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A Farewell to Grandma

How do you summarize a 96 year life?

You can't. But you try.

Such a long life is, by itself, extraordinary. So much has happened in that one life that one entire book, sometimes multiple volumes of a book, can't even cover it.

My grandmother, who died in her sleep a little more than a week ago, was one such person.

She passed away, quietly, and, by all accounts, without pain.  Death is never a complete surprise when it occurs in someone that age, though as soon as you hear of it, you feel the inevitable guilt that all survivors feel.

"Why didn't I visit more? Go out that one last time to see her? To share in her stories?"

 As I heard of her passing, I, too, felt those same pangs of guilt, the same dead feeling inside when someone who loved you, and inspired you - even from across the country - passes away.

Those feelings would eventually give way to a celebration of her life.


"I could have stayed a bit longer out in Oregon."  Inevitably, this was the thought that entered my mind when I heard that she died.

I'm sure this is precisely the thought that enters everyone's mind when a loved one dies, whether they visited every day, every week, or every few years, like I had tried to do.

But the truth is I visited when I could.

After all, my place of residence is within driving distance of Murray Goodman Stadium, not the near-westernmost tip of the Columbia river in Clatsop County, Oregon, where she spent most of her life.  Real life ends up getting in the way sometimes.

Growing up, I was always more than 3,000 miles away from her and the rest of the extended family - aunts, uncles, and cousins, at any given time.

She would come East when she could, and I would go West when I could, until she couldn't come East anymore, and I would end up pushing a little harder to go West when I could.

I need to share with you just a little about her extraordinary 96 year life. Even though her life may be impossible to adequately summarize, the truth is, I have to try.

I have to try because in incalculable ways she has been an inspiration to my writing. I've learned more from her about storytelling, writing, and determination than anyone else on this planet - despite my physical distance from her.

There is no question in my mind that the reason I am here, writing this about her, is because of her.

***

Astoria, Oregon nowadays might be best known as the setting for some movies in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Kindergarten Cop, Stand By Me, Short Circuit, and, of course, The Goonies.

The story behind that is that, at one time, Steven Spielberg fell in love with the place, and chose to set The Goonies there.

It's not hard to see why Mr. Spielberg was in love with Astoria- then, as now, the town seems caught in its own retro time warp. It somehow preserved the traditional sense of old, small town Americana even as other towns and cities in Oregon, such as Portland and Gearhart, were modernizing.

Frankly, I didn't like Kindergarten Cop or The Goonies very much, though members of my extended family can still watch these movies, pausing on frames and picking out moms, dads, aunts, and uncles in those shots.

(In fact, one of the many stories of the family involve my grandmother writing Mr. Spielberg with a particularly interesting story about the Clatsop County Indians for a movie idea, one of the many subjects where my grandmother was a history expert.  The only thing I can say for sure about it was that my grandmother wrote Mr. Spielberg, she got a response, and a movie about the Clatsop County Indians was never made.)

But Astoria's history is a lot more than a movie backdrop, and my grandmother was a critical curator of the city's history in multiple ways.

She wasn't just there for the Goonies years: she had seen it all.

Evelyn Leahy was born on March 31st, 1919, to Joseph Leahy, Jr. and Evelyn Germann Leahy in Astoria, Oregon.

Joe was the son of a former Irish Oregon homesteader. His wife, Evelyn, was a homemaker and ran the household. He was 31 years old when his second child - my grandmother, named after her mother - was born. I was near the same age as Joseph when my son was born.

In those days, one of the key businesses was hardware.  With the ferry, coast guard and fishing vessels all needing constant maintenance and supplies year round for their boats, there was near-constant demand for their service. My grandmother's father, Joseph, was a part of one of those businesses.

In 1922, a fire blazed through the wood pilings that supported most of the wooden homes of Astoria, leaving much of the city devastated, including the entire business section of the town. The Morning Oregonian detailed the losses as more than a half million dollars, including the complete destruction of multiple hardware store businesses.

In my many interactions with my grandmother, I didn't think to ask her about the Great Astoria Fire of 1922, a critical point of local history that devastated the area. Or maybe she volunteered that information to me, and I didn't write it down, or remember.

