A connection to Grandpa

My kids are growing up without their grandfathers.

My dad and my husband’s father both died before our children were born, and I’ve thought many times about what a loss that is.

They’ll never hear my dad’s booming laugh. Or his stories about meeting Humphrey Bogart in the Army, or helping his dad deliver milk from a horse-drawn cart, or driving trucks with no brakes. (“Brakes? You don’t need brakes,” he’d cheerfully tell my dubious brothers who worked for him during the summer.)

They’ll never feel the bear hugs he always gave his kids and grandkids or have the experience of waving sheepishly to random people he’d Blog Photogreet like an old friend, then turn to us and ask, “Who was that?”

For my husband, the loss is even greater. He grew up without his dad, a Nebraska pharmacist educated through the G.I. bill who died when my husband was 3. The oldest of his six children was just 11. (My mother-in-law is made of sturdy stuff.)

The family lost touch with that side of the family for many years. Then, during college, my husband reconnected with a cousin who had the same last name.

Over the next two decades, the families stayed in contact through weddings, funerals and regular family reunions, though we weren’t able to attend many because of the distance.

Then last February my husband ran into another cousin at a high school basketball game in Nebraska, and she invited him to the next reunion in June.

And so last weekend we found ourselves making the trip to a farm just outside Omaha.

I had never met many of the people there, aside from my husband’s immediate family. But I didn’t have that spouse-tagging-along-for-the-class-reunion dread.

I’m big on family history. Even though it’s not my own, this is my children’s lineage. I treasure the photo we have of my father-in-law smiling down at my husband, then a toddler bouncing on his knee. And the video my sister-in-law put together from some old home movies, showing her dad laughing and playing with his kids.

Those glimpses are all we have now. I was lucky enough to meet two of his brothers — friendly and funny, just like him, apparently — but they’re gone now, too.

At the reunion, we talked with the next generation, who shared family stories I’d never heard. About his older sister who died in her teens and another who died as a young mother.

About his parents, Martha and Herman, who had traveled to America from Germany in 1887, eventually settling in Kansas and later Nebraska to scrape by as farmers.

And there were more pictures: group photos of the nine siblings, a wedding portrait of one of the sisters and a classic shot of a dapper young lad in a letter sweater.

We took some more group photos, and exchanged email addresses in hopes of staying in touch. Facebook makes it easier now.

Beyond the nostalgia, the setting was postcard perfect. The farm is set in rolling pastures with stately trees and a gorgeous old barn. Our kids got to pet the horses and dogs, play volleyball on the front lawn, eat to their heart’s content and engage in a game of “prairie golf” (pretty much what you’d imagine). They barely set foot inside all day.

The shyness they sometimes exhibit around adults fell away as they laughed and played with their cousins, aunts and uncles. I’ve seen the same thing when we visit my side of the family — the comfort of unconditional love and that connection through the generations.

My kids may not have their grandparents here, but they have uncles on both sides who have stepped in to fill the void — shooting hoops, taking them to the zoo or a ballgame, teaching them how to put a train set together or just making them laugh.

And they have our stories, and photos — and memories from a farm in Nebraska.

______________________

Julie Wurth blogs about families and kids and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

Photo: The farm outside Omaha where we gathered for a family reunion. Julie Wurth photo

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dlmancuso@urbanaparks.org wrote on June 22, 2012 at 7:06 am

We are in a similar situation. One grandfather was never in the picture and one died many years ago. We will miss the chance to make comparisons between my children and their grandfathers--in looks and temperment. Extended family and reunions play a wonderful role. The kids may or may not appreciate it fully now, but those of us in the "middle" generation truly do, as we can see our pasts and our futures all at once. Sounds like great connections were made.

Julie Wurth wrote on June 25, 2012 at 12:06 pm
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I love that line about seeing our pasts and futures all at once. That's exactly what it is, and why the connections are so strong. We just got back from another family trip - I always feel so renewed after those visits. Thanks for the comment!