Sunday, June 21, 2009

An Actual Eulogy: Grandpa Conrad

Apparently my sister and I don't communicate very well when she calls me at 5 o'clock in the morning. Go figure. It was my Grandpa Conrad that she wanted memories about. We have a Conrad Family Reunion coming up in July and she's been assigned to talk about my grandpa. Since I obviously won't be able to attend the family reunion, it will be nice to contribute a little bit.

I still remember the day my grandpa died. Wednesday, May 17, 2000. My brother David and I had been up at a Regional Band Competition (where we totally rocked, thank you very much) all day. We got back to the high school shortly before mutual was due to begin so my mom was there to pick us up and drive us across town to the church in our trendy, black cherry, 1987-style Chrysler mini-van. She looked so sad when we got into the van and it really put a damper on our victorious spirits.

"Grandpa died today," she informed us.

I sat there in stunned silence. Grandpa had been sick and declining my whole life, but he had always been there. Part of me knew that I should have known he was going to die, that I shouldn't be so surprised, that I should be happy that he wasn't suffering anymore. The other part of me was absolutely miserable. I was torn.

"I...don't know how to feel," I admitted.

"With your hands!" my mom choked out in an inseparable mixture of tears and laughter.

Anyone who could understand what my grandpa said knew that he was hilarious. You just had to learn to understand him, first.

Grandpa had a stroke long before I was even thought of. He lost speech abilities and some movement. He eventually had to give up farming and take up a cane to help him walk. My mom told me that he used to be rather bitter about the whole thing and wasn't very pleasant to be around, but I never knew him when he was like that. By the time I knew him he had accepted his fate and had decided to live a happy life. It seemed like every time something else in his body failed he just got happier.

One of his ongoing jokes was to answer, "With my hands!" to anyone who dared ask how he felt that day. I think Grandpa would have been happy that within minutes of being informed of his death we were all laughing our heads off again.

My first memories of Grandpa are being terrified of him. Grandma and Grandpa came out to visit us in PoCo once, before Grandpa couldn't travel, and I don't think I said a word to him the whole time. My mom bribed me with freezies in order to get me to give him a hug goodbye. He talked funny--his voice was raspy and his speech slurred--and, even worse, he drooled. He was scary!

Freezies were apparently worth the risk of being drooled on since I remember hugging him. I waited until the very last minute, though. He was already sitting down in the car, ready to go, and was just about to close the door when I ran over to give him a hug.

Grandma affectionately called his uncontrollable drooling "Grandpa Glue."

Grandpa read a lot. In the morning he could often be found reading the scriptures, and in the afternoon it would be the Reader's Digest--the big print version. There were stacks of old Reader's Digests in various places throughout the house. The grand kids would read them when we visited, telling the jokes to each other and scaring ourselves with stories of poisonous spiders and tragic shipwrecks. I think he liked to read so much because reading was still fluent for him. Sometimes when our conversations got too raucous, he'd slip away. I don't know if it was because he was frustrated at not being able to join in or if we were just too noisy for him.

There was some noise that he didn't mind, though, and that was when we would play the game PIT! There were a few times when the Torries and our family were visiting at the same time and someone would help Grandpa down the stairs so we could sit around the ping-pong table and yell to our hearts' content.

We would all sit in silence until the dealer declared that the market was open. And then...

"Three! Three! Three! I have three! Anybody? Three!"

"TWO!" someone else would bellow, "TWO!"

Cards would be switching hands faster than lightning. Hands waving, voices yelling, tension rising, until someone would yell, "Corner on the market!"

Then everyone would quiet down so we could see what grain closed that day's market, who had the cards we needed. We'd quickly jot down scores and begin another round. Grandpa was surprisingly energetic and vocal during these games, really in his element.

Another game he really enjoyed was crokinole. Grandpa's aim was always remarkably accurate his whole life. Impeccable, you might say. It was amazing to watch him play crokinole because he was so shaky. He would put his ring at the edge of the board, squint his eyes, cock his head, and raise his arm, fingers ready to flick and concentration pouring out of his soul.

