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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Speaker for the Dead

My maternal grandfather Andrew Joseph Boike died last week. I offered the eulogy. With the funeral 3-4 days after his death I felt sure I'd be able to give the speech without difficulty. I was wrong. As I watched the respect with which his body was treated and listened to the funeral mass I found myself overwhelmed with the conviction that no gift of words I could give this man would be adequate.

No matter how well I did my job, the end product would fall far short. The realization was crushing. I felt as though God was teaching me a lesson. The gap between my best and the requirements of divine justice is so great that only His grace can bridge it.

For those who would like to read about a life and see what a grandson does with an opportunity to give a eulogy, I reproduce the text of the speech below:

My son is three years old. His name is Andrew and he was named for my grandfather Andrew Boike, who we all call Pop. I hoped that having a first grandchild named for him would reverse his condition and bring Pop back to his old self. It didn’t work, but I did see Pop smile when I brought that little boy around and he was even able to hold him in his lap a few times.

Watching my son grow and the awe with which he perceives his grandparents, I’m reminded of the days when I was young and how like most boys at Walter Jackson, I liked to join in the game of talking up our dads. You know, my dad is stronger than your dad. If we reached a tie on dads, I could start bragging about Pop. And when I did that, no one could match me. That’s what I want to do today. I want to spend just a minute or two bragging on my Pop.

His appearance by itself made him notable. He was short, strong, and had a face that looked like it was cut from a rock. His hair was the color of steel. He had a working man’s hands. Even as he lay dying I looked down at his hands and thought they looked like they had really been to work.

There were stories floating around that gave him mythic status in my young mind. During his high school football years he was commanded to demonstrate a tackle on his assistant coach. He didn’t want to do it, but having been ordered he executed the maneuver so well the man was left with a limp for years. He survived a motorcycle accident and getting hit in the chest with a chainsaw. On top of that he spent all his free time around flowers even though he was highly allergic to bee stings. To a grandson, he seemed like the toughest man alive.

His rugged looks were lightened by a bright and ready smile. He loved to laugh and joke around, particularly with daughters-in-law and grandchildren. If Pop and Uncle Jimmy were together, you knew the parents would be laughing until they had tears in their eyes.

He also loved the polka and learned to play the accordion in his youth. I don’t know how many times Christina and I rode in his car (that 1974 beige/yellow Caprice Classic) with the windows cracked to let cigarette smoke out while Myron Floren’s accordion belted out the beer barrel polka on an eight track wedged into the dashboard. For a grandchild, being with Pop was our own first taste of Oktoberfest. He was like a rock star to us. Okay, maybe a polka star.

He developed a brilliant avocation in flowers with specialties in chrysanthemums and azaleas. After winning several competitions around the country, Pop became a contest judge at the national level. You may remember a novel from many years ago titled Magnificent Obsession. Pop knew something about that. I can remember him quickly maneuvering the car to the side of the road to gather a specimen of some native azalea growing on a hillside. He included his family in his work. Grammy was his indispensable partner in preparing for shows and for years it was a treat to go to his house and see the plants and flowers he’d hybridized and named for different members of the family. I was very proud to see my name on one of those little white tags one day so many springs ago.

The man I’ve described was an interesting person, an exciting person in many ways, but he was also faithful in the small details of everyday life that loom so large when all is said and done.

He spent most of his career with the postal service. My mother remembers what a big deal Christmas was every year and how Pop would come home day after day loaded with Christmas presents from appreciative homeowners on his route. A dozen years after he retired I had a job delivering prescriptions for Brunton Drug. A lot of strangers became instant friends when I mentioned Pop’s name. To tell you the truth, being Pop’s grandson probably helped me get the job in the first place.

Pop was also a faithful provider, father, and husband. He helped build the house his family lived in and put in place a moral and spiritual foundation, too. His five children Brenda, Jim, Becky, Dean, and Joan all married and are all still with their spouses. Many of his grandchildren have married and they are all still with their spouses, too. In a society where some dispose of family ties as easily as an old car, the value of commitment has not been lost on us. It’s one thing to be told, but nothing beats the power of a good example.

There was another area in which Pop was less concerned with telling than showing. Someone mentioned to me the other day that although Pop wasn’t the type to say he loved me, I should know that he did. The words caused me to think. It was true that he was like a lot of other men of his generation in that he may not have been one to tell you he loved you. But I never doubted it. He showed me over and over again. It was always clear to me that this amazing man was my friend and he loved me and approved of me and was proud of me. He watched my ballgames, expressed interest in my schoolwork, and gave me funny nicknames. He treated my father like a blood relative rather than like an in-law and immediately accepted my wife into the family.