But thankfully, she recounted her story to other folks around the Astoria area.

"I was only 3 years old but mother woke us up, got us out of bed and took us up to the back room window in our house on Kensington [Street] so that we could look down on the burning center of town," she said. "And the whole town was ablaze. You could see it from there."

I had been to that house several times, high on the side of the hill on which Astoria was built. The last time I had gone there was with my wife, son and grandmother's brother, my great-uncle Bill Hankel, who was still spry enough to go to the old Leahy house and the place where he had lived almost all of his life.

Throughout her long life my grandmother and her brothers and sisters would end up being a sort-of embodiment of the early history of Astoria, her stories a key focal point of the history of the place.

To Astorians, she was a larger-than-life figure, as she was to me, too. In fact, the word "story" and Grandma are inexorably intertwined in my head.

Eventually, some of those pangs of guilt would turn into thoughts about her amazing life, and the precious times I talked with her.  Instantly, my memory recalled how quick she was with a story, even well into her later years. Well into her 80s and even into her 90s, she was very sharp.

In 2002, my wife and I were blessed to take a trip to Astoria to spend a few uninterrupted days with her. It was the first time of only a few instances in my life when I would be able to talk with her one-on-one about her life and history. 

We got to share in her stories uninterrupted, something I will never forget.

At the drop of a hat, she sang some songs that were popular with her and her friends during the Great Depression.   (She was still doing just that mere days before she died).

She shared stories with us about the time that the Liberty Theater in town that had a promotion that they'd let you in if you brought a salmon.

She told us the story about her days at the Oregon School of Education (now called Western Oregon University) when a dashing young football player named Halland Hankel, my grandfather, kept retrieving a football that "accidentally" landed right next to her, though it was no accident. She went on and shared a lot of stories about those "happy times" when she would bring Halland back to Astoria while they were courting, travelling to the family homestead with friends, some of which were still friends of hers in her 80s.

She told us the story of how she and Halland had plans to marry in the summer of 1942, but when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America found themselves at war, they moved up the wedding. (My grandpa and grandmother got married right before my grandfather would get shipped out to Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training.)

She recounted, again another story I knew well, but one I was eager to hear again, the story when a telegram came to the house while Halland was overseas serving the Army and fighting the Germans.   I was silent as she recreated the scene with her mother there and the telegram delivery person coming to the house, and hung on her thoughts and fears as she remembered how she was holding her new daughter - my mother - as she learned that Halland hadn't been killed in combat, but was instead recovering in England. Astoria had many of their able-bodied men serve in World War II - her brother Bill served in the South Pacific campaign as well.

She told us about her time working at the U.S.O. while Halland was overseas, about her time as a military wife, as a mother to 10 children (of whom my mother was the oldest), and about travelling the world, spending assignments in Panama, Okinawa, and Europe. She regaled us about the time that she, from what I pretty much determined was "force of will", relocated back to her beloved hometown of Astoria, home to all those happy childhood memories with her brother and sisters.

Anyone who tells you there are no second acts in life are lying - my grandmother's live had second, third, fourth, and even fifth acts, where she would go from child, wife and mother, to teacher to principal to historian.

As she told her stories from childhood to adulthood she would be completely "in control" of the room when she told them. Whether they were skills she honed while the mother of ten children, or skills she picked up as the wife of a colonel in the army, or skills she picked up teaching a classroom full of kids, it is hard to say.

In control of these stories, and so skilled at storytelling, in fact, that she would make you forget to ask follow-up questions that you'd wished you'd asked.
My grandmother, bottom row, second from left, EOU Yearbook

Things like - how did the Great Depression affect you and the family personally? Was your father ever out of work for an extended period? Did your mother and father approve of 25 year old Halland, generously listed as a "senior" in the EOU yearbook, as your boyfriend?

One of the great things about modern technology is that with tools like Facebook, I can now piece together the answers to many of these questions through interactions with not only my parents, of course, but aunts, cousins and others.

People sometimes rag on Facebook, but the truth is without it I wouldn't feel nearly as connected to my Hankel family as I do. In a vital way, Facebook is the connection to the family that I never had as a teenager.