His arm would be shaking 6 inches this way and 6 inches that way, up, down, side to side, and if you were watching him play for the first time you might wonder to yourself if he'd even be able to flick the ring, let alone make the shot he had set up. He would make the shot, though, almost every time. Those of us who knew him knew that. Some of us trusted his aim to the point of risking our lives.

Once at a Conrad Reunion, held on the Torrie farm around 1996, I remember watching my dad sit calmly with an apple on his head, across the yard from Grandpa who, like the gallant William Tell, sat poised with his bow--his arrow pointing at the apple balancing on Dad's head. Grandpa's arms were shaking so badly; I thought for sure my dad was a goner. But, of course, much to the crowd's relief, Grandpa's arrow sank deep into the apple.

Another sport that Grandpa enjoyed was hockey. I think that's the only thing I ever saw him watch on TV. He had a little Foosball-like hockey game featuring the Toronto Maple Leaves and the Montreal Canadiens, I believe. There was a little metal marble that acted as the hockey puck and players made of metal and painted with a red or blue jersey would twirl around in circles to hit the puck with their sticks. David and I used to go downstairs and play that. It was really old and sometimes the knobs to turn the players would come off and we'd have to call time out until we could get the knobs back on again. David always won, but I bet that if we had ever played with Grandpa he could have beaten David!

Grandpa had a workshop in the basement. There are a few, very faint memories that I have of him working on projects in there. Once when I was young enough that I was still scared of him I had a run-in with him in the hallway. He was coming out of the workshop and tried to say something to me, but instead he choked and some Grandpa Glue dripped onto the carpet. I ran upstairs crying and Grandma came down to clean up the Glue, but I think I spent the remainder of that visit jumping over that section of carpet, anyway.

There wasn't a whole lot of reason to visit Grandpa's old workroom. It was an unfinished room, with scraps of mismatched pieces of carpet on the floor and bare cement walls, beside Grandma's food storage room and led to the garage. Since Grandma used the stairs leading from the basement to the garage as a makeshift root cellar, we rarely went through the basement to get to the garage. The chest freezer was in that room, though, and whenever I was sent to retrieve something from the freezer I always dawdled, taking time to imagine Grandpa working with all those tools (which was about as hard to imagine as it was to imagine him being an archer) and sneaking a peak at the old calendars hanging up around the room and ogling the old, curious-looking telephone.

My grandpa used to volunteer with the local telephone line and would help repair the phone lines, once putting Uncle Bruce's life in serious jeopardy. I remember my mom telling me that Grandpa always wanted to work an office job, and that he tried it, but couldn't do it. This was before the days of smoking laws and all his coworkers smoked. He couldn't stand being in the office, so he went back to the farm.

Grandpa was such a daredevil that farm life probably suited him best. He had a few serious injuries, which my mom and uncle wrote about, involving a beet topper and his leg. Even with his second-choice occupation and various farming accidents, Grandpa was happy through life and he carried that with him through his trials of old age, as well.

When his mobility started failing more rapidly, he started using a walker. Grandma could often be found shadowing him to make sure that he didn't fall and to help him get settled at his next choice of location. She also made him do exercises--he had to do several laps up and down the long hallway from the living room to the bedrooms everyday. His balance was terrible, so it was a good thing Grandma was willing to follow him around everywhere.

Once when the "Grandpa Train," as Grandma sometimes called it, was coming down the hallway Grandpa lost his balance and fell, grasping desperately for the railing (Grandma and Grandpa had railings installed all over the house: all the way down the hallway, leading from the driveway to the front door, in the bathroom, all over). Unfortunately he had lost his balance at the top of the stairs and he tumbled right down them.

Everyone rushed over to see if he was alright. Abra was the first down the stairs to help him up. While she was lifting him, Grandpa pointed his shaky finger at Grandma in mock accusation.

"She pushed me!" he slurred with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

We all laughed, but Grandma was somewhat mortified and denied, several times, that she would ever push Grandpa down the stairs. She didn't have to worry; we knew Grandpa was kidding! We didn't always know if Grandpa was kidding, but that time it was fairly obvious. Other times it wasn't quite so obvious, but Grandpa definitely had a sense of humor.

