority. He often reminded me of Sinatra in that way; I saw him move around his house like I imagined Sinatra moved around the Sands, spending time talking to every single person in the place, making sure that he or she was happy, taken care of for the evening. He also mastered this inner calm, a feeling that spread through the room with his smile. If not cracking jokes, he’d remind us, incessantly, how much he loved us.
“Why do I like you so much?” he often asked.
My grandmother would cross from the family room to the kitchen, and in those few steps, he’d tell her that she was wonderful, and he loved her, at least four times. I’m not exaggerating. It wasn’t just lip service either. He wore that love on his face, in his eyes, in his smile, and the gentle way he spoke to her, and all of us.
Neither he nor my grandmother ever raised their voices. They never got cross with each other. They were quiet and patient. When they visited, Matthew and I woke early, ran to their bed and climbed right in. We stayed there for the early dawning hours, singing songs.
“Here we go,
Into the wild blue yonder…
“You are the B-E-S-T
Of all the R-E-S-T
And I’ll L-O-V-E
All the T-I-M-E
“Be kind to your web-footed friends
‘Cos a duck may be somebody’s mother.
They live in the woods and the swamp,
Where the weather is cold and dahmp.
Now you may think that this is the end.
Well it is!”
For breakfast, he made us pancakes in the shapes of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty—a feat I’ve tried to replicate many times, and failed. (Seriously, try to make a pancake in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. It’s impossible.)
Later on in the day, he’d get down on the floor with us to play, build castles with blocks. He taught us Checkers, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit. When we did well, he marveled at our smarts, bulging out his eyes, terrifically impressed.
As I got older, he taught me how to mix the chemicals for the right pH level in their pool. He let me help him with his crosswords. He taught me everything about Sinatra. Recently, I found a photo of him from the seventies, where he’s lying on the floor with his hands tucked under his head, right next to the speaker cabinet in his living room. The look on his face is pure joy. I felt like I was looking into a mirror; I was like: Yeah, music does that to me too.
The last time I saw him, we drank vodka tonics and joked and laughed. I stopped smiling only when he asked how writing was going. I replied, “Well I’m writing, but I haven’t been published yet.”
“You will,” he said.
This shut me up, not because it had to do with my career, but because of the way he said it. He replied so simply, like I’d said that I wanted to take out the trash, or do the dishes. To him, it was simple. There was no doubt in his mind.
My grandfather carried this unflinching optimism through his whole life. Who knows where he got it? He grew up in the Philly neighborhood of Tacony, so poor that he stole Christmas trees for his family. He could not afford college, so he went to war, flew planes in WWII. He went to college on the GI Bill. Like a classic old movie, he started working in the mailroom of an insurance company, and worked his way up until he was an executive. People liked him so much that they put him in charge of starting new branches all over the country. He inspired people to feel pride and love in their work. He worked hard, planned frugally, but always enjoyed life.
“You are number one,” he often said.
For years, I thought he meant simply that I should take care of myself, first and foremost. But now I see that he was trying to teach me his recipe for happiness. To be happy is to love yourself, truly, completely.
When you truly love yourself, you carry that unflinching optimism with you everywhere. You are confident. You glow. You spread those good feelings all around. You have a hard day at work, but so what? At the end of the day, you can lie on the living room floor with your head in the stereo cabinet, smiling. You can surround yourself with the people you love most.
I take a lot from my grandfather—his love of music, his big bulging eyes, his saggy jowl. Most important is this. His gushiness. His need to constantly remind everyone around him that he loved them.
It’s important. Not because it’s the nice thing to do or because you never know when they might be taken from you. Because love is how you survive in this world. Love helps you carry that unflinching optimism through every obstacle.
I think that this is why my grandfather was so adamant about saying, “I love you.” Those three words are like spells for love and happiness. They also make a place comfortable. They turn four walls into a home.
Howard Hoke Ireland, flying in WWII
Ireland and grandchildren, 1988
Ireland and granddaughters, August 2007