I know he loved his other grandkids just as much. I have specific memories of him speaking proudly of the accomplishments and attributes of all the other grandkids. He was really in love with Christina, Kevin, Mandy, Nathan, Josh, Heather, Matthew, John Paul, David, Cassady, and Shaina. His family became his treasure and in the years before his failing health really took hold he was simply great at being a grandfather. Effortlessly great. At least it looked that way to me.

Grammy and Pop’s 50th wedding anniversary was one of our really memorable family events. I look at the pictures and see Pop happy and fully engaged. The pictures of him holding Grammy’s hand like a newlywed are worth keeping forever. I married not long after that celebration and it is a great comfort to me that my wife Ruth got to know Pop before his weakness and withdrawal became more pronounced. She liked him immensely. It was a very easy thing to convince her to give our first child the name Andrew.

It’s a little tragic that my children Andrew and Grace, Mandy’s son Jacob, Kevin’s unborn child, and the many other great grandchildren yet to come won’t get to experience Pop the way he was for so many years, but he won’t be forgotten. I was bragging on Pop when I was seven and will probably be doing it when I’m sixty-seven. He made a big impression on me. And the wonderful, enduring fact of his life is that I’m not the only one.

Given by Hunter Baker on March 16, 2006


John H. Watson said...

It sure sounds like he was an incredible man Hunter, that certainly comes across in the words you crafted together. I'm sorry for your loss, though I'm glad for you that you had such a grand character of a man in your life. Rest in peace.

Hunter Baker said...

Thanks, MJ. He will be missed.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Thanks, Hunter, for sharing that with us.

I'm sure you're aware of the Talmudic tradition that the soul is present at the funeral and listens to the eulogies. Undoubtedly Pop enjoyed your words very much. And you didn't have to say everything, you see, just as he didn't...

James F. Elliott said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Hunter. My grandfather was my best friend for many years, and his loss struck hard. I've always regretted that he never got to see me grow up, but I have tried to live by his example. It sounds like you've taken your grandfather's example to heart, and live accordingly.



Hunter Baker said...

I've lost both of them now. Two good men. Two great grandfathers. I hope I measure up when it's my turn.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I'm sure you're aware of the Talmudic tradition that the soul is present at the funeral and listens to the eulogies

I wasn't, but it reminds me of the scene in that wonderfully tender movie Waking Ned Devine, where in the course of furthering a village-wide deception, the main character ends up delivering a eulogy to his best friend, who is not dead but sitting in the congregation. It's a marvelous moment, saved from sappiness with the leaven of the audience's knowledge that every person in the church is engaged in pulling one over on the Irish Sweepstakes.

(Fantastic soundtrack, if you like Irish music, btw.)

Hunter, I mourn with you in your loss. Both my grandfathers died before I was a year old, but my grandmother was a rock of stability in my young life and her memory continues to shape me now, more than 25 years after her death. She was the living link to my family history, a past my parents were a bit too eager to shed in their pursuit of middle class post-war prosperity.

Our debt to them is repaid to the generations that we bear in our turn. You'll do fine.

Hunter Baker said...

Thanks, Kathy. A point of interest for you is that Andrew Boike was a Catholic and went about sixty years with only one absence from weekly mass. I remain in the evangelical tradition, but the pull last week was strong as ever.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Hunter, I live in the joyful hope that we will all one day know that we are united in one Body of Christ. If not on the near shore, then on the farther one.

Hunter Baker said...

Amen. Ecumenical orthodoxy, baby.

ChETHB said...

I have been privileged to know Andrew Boike since 1968, the year that I married his middle daughter, Rebecca. Truly, I am the son-in-law who has been treated more like a son, as Hunter described. It’s impossible for me to describe what a rock the man was. It’s even more difficult to believe that death has overtaken him. I always believed in my heart that he was indestructible and yet I was witness as sickness and infirmity slowly closed in over the past 10-12 years. I can only echo Hunter’s comments about his grandfather. He was a great man who will not be forgotten by family and friends. Rest in peace, Andrew.

Hunter Baker said...

A fitting addendum, CheTHB.

Daisy said...

A lovely eulogy. Your grandfather was a wonderful man. But you weren't really a Speaker for the Dead, were you? You spoke only the good parts, and none of the bad. A Speaker for the Dead covers both.