Mealtime at Grandma and Grandpa's was sometimes more fun than others. Sometimes when we had larger get-togethers at Grandma and Grandpa's house, we would all bring food to share and meals were much more palatable than our more intimate meals with Grandma and Grandpa. Auntie Colleen would bring baked beans and buns and potato chips. Grandma would make her famous lemon fruit salad. And we would also contribute something, but obviously I didn't care what because I can't remember what my mom would usually make.

Grandma's fruit salad was to die for. All the grand kids loved it and would vie for second helpings and larger portions. We could usually have as much as we wanted until it was all gone, with one rule: everyone had to have firsts before we could go back for seconds.

Patrick once started reaching for the salad spoon either before he had finished his firsts (meaning he had to eat everything from his plate) or before everyone had had their firsts (meaning that his reaching for the spoon was completely taboo) and Grandpa noticed.

He tried to tell Patrick to stop, but Patrick simply wasn't understanding what he was saying. Grandpa was frustrated that Patrick wasn't listening, so he reached over and slapped Patrick's hand. Patrick was gravely offended and avoided going on visits to Grandma and Grandpa's house for months, maybe years. This made Grandpa so sad because he hadn't meant to hurt Patrick's feelings; he just wanted to be listened to. Eventually the two of them made up, but it took a lot of time, begging and coercing just to get Patrick to even go over there until they did!

When just our family was visiting meals were usually pretty simple. Grandpa had a hard time chewing and swallowing--we call it the Conrad Throat; we can choke on nothing--especially when his teeth started falling out. Because of this, vegetables were steamed until they virtually dissolved in your mouth (later, Grandma would actually puree Grandpa's food for him) and everything else was equally easy to chew. Instead of "real" meat, Grandma and Grandpa usually had canned chicken or something like that.

Once, Grandma had opened a can of chicken spam and cut it into pieces. It was passed around the table with the rest of the food and we all took some, to be polite. Josie really didn't want any, but he got served some, anyway. She ate nearly everything on her plate, except for the chicken spam, which she stared at in horror.

No one was really paying her any mind, but we had been talking about dental hygiene. That topic always seemed to come up when Grandpa would pop out his false teeth. Somehow Patrick, who wasn't present due to the hand-slapping incident, was outed as an anti-teethbrusher. He was just at that age where brushing his teeth seemed like the most horrible form of torture on the face of the planet.

So, while Josie was sitting there, nervously poking the chicken spam around on her plate, Grandpa thought he would take the time to express how important it is to take care of your teeth (because he didn't as a young man and now had precious few teeth left).

"Tell Patrick to brush his teeth," Grandpa said.

Much to our surprise, Josie picked up her fork and started gobbling up her chicken. As soon as she was done, she ran away from the table. Mom went to find her later and it was disclosed that Josie thought Grandpa had yelled for her to "Eat your meat!" and that she was in trouble.

But she wouldn't be, of course, because as much as Patrick and I were afraid of Grandpa when we were little, Josie was equally enamored. She had a walker and he had a walker. She had little hair and he had little hair. She had few teeth and he had few teeth. She drooled and he drooled. And everyone had a hard time understanding what either of them said. They were a match made in heaven.

Those two were so smiley together. Josie would climb up to sit with Grandpa and he'd pop his teeth out to make her giggle. She'd tug on her own teeth, trying to do the same thing, and would be so frustrated at never being able to.

Josie and Grandpa had such an understanding relationship from very early on; she was so used to having him around and was never once afraid of him. She was in kindergarten when Grandpa died and was absolutely crushed that her buddy had died.

Our family went out bowling sometime shortly after he died. Josie rolled her ball at the pins. It started heading down the lane ever so slowly, as bowling balls tend to when they have the force of a 5-year-old behind them, and it was wildly bent on ending up in the right hand gutter. We all watched the ball, waiting for it to drop into the gutter, ready to console Josie about yet another gutter ball.

Then, much to our surprise, when the ball was right on the edge of the lane and ready to drop into the gutter, it miraculously curved and started rolling safely down the lane again. We all watched curiously as the ball slowly, slowly, slowly crashed into the pins. I don't remember how many points Josie earned but it was a lot of points for a girl her age and the fact that she hit any pins at all was an absolute miracle.

