The Revivalists

We Called Him Grandbob

  • June 1, 2020
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Note:  This entry was written prior to the seismic cultural events of the last few days.  If you're hoping to see my thoughts on this moment, I articulated them to the best of my ability on Facebook a few days ago, but if you're looking to make sense of what's happening right now, you could find much better perspectives than some white dude in a band, because while I may come to know things, I will never truly understand what it means to be black in this country.  This article by Nikole Hannah-Jones is perhaps more relevant today than it was when it was written all the way back in 2015, and it should serve as a good jumping-off point for anyone bewildered by the current state of things.  In general, I would encourage everyone- white people in particular- to seek out and amplify black perspectives on these issues.  And remember to be good to one another.  Now on with the show.

I stopped for a beer on the way to my wedding.  It wasn't cold feet- my wife had actually been the one to suggest it.  The groomsmen and I would all be getting dressed in her brother's hotel room and walking over to the venue together, and she thought a quick beer with the boys, all suited up in a humble French Quarter dive called the Chart Room, would make for a good photo-op.  We ordered a round of something domestic on tap, clustered in the back of the bar, near the video poker machines, and I read a brief toast:  

If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold.

I will hold my house in the high wood,
Within a walk of the sea,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Shall sit and drink with me.

Those particular lines aren't exactly representative of the context from which they were extracted.  They come from the final two stanzas of Hillaire Belloc's “The South Country,” which is a pastoral ode to the land of Sussex and the good and earnest folk within.  I've never been to Sussex.  I don't know anybody from Sussex.  Anything I could tell you about Belloc himself I would have learned incidentally in the course of trying to track this poem down.  So why did I choose to read these lines to some of the most important people in my life on the most important day of my life?  Because they are on display, printed on stationery and hung in a simple blue frame, across from the wet bar in my grandparents' house.  It is impossible not to read them any time you duck into that nook to top up a glass of wine or grab a scotch- my grandfather's drink of choice, and often mine when I was in his company- for a toast.

Grandbob, as we called him, never let anything slow him down.  He golfed into his nineties, once shooting his age at 70.  He and my grandmother took my brother and me to a Journey concert in 2005.  And he insisted, even on his deathbed, that he would be going into his office the next morning.

His passing played out over twelve hours of text message updates from my mother.  Late in the morning, we received word that he had been to the hospital and was coming come.  Things looked slightly better in the early afternoon, then the rest of the day was a slow trickle of increasingly grim news.  By sundown it had become a vigil.  I waited up well after my wife had gone to bed, doing whatever I could to distract myself and curb my anxiety.  When my phone chirped with a new text message at 1:13 in the morning, I put off checking it for a few minutes because I already knew what it was going to say.

An extraordinary cruelty of life under the weight of a pandemic is that the very same force that causes death rates to spike also renders funerals inadvisable.  (My grandfather's specific cause of death- COVID or otherwise- is irrelevant to this writing and will remain unspecified.)  There are so many risks involved and potential vectors introduced when you have people traveling across state lines and gathering in close quarters.  Our family settled for a brief graveside service, which, incidentally, would have been much more in keeping with Grandbob's wishes than some big ceremony.  One the phone a day or two after the fact, my grandmother told me that he'd always said he didn't want a funeral, and by God he'd found a way to get out of having one.

Once plans for the service were in place, my brother and I spent days agonizing over whether to attend.  We spoke on the phone, and, after great deliberation, concluded that it was indeed a difficult choice.  We decided to sleep on it.  When we spoke again the following evening, we both agreed that we had found several new ways of saying “this is hard and I don't know what I should do.”  Ultimately, we felt the risks involved in traveling, seeing our relatives, and potentially exposing our parents to a deadly respiratory virus outweighed the need to be there in person.

My cousin was kind enough to run a Zoom meeting for those of us who couldn't make it.  I put on a suit in my living room and watched as a pastor read Grandbob's obituary.  They sang “How Great Thou Art,” which- this is true, and awesome- is hymn number 77 in the United Methodist Hymnal and became of significance to my grandfather in 2003 when his beloved Oklahoma University Sooners laid a 77-0 beat-down on Texas A&M.  The service was concise, poignant, and true.  When it was finished, my cousin closed the Zoom meeting and my wife held my hand and I just sat there, finally feeling everything from the preceding week.

Grandbob's obituary listed “honorary pallbearers” as “friends who ever dealt a hand of gin rummy, lifted a glass, or teed up a ball with Bob.”  It can be tempting to think of men from his era- guys who grew up in the depression and fought in THE war and bore witness to a century of unparalleled acceleration and upheaval- as hard, stoic, and divorced from their emotions.  Grandbob didn't fit that bill.  He had a great big heart, and if he loved you, he'd tell you.  He was sharp, kind, clever, persistent, and brave.  He attained and achieved a great many things in his long life.  But he never forgot that the greatest wealth of all is a life rich with human connection.  A house full of love.  It was plain that above all he cherished the people in his life, and I was incredibly lucky to be one of those people.

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Robert Webster Berry 1924-2020

“And the men who were boys when I was a boy shall sit and drink with me.”