3 Questions I Will Never Regret Asking My Grandfather Before He Died
And how a thread of 6 year old emails became one of my most prized possessions
My grandfather passed away on February 6th, in 2016, while living half the way across the world from me in Normandy, France. He was an individual I always felt especially close to throughout my childhood, and imagining all the things I would say to him if he were here now has the capacity to break my heart all over again. I cry often about him, and do so far more as I grow older than I did in the months that followed his death. An odd thing that is, death.
I keep a thread of emails we exchanged dating between November, 2015, and January, 2016, saved on my computer. I was 15 at the time and you can bet I would have paid more time and attention responding to his emails on time had I have known they were the last ones I would get.
We never know how long a loved one might have left in this beautiful life, and there will always be far too many words left unsaid. As any writer can tell you, (he just so happened to be one too), some words will always feel weightier than others. The last communications I have with my grandfather are some of the heaviest — not in a way that is bad, but just in a way you can feel.
I’m not sure if this article is designed to make you laugh or cry, but I can assure you I have done both in the short time it took to write it (sometimes all at once). What I do hope you take from this article is the reminder to reach out to the people you love and take the time to ask them a thoughtful question or two — indeed, questions you might not really appreciate the value of until much later.
What are your views on Religion?
Hi Alex. Where to start…You have to give me your word that you will not let the following influence you in any way. Make your own mind up. Be a free thinker. They are just the way I see these matters.
I do not like any kind of organised religion. I do not like a middle man telling me what to do, what to think or how to act. I know the other side of this a little — I was an altar boy in the Episcopalian Church in Joplin, MO. (Known as the Church of England until after the Revolutionary War when the church wanted to change its name).
I have also seen how the Church (Roman Catholic) treated the Indians in Peru by keeping them wrapped up in superstitious nonsense and demanding a good part of their subsistence income to be given to the Church. No birth control there, so there are more Catholics to fill the coffers of an already wealthy Church.
In the State where you and I were born, Dolly Parton has a Theme Park, “Dollywood” that is devoted to convincing people that the world was made in 7 days and is only 6000 years old, ’cause the Bible tells us so! She would do well to go to Dorset and see the Jurassic Coast!
When I was in high-school in Hartford, AL — a dry county bear in mind — several of us would go to the Baptist Church on Sunday morning, not to take part, but to watch the people “feel the Spirit of the Lord,” talk in “Tongues,” and roll about on the floor. What a hoot! And then many of the men would drive the 9 miles down to Florida and get enough booze to see them through the week. Biggest load of hypocrites I have ever known!
The Baptist Church preaches that unless you believe in Jesus you will go to Hell — well make room for one more! Seems to me that the whole of their Faith is built on “smoke and mirrors,” but that is just my opinion.
I trust you had a lovely Thanksgiving… I like Thanksgiving, it’s non-religious.
Love Gramps xx
My grandfather was one of the most intelligent people I will ever know. My favourite book in the world is the one he wrote about his travels around the world (hitchhiking from Florida to New York in an ice-cream van, sleeping in ditches on the side of the Autobahn, smoking hashish with happy strangers in Morroco, and — or course — details of his various flirtations with different women on his way across Europe and Northern Africa, finally settling in England where he married my wonderful grandmother).
To put it lightly, my grandfather placed that which he could percieve with his own two eyes above any religion, superstition or belief. I remember him saying this to me many a time, equally intent on encouraging me to form my own opinions irrespective of his leaning. In this sense, it was dogma he opposed, not spiritual understanding.
I will never regret asking him this question because, as it turns out, his views on religion sort of paint the picture of his views on everything else. I hang onto his words to me as just one more reason to never settle for thinking inside of any man-made box.
What did you want to be when you were my age?
When I was your age, I wanted to be a geologist. But one day whilst living at the University of Alabama, I was walking with a Jewish friend, named Aaron Copeland.
He said to me: “Norman, do you know the difference between a Jew and a Gentile?” “Well… No,” I said. He replied, “When a Gentile graduates from college, he thinks to himself, ‘Who can I work for!?’ When a Jew graduates, he thinks to himself, ‘Who can I get to work for me!?’”
That made a big and lasting impression on me, so I dropped out of Geology and changed my major to Business. Where would I be today if I had followed the other path?
I would like to hear your thoughts.
Much love, Gramps xx
An understanding of the minor instances that led to the major changes within my grandfather’s life is one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me. I can’t say I’m surprised one of them was a racial joke.
Not only was grandfather a man of many talents (writer, painter, athlete, businessman, comedian — at least he’d probably like to think so), but he was also a man unashamed of changing his mind. I should caveat this by acknowledging how stubborn of a man my grandfather could be, but realistically, when faced with a counter argument or particularly valid point, my grandfather would be the first to concede and congratulate.
I will never regret asking him this question because he taught a 15 year old me that I am the sole person responsible for the choices I make — and that how I choose to think and behave is certainly one of them. If I want to change the way I live my life on a whim as a result of a small piece of insight buried within a joke, then so be it, goddamnit!
When was the last time you changed your mind?
I have changed my thinking on this one only very recently, Alex. When I was younger I thought a person should face the aspect of eternity for really heinous crimes such as mass murder and crimes against children, but now I think I am with you in terms of supporting life behind bars over the prospect of capital punishment.
In fact, I am now pro-life in all matters except one! A legal exit route for the old, infirm, and in chronic pain, with little hope for recovery and a heavy burden for loved ones. Switzerland seems to have the answer with their ‘Dignitas Clinic…’ They have an interesting web site.
I love you so much it hurts…
His answer to this question actually arose organically with him asking me my views on capital punishment — a casual conversation between a 76 year old and his 15 year old granddaughter, not to mention — (I think one of the reasons we got along so well was because he had absolutely no hesitation in treating me like an adult). The unfiltered result was a paragraph of information that has since played a significant role in helping me deal personally with the loss of his life.
Something about the perspective of all life holding value, except in the case of an individual who is old and suffering, wherein the peacefulness of death is not feared, but rather sought after, brings me an extraordinary degree of comfort.
I think, despite the westernized culture of shirking most conversations surrounding mortality, that there is an unforeseen benefit to normalizing both the morbid and macabre.
I will never regret asking my grandfather this question because, although I’ll never get to chance to speak with him again in this lifetime, at least I know he’s okay where-ever he is.
I know he loved and cherished life.
I know he was okay with death and with dying.
And I know he loved me so much it hurt…
That, to me, will always mean the very most.
Alexandra Walker-Jones — May 2021