Thursday, December 21, 2006

In Loving Memory

I attended my 99 year-old grandfather's funeral yesterday. To be honest there is little sadness in the funeral of a patriarch nearing the age of 100 at death. There is a sense of personal loss and the the finality to get used to, but the closing of the circle of life is inevitable. I can only rejoice in how long we had together. I almost feel guilty over how manageable my grief is. No moments overcome by the rush of memories and the ending of our season together. Except for a few tears shed while meditating on my grandfather in anticipation of saying a few words at the funeral, I hardly have cried. But I cannot say there has been a dearth of emotion. There has been the private joy of nostalgia. There have been the contemplative moments of reflecting on a life well spent, and what that means to my own life. Laughing, smiling and telling little jokes between us, I feel blessed to have my family and thus thankful for the grandfather that helped shape our identity. I can be so critical in my analysis of everything in my life, particularly my clan, that I find myself for the first time in a long time really sitting in a space of gratitude in regards to them.

I knew my grandfather through the narrow experience of being his grandson. He was already retired and nearly a septuagenarian by the time I was born. I never gave very much thought to him in terms of being a man: imperfect, torn by his emotions, striving to find his peace. Forever in search of meaning in my life, I cannot help but ponder the meaning of his life and look at him through a new lens... reflecting on his ways, his struggles, his successes and his failures.

I most certainly remember his indomitable sense of humor: a brilliantly honed defense mechanism that helped a talented, sensitive black child come into manhood in 1920's Texas. I don't know if my grandfather ever uttered more than a serious sentence or two at a time toward me in my entire life. He constantly teased, but his eyes twinkled with the knowledge that with this grandchild, he didn't have to be so serious anyway...that this little fellow was being born to a world that finally might seek to celebrate him for his brilliance rather than lynch him for it. My family communicates almost exclusively through humor, each person having his own slant. Even in sadness or anger, we are rarely humorless. More often than not, a seemingly dead serious remark is a set up for a punchline. We aren't so good at expressing our more difficult feelings, and its in the sometimes merciless ribbing and razor like witty observations that we assert some of our more difficult emotions, but I will take being roasted over physical and emotional abuse any day of the week.

When my grandfather wasn't joking, he could be so sincere in his expression of his pride for me. Almost to the point of being dumbstruck by the depth of his own feelings, his words were feeble compared to the raw voice that betrayed the intensity of his love and pride. He often sounded as if he was being overcome. I was too young to understand his past, to understand how much my mere existence, unfettered by the chains of Jim Crow was a miracle to him. My grandfather reacted to the hostile world not with anger but with humility and faith in his God and his purpose, and God granted him the fortitude to live long enough to see the fruits of his sacrifices. Life in his case, wasn't perpetual tragedy

I remember the way he insisted his sons and grandsons kiss him hello and goodbye no matter how old we were and no matter who might be present to see us. I used to hate to kiss my grandfather, but I will miss giving him that harmless delight and I regret somewhat that I only realized today what a sweet joy it must have been. I guess I was too put off by the idea of kissing a man, but my grandfather knew more about manhood than most. My grandfather defined himself as a man primarily by his ability to take responsibility for his actions and in his service to the weak, the innocent, and those who were in need. He understood that most Southerners did not want to recognize him as a man, so he best be able to recognize himself as a man. I don't know if he ever said this to his sons, but I doubt it. The men in my family have always been too busy being men, to stop and explain what a man is. Maybe we all learned from our grandfather that it is each man's job to decide for himself what a man must do and live up to his own expectations. My grandfather felt no shame or embarrassment in shedding a tear of sadness or joy. He didn't see anything noble in stubbornly remaining stoic and detached from his feelings. He was a sensitive man before it was cool...he was ahead of his time.

As I stood at the pulpit in church, I looked at the crowd of men gathered and knew what a rare experience as a black male I was given. I didn't grow up glad to have one decent black male role model...but in a family where I could not throw a rock without hitting a good black man. I also grew up exposed to the beautiful strong women who stood at these men's sides. I got to see the magnificent twirl of men who loved their wives, and women who loved their husbands. I have seen tenderness on the part of these men, and I have also learned that it is a blessing to have a woman strong enough to allow a man to be vulnerable.

Arriving back in Los Angeles today I return to my life edified. Sometimes my friends in Los Angeles who don't know much of my family remark on how uncommonly decent I can be, but I know how far short I fall of some of the examples that were set for me. I think of my what a gift I had in my grandfather and wonder if I will ever find a way to be that gift to someone be a rock, to be dependable, to be a wise and thankful possessor of talents. I think of my out-sized ego and how much I want to have some measurable and recognizable impact on the world, but my ambitions are tempered by seeing how my grandfather created a legacy, simply by being decent and keeping his faith in God and in himself. It seems that no one was ever worse off for having known my grandfather, and many credit him with having been their safety net, their shelter in the storm.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a chief aim in life: first, do no harm...and hopefully to release more kindness and love into the world than fear and selfishness. Now I realize that this is my grandfather's legacy alive in his son, my father, and alive in me as well. What a precious inheritance.

-mr. wilson's grandson