October has always been my favorite month of the year. You all already know how much I love fall, so there's that, what with the crispness in the air and pretty colors. It was also the birthday month of one of the greatest men I've ever known, my other grandfather, my Mom's dad, Grandpop McGrath. Or as many affectionately referred to him, Uncle Bunky.
If I weren't so absent-minded (read: dumb as rocks) these days, I would have remembered that his birthday was October 6th (not 8th or 12th as I had convinced myself). So, a belated, posthumous birthday to Grandpop McGrath is in order. It's only fair since I previously heralded my dad's father that I give my mom's father his due respect and admiration.
Grandpop McGrath was born in Crisfield, Maryland...with an affinity for the water and a crabnet in his hand, I think. He was one of two boys and four girls. Throughout adulthood, they all stayed close to home and grew old near each other (excepting his brother who died too young). It's something you don't often see these days, and though they had their personality conflicts, they were always a close-knit family.
He joined the Navy during World War II (as did his sister, Sara) and served in the Pacific. It is my honor to say that both of my grandfathers were WWII veterans. I sincerely believe they were the "Greatest Generation". Grandpop McGrath rarely spoke of his time in the service, and I can't imagine the things he must have seen. I do think it had a profound affect on his outlook in life. When he returned home, he married my grandmother and they proceeded to have a set of Irish twins (in my Aunt Janet and mom), then six years later added my Uncle Bob to the brood. If you listen to them describe him, he was a strict, no-nonsense kind of father. If you knew him in his older years, you'd hardly believe that. Though he was stern with me and Julie when we would go visit, he was also so much fun it didn't bother us. Grandpop was a democrat, a freemason, and a union-member...before there was a stigma attached to any of those things. He was a good, good man.
He had a greenest thumb of anyone I have ever known. His "backyard" was a giant garden, overflowing in the summertime with cucumbers (which he hated so much he wouldn't even smell them at the dinnertable), zucchini, tomatoes (more on this in a minute), and scuppernongs (which we always called just plain ol' "grapes"). Every summer, my father and Grandpop would have a friendly "competition" to see whose tomato plants bore fruit soonest. It was all in good fun, and it didn't take long before they were calling each other up earlier and earlier each year, even as soon as Valentine's Day while there was still snow on the ground, bragging about how big their tomatoes were.
Not only did Grandpop have a green thumb, but he knew his way around the kitchen as well. I think this was something he picked up later in life, as he was always tinkering with things and trying out new hobbies. He could stir-fry like no other and LOVED the electric skillet, even making a pineapple upside down cake in it one time (I have the snapshot to prove it). Dinnertime at Grandmom and Grandpop's house was always a treat. They were both amazing with food. I'll always have the memory of helping them snap their beans and eating them boiled with ham (yum). There's just something so rewarding about going out to the veggie garden, bringing in some beans, prepping them, cooking them, and eating them. One thing I remember most about mealtime with them, was that Grandpop couldn't eat without having some type of "carb". Whether it be saltines or white bread, there was always a plate full right next to his spot at the table.
He was always joking around with people! Going only on the pictures I've seen and stories I've heard, immediately after I was born, a sign appeared in our yard hand-scrawled on a piece of cardboard declaring to the neighborhood that "It's a rotten, stinkin' little girl!" No one knows for sure whether it was our neighbor, Mr. Herb or Grandpop who did it. I personally think it was a team effort. Those two made quite a pair with their incessant hijinks. I'm not sure how he got the nickname "Bunky", but it just fit. I will forever equate the name "Bunky" with Grandpop and though I know exactly what I feel when it's said, I'll never be able to describe it with words. If I had to try it would probably be "fun"... He's the only man I've ever known in real life to be secure enough to wear a Donald Duck costume, complete with tights. (And let me tell you, he pulled it off. I envied his physique. Tall and thin. Those days for me are long gone!)
As I mentioned before, he was a hobby-man. Though an electrician by trade, he dabbled in just about everything. He made and painted wooden trinkets, golfed, camped, played on the internet from its inception, gardened, you name it. It was always a new adventure with him. Sometimes, he would simply announce that we were leaving...and to get in the car. You could ask where we were going, but he wouldn't answer. Either because he didn't know or didn't want to tell...maybe both. My memories of him are so random, and yet they all make me smile. Grandpop introduced me to the jigsaw (in his woodshop), vienna sausages, and depth finders. He took me on my first fishing trip, boat ride, and mo-ped ride. He challenged me to read the New Testament along with him one summer when I was about twelve years old. He encouraged me spiritually and lived to see me become a professed Christ follower.
Towards the end of my junior year and the summer before I was a senior in high school, Grandpop fell ill. I personally believe that he had been seriously ill and known it for quite some time, but didn't tell anyone. When he came to our house for Julie's wedding reception, it was obvious that he wasn't himself. He didn't have much energy and kind of hung out on the couch. It was very out of character for a man who spent the majority of his life on the go and up and at 'em. Just a few months later, on September 15th, 2000, at the age of 77, Grandpop died due to complications from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I do not fault him for his decisions at the end of his life, and I believe if faced with the same circumstances later in my own life, I would do the same. Though I fear he was in pain for those months, I think he was happier than he could ever have been if he'd had to endure treatment. He lived a full, happy life. And he spent his final months at home. With my grandmother and where his heart was.
Though completely different from each other, there were a few important similarities between the two of them. Both of my grandfathers believed in, taught the importance of, and demonstrated the reward of hard work. They were defined by their integrity. They were both Christian men with unwavering convictions. You didn't want to enter into a debate with either of them. Trust me on that.
My life was touched by both of these great men, and in knowing them I understand how my parents turned out as well as they did. (Some might say the jury is out on Joyce, but you know you love her.) The three grandparents I have lost were all amazing individuals. And I am grateful to have had at least 17 years with all of them. I will never forget the profound impact they had on me. I can only pray that I can use the model they provided for me to be an equally strong foundation for my family.
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