[Originally written and read this for Mel Kooda’s funeral held in McGregor, Minnesota on April 22nd, 2017.]
What I turn to in times of what I’ll call “writer’s block,” is list-making. I guess I had a little bit of an issue kicking this one off, and I think it’s because I knew once I started writing this piece, that at some point… it would be done. And then that’s it. The reality of both of my grandparents no longer being just a phone call away has sunk in a little bit more.
So what I’ve got for you today is a list of things (in no particular order), that I learned from my Grandpa, with the help of my sister, Kenzie.
1.Take chances in your career
I didn’t learn this until recently, but my grandpa wound up in McGregor kind of on a whim. Basically, took a job offer with the intention of only staying for a short time… But look at where being wrong got him – he met his life partner, Nancy; he changed the lives of countless students because he started this program that gave them skills they still use today; and they raised their family. Maybe I’m biased, but I think my grandparents played a big part in the community here in McGregor, and they’re even known pretty well in my hometown 45 minutes down the road. All of this happened unexpectedly for him, and maybe at first he wanted to stay in the cities or work at a bigger school… but isn’t every teacher’s dream to make a difference in their students’ lives? Again, maybe I’m biased, but I think he achieved that, and then some.
2. No matter what your skills are, you’ll be able to use them to make the people you love happy
Along with woodworking, my grandpa also knew how to print. And not just your standard “print a document” printing – he could get designs drawn up, space them nicely, and then get it created on any kind of paper product you could imagine. He was basically an early graphic designer. When I was in elementary school, that was the coolest thing in the world. I spent so much time at Grandma and Grandpa’s house that he wound up offering to print custom notepads for my grade school classes. I’d pass them out to my classmates, and they’d be a staple in the classroom throughout the rest of the year. I was so insanely proud that my grandpa knew how to do stuff like that.
3. Comedy isn’t all about timing
This one my sister brought up, so I’m going to tell one of her stories to back this up: “This past summer, the cousins were using Aunt Karen’s new paddleboard and he really wanted to watch us. He came outside, all bundled up, and sat down next to Kenzie on the steps. If you’ve been to their house, you know the walk to their steps isn’t easy, but he did it to watch his grandkids play. Even when Grandma kept trying to bring him his hat or some Kleenex, and each time insisting that he come inside, he just leaned over and said ‘I hope she doesn’t try to bring my chair out here.’” He would have these little moments where he’d say something so funny, with the straightest face, it was hard to tell if he was really making a joke…or actually being serious.
4. No matter how hard it seems, complaining won’t do you any good
Another tidbit inspired via Kenzie, I think we can all agree that Mel was an exceptionally strong individual. Even while he was suffering from declining physical and mental health, on top of coping with the loss of Nancy in the last two months, he had a plate full of things to be upset and complain about. But he didn’t — it was as if he was teaching us without explicitly stating it, that it’s generally better to live life looking at things in a positive light, or at least not throwing your troubles on top of others by complaining.
5. How to love for a long time
One of my most vivid younger memories with Grandma and Grandpa actually took place in the fellowship hall right around the corner. Of course, I’m talking about Mel and Nancy’s 50th wedding anniversary. I was somewhere in the middle-school age, and I remember being blown away at how long fifty years is… and my grandparents had each other for that whole length of time. Let’s marinate on that: 50 years of marriage – that’s not even including the time they dated before that. Since then, everything they did together stuck out to me. Their “yogurt time” which happened between dinner and dessert on some days, and between lunch and dinner on other days; sharing bite-sized ice cream treats at any time of the year; or simply just sitting together watching the news. It’s still amazing to me how much time they spent together, and how they were in love and there for each other until the very end. Statistically, it’s not likely to find that person you can do that with anymore, but because I’ve had them to look up to (and the rest of the adults in my family), I know that it’s possible, and that’s why I won’t lose that faith.
5b. The importance of family
Piggybacking off the “loving partner,” how much they loved all of us sometimes is still overwhelming in the best way. I was on the phone with my mom quite a bit in the week or so leading up to Friday the 7th. Even though I think we both knew his health was declining really quickly. she always told me if someone had visited him, which would always end it the same way; “…and he really enjoyed that.” Of course, since the 7th, I’ve seen a bunch of pictures of him holding all of us grandkids (and his one great-granddaughter, albeit more recent)… and the look of joy, content, and pride on his face brings me nothing but the same. It’s also been a lot harder to process this loss because I haven’t gotten to spend any time with my family; and that makes me thankful I got to be back for a whole week in February when we lost my Grandma.
6. Even the obscenely optimistic can be sad, if that’s what you’re feeling. And that’s okay.
One of my favorite male singer-songwriters from Minnesota released the single off his micro-folk record on the day we lost my grandpa. It’s a little bit ironic, because the entire project is chock-full of upbeat, positive songs backed by a ukulele. The single – “Everything is Magical” – was the first thing I listened to the morning after he passed. The lyrics are basically different variations of how it doesn’t matter what you have, where you are, or what you’re doing, as long as you’re with this special person. And this song got me teared up quite a bit, and striking me in a really weird way. Maybe it’s because those sentiments take me back to childhood memories of being lost in what seemed like a wonderland whenever Grandma and Grandpa drove us all the way to the Wisconsin Dells every summer. Maybe it’s because even though our hearts feel broken at the loss of both of them in such a short time, we loved them so much that it’s the abundance of happy memories making this all bearable. Maybe it’s the fact that the last time I spent with my grandpa was the two of us in the apartment in Grand Rapids, talking about elephants in the living room, grad school, furniture, and memories over a piece of lefse. It didn’t matter that we were discussing the seemingly mundane while sharing food that’s been a staple in both of our lives, but that afternoon was still “magical” in a sense. I wouldn’t have wanted the last memory I’ll have of him be in any other setting, doing anything besides just that.
And I’ll wrap this up the same way I did my grandma’s about two months ago — thank you, Grandpa. Thanks for being so wonderful throughout our whole lives, because some people aren’t so lucky to have had such a long and great relationship with their grandfather as we got to have with you. I love you, and will — without a doubt — continue to miss you.