By Mark St. John Erickson, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
My son Owen won’t remember his grandpa Edmund, who passed away unexpectedly about a month ago after 87 years of being one of the most colorful people on the planet.
But in the brief period their lives overlapped, these two souls separated by so much time, distance and experience shared some surprising connections.
Despite his age, 14-month-old Owen soldiered up admirably when his grandfather died, too, providing sympathy, some occasional but much-needed comic relief and indisputable proof of what the old adage makers meant when they said, “Life goes on.”
Toddling back and forth as his mother, uncle and aunts gathered to carry out the somber business of arranging Edmund’s funeral, he clearly knew something unusual had happened. And more than once he reached out, patted a shoulder or dispensed a little hug, prompting smiles from their grieving hearts.
“It’s amazing,” my wife, Miriam, said, when the difficult work of burying her father — and her lifelong friend — was finally over. “But no matter how sad, sick or unhappy you feel, having a baby can make it better.”
Owen and Edmund made up a wonderfully dissimilar pair of bookends — with one unformed yet increasingly full of life and the other slowing down dramatically after experiencing more in a single lifetime than most people can imagine. Yet somehow they never failed to find ways to meet in the middle.
Owen was only a couple of months old, in fact, the first time his grandfather stopped to visit — and the awkwardness with which the old man first held his tiny grandson in his big hands was painful. But within a few days Edmund was not only bouncing the baby gently on his lap but also stroking him to sleep when he became tired and cranky.
Sometimes Edmund sang to him, too, choosing from English, Spanish, German, French and Polish as he repeated old tunes he’d learned while growing up as an impoverished kid in the farmlands and coal fields of Europe.
Though I knew the adventurer who had escaped a Nazi work camp, then gone on to fight in the French Foreign Legion and the Royal Air Force during World War II, I’d never seen him as an affectionate family man cementing the bond between generations. But like my own late dad, who survived two tours of duty as a Seabee in Vietnam, he had an uncanny ability to zero in on the sweet spot when it came to dealing with young children.
In return, Owen learned to like being around the old man — even when he wasn’t the focus of Edmund’s attention. On one visit to see Edmund and our other Canadian relatives this past summer, we often looked up to find Owen standing beside his grandpa’s big, overstuffed chair, curiously and quietly inspecting each section Edmund finished as he read his way through the voluminous Toronto paper.
As Edmund’s health declined, Owen would toddle alongside his walker, too, helping push it up and down the floor of a summer cottage overlooking a remote lake in the unspoiled Ontario highlands. A few weeks later Miriam and Owen traveled north again, this time forming a comical, multi-generational chain of locomotion as she pushed her father down the city sidewalk in his new wheelchair — and Edmund reached out to push a gleeful Owen in his travel stroller.
No one knew then it would be their last visit. Yet despite the small amount of time they had together, Owen and Edmund may have forged an enduring connection.
Of the many old photographs Miriam has assembled for a special place in our house, he won’t recognize the portraits of Edmund as a teen-age interpreter, a Foreign Legionnaire or a Royal Air Force airman. He probably won’t be able to identify the middle-aged man in a tuxedo who helped run a Caribbean casino, either.
But he’s had no problem picking his grand-dad out of the smiling crowd in a recent family picture.
With his dark blue eyes and increasingly blond hair, he may have still more reasons to think about his grandfather in the future.
Edmund was the first person I thought of when I saw Owen come into the world. And chances are that some part of him will be looking back one day when his grandson grows up a bit — and starts exploring the face in the mirror.
Mark St. John Erickson’s column on his adventures as a first-time dad alternates with that of fellow Daily Press reporter and first-time mom Nicole Paitsel.