Several days ago, Friday, January 13th, marked the 46th anniversary of the death of my paternal grandfather, Jacob Toussaint. He was buried 46 years ago tomorrow, on January 16th, 1966. I was thirteen at the time and I remember the events as if they occurred yesterday. They were forever imprinted into my brain because the death and burial of Dad’s dad marked the first time that I ever saw my father cry. And it wasn’t just sniffling, or gently weeping – Dad was sobbing and I was really worried about him. I even remember that I started to cry as well – not over the death of my grandfather, but because of how much it affected Dad.
Grandpa Toussaint, as we called him, was the first of my grandparents to die – in fact, it was the first time anyone died that I even knew. And as grim as it sounds, it was also the first time I saw a dead body. I didn’t know him real well – not like my cousins did. After all, Grandma and Grandpa Toussaint lived in the northwest suburbs, in Park Ridge, IL, and we lived in Beverly Hills on the south side of the city. We saw them at Christmas and once or twice at other times throughout the year, but we weren’t close to them like we were to Mom’s parents, who lived in the neighborhood.
And frankly, Grandpa was never too involved with my brothers and me. I do remember that they lived on Burton Lane and had the only house on the block with two lots. That’s because they had lived on a farm and when they moved to the suburbs, my grandfather wanted a huge garden, which he had. Grandma loved to can things and put up all kinds of produce for the winter. In fact, she taught me how to make pickles and a variety of things that I learned how to preserve. But Grandpa didn’t have too much to do with us kids.
Dad told us that it wasn’t so different from when he grew up. Apparently, on Christmas mornings, all the kids had to go into my grandparents room with their gifts because Grandpa wouldn’t go out to the living room around the tree. Somehow, that just seemed to fit him. He kept to himself quite a bit of the time, and it seems that we could never really get on his good side. Physically, he was short, wore a wide brimmed hat and worked for Grandma’s brother, Nick. Dad was also in the business – brokers in the wholesale wood products industry, and their office was on the 18th floor of the Tribune Tower on North Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. It was from that building that I watched Marina Towers, the twin circular buildings that became a Chicago landmark, get built in 1964.
Anyway, Dad and Grandpa worked together with several other family members until Grandpa retired. Not so long after that, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and eventually Grandma had to put him in a nursing facility as it became too difficult to take care of him at home. I remember Dad telling me about Grandpa turning on the heat in the middle of summer or writing a check to someone who came to the door because they looked like a nice person. So, Dad and his brothers, primarily Wayne, Dad’s middle brother, made arrangements for Grandpa’s move to a “home.” We would visit every once in a while and I watched as Grandpa lost his memory and his ability to recognize us – even including Grandma. I remember being there one day when he turned to Grandma and told her that he had to be getting home – that she was a nice lady, but that his wife would be waiting for him. It broke Grandma’s heart to acknowledge that he no longer knew who she was.
One January, Grandpa wandered away from the facility – without his coat. Miraculously, Uncle Wayne happened to be driving down a road and thought the old man walking along the shoulder looked familiar. He stopped, picked up the gentleman, and drove to the nursing home. Sure enough, it was his own father. Unfortunately, Grandpa contracted pneumonia and within several days, he died.
Vernon, the oldest brother, Wayne and Dad all got together and helped Grandma with arrangements. At first, Vernon did not want to enter the funeral home – he wanted to remember Dad the way he had been before he got sick. Wayne was more stoic – apparently more in control than his brothers – and poor Dad was a mess. I even remember Wayne quietly moving out of the room as Dad became more distraught on seeing his father for the first time in the funeral home – Vernon never did get close to the open casket. Isn’t it odd how we remember so many of the details in such vivid detail almost half a century after the fact?
Weeks after the funeral, Dad and Wayne went to Grandpa’s safety deposit box and found enough savings bonds to take care of Grandma for the rest of her life. Financially, he had done a great job to take care of her. And that was a blessing…
The verse for tonight is from Exodus, probably one of the first verses we learned when we were children. From Exodus 20:12 – one of the ten commandments, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” My encouragement tonight is to remember that God has a plan for families and it wasn’t random chance that God wants us to remember our heritage. And that would have been particularly important to the Jewish nation. My prayer is that you will be the best parent you can be and that you will do everything you can to make sure that when you are no longer here, your family will miss you the way my father missed his Dad….