We joked that it was Grandpa, her #1 buddy, nudging the ball in the right direction.

Grandpa was an avid fruit farmer. He enjoyed grafting apple trees and blending different kinds of apples to come up with new flavors. Grandma and Grandpa's yard in Raymond had several apple trees along the fence where we would sometimes climb up them to hide while playing Sardines and other games. Once, when I was in grade 5, I made Grandpa a card with a picture of a tree on it. As you unfolded the paper, the tree got taller and taller and taller. When you finished unfolding the paper there was a picture of a very tall tree, with one branch sticking out. There was a swing on the branch and on the swing was a girl.

The card said, "Grandpa, my love for you grows, and grows, and GROWS!"

Grandpa opened it and declared that the tree I drew was in desperate need of a good trim. That branch with the swing had to go; it was stealing water from the good part of the tree and was going to create a watersprout problem if it wasn't taken care of.

I didn't take the critique lightly, but noticed that my card made yearly encore appearances on Grandpa's birthday (or Father's Day, whichever I made it for), so either he or Grandma must have liked it to keep putting it up year after year.

We visited Grandma and Grandpa a lot when we lived in Alberta. When we left, Grandma and Grandpa would come outside (until Grandpa was too sick to) and they would wave and wave and wave until we were out of sight. We would all turn around in the van and wave back, and keep waving until we turned the corner and couldn't see their house anymore.

The Canada Day Parade route went right in front of Grandma and Grandpa's house. We would always set the lawn chairs out by the road, and sometimes would help move Grandpa outside so he could watch the parade with us instead of from the living room window.

Grandpa was such a good sport about being an invalid. He went to church in his wheelchair every week and Grandma would park him by the door of the chapel where he'd greet and be greeted by everyone in the ward. He also served diligently as a home teacher for years after some would consider him too sick to go. He and Grandma served a mission in Salt Lake City--I think in the Granite Vaults doing records. They went when I was really young, but I remember praying for them and drawing a few pictures to mail to them.

I'm so happy that they made the sacrifices they did to go on a mission. It's a wonderful example for their grandchildren!

Grandpa ended up living in a home for the elderly in the Raymond General Hospital (the same hospital I was born in) the last few months of his life. It was getting to difficult for Grandma to take care of him alone, so Sunday dinners were occasionally held under lock down. There was a code we had to use to get into the wing Grandpa was staying in and then our family would meet in a little conference room and eat dinner and visit together.

When just a few of us would visit, we'd sit in Grandpa's room to talk with him there. Mom was back to bribing me to perform songs and things for Grandpa's entertainment, just like she bribed me to give him hugs when I was little. It's not that I was scared to visit with Grandpa...but I was scared of the environment and how quickly he was dying. It was a hard process to watch.

I learned a lot more about Grandpa after he died. I helped my aunts, Mom, and Grandma put together some posters to display at the funeral. Pictures of my grandpa when he was young--he and his brothers were into trick photography and would develop their own pictures and play around with them; there's a picture of Grandpa walking down a path, carrying his own head--pictures of my grandpa and grandma's wedding, pictures of my grandpa as a young father, as a farmer, as a young grandfather. It was interesting to hear all the stories of the pictures be told.

My grandpa was such an interesting person and although I'm glad for the grandpa I knew and I'm glad for his example of enduring to the end, I sometimes wish that I could have known him when he was healthier. I wonder if things would have been any different. I guess I'll just have to wait to get to know him better until we meet on the other side.


  1. Thanks for sharing these memories, Nancy. Simultaneous tears and laughter.

  2. Thank you Nancy, I think you have a wonderful memory! I must be getting older, becuase I just can't remember vivid details......

  3. Just one correction: Josie was the person who gobbled up her meat quickly and ran away from the table. This happened AFTER the fruit salad incident. Patrick and Dad had not come with us to Raymond, and it happened just as you said, but it was Josie (never much of a carnivore) who didn't want to eat the meat, and got mixed up whatever Dad said about "eat your meet" with what he was actually saying to her, which was to "tell Patrick to brush his teeth."

  4. Oh, that's right, it was Josie, wasn't it.

    Didn't she go through a phase where basically all she would eat was meat, too?