I think of myself visiting Oregon as a child, as a somewhat aimless kid or a surly teenager. My surliness was frequently broken by my Grandmothers' own kindness, by some blueberry pancakes for breakfast, or a special treat from her refrigerator.

Like most of Astoria, her house in some ways was a wonder of time travel. Her refrigerator had to date from the 1950s, and the toys and comics that we played with were from the same era, like the plastic cowboys and Indians set I remembered that had to have been enjoyed by three different generations of children.

It made me think more about my grandmother as a person, as I knew her.

She never felt the need to put on an act for anybody. If she didn't feel like smiling for a picture, she didn't, something that a cousin and I were actually taking about via Facebook. Without Facebook as a tool, I wouldn't have been able to share it.

Even though I was surly - and those surly times have been rocking my brain an awful lot the past week - my grandmother was not. She exuded constant kindness to me.  Growing up it never dawned on me that a grandmother could be anything but kind. I can't even remember a single time she raised her voice at me.

That kindness held a power, something I wouldn't realize until much later.

She was the most self-realized person I've ever known. She knew who she was, and what she felt - yet she never seemed to try to impose her opinions on people, or at least me. I frequently didn't agree with her on issues, but somehow she was able to express her opinions, and I mine, without entering into an ugly philosophical argument. When I see a bitter flame exchange between people online, I sometimes think of her civil discourse to me.

Somewhere along the way with her, as I grew up, I started to think that storytelling was something I'd be interested in doing for myself. I think that's where my first thoughts of actually writing a book came about, thoughts that came about so subtly that I didn't even realize it myself until more than a decade later.

What strikes me, too, is how she also seemed to inspire many of my cousins to go on creative journeys themselves - without actually telling us that it's something we should do.

More of my adventures with Grandma out in Astoria came streaming back to me as well.

Astoria has many hills and roads with steep grades, reminding some people of San Francisco's streets in the side of a hill. When my wife and I arrived in Astoria one trip, my 83 year old grandmother drove from her apartment atop the town to the harbor area so we could enjoy fish and chips with her. Forever then and since Kim and I cannot think of grandma without thinking of fish and chips. ("Low-fat" was not something that was in her vocabulary.)

She insisting on driving us everywhere in her car, while my wife Kim and me hung onto each other for dear life. Her stories didn't come as easy as they did on her trips to the East Coast to visit us, but they still came as we went to the old family homestead, on which she still did some surface maintenance.

Whenever we'd take her out to eat in Astoria, we'd inevitably run into someone whom she taught at the local school. We went to see her at her church and met some of her friends there, something that meant a lot to us as well.

She came out a couple more times in the 2000s to visit us - for my wedding, thank God, and to spend some time with one of her great-grandsons - our son. The vision of my 90 year old grandmother sitting in a rocking chair, with him in her lap, singing one of the songs from her youth, looking out at the bay, is a treasured memory.

My family and I went out to Astoria again in 2007, giving her some more quality time with her great-grandson. When we took pictures of those moments, I couldn't escape thoughts of my own pictures with my great-grandpa Joseph Leahy, Grandma's father, when I was about the same age as my son.

In 2012, I knew that I'd probably only be able to go out there one last time before she passed, only because she was of course at the age when she wouldn't be able to get around anymore, her car long since sold, as was her apartment.

She was at an assisted-living facility, happily never short of visitors. Having ten children, more than thirty grandchildren and I-don't-know-how-many great-grandchildren will do that.

But I knew the days of her mobility were limited. It came down to a gruesome decision: to go out to see her still alive, still able to share her stories one last time with me, to have her walk around the old homestead in a walker, or to go out for her funeral.

I chose to go out to see her.

I thought she was fairly spry for 93 years young, pushing around on a walker. We talked about old times, visiting her, talking about the family and the old times including how my mother was as a child. She didn't always keep her train of thought, but she did so enough, many hundreds of times justifying my decision to go out to visit her.

At the end of my trip to Astoria,  she told me goodbye as they took her back to the van which would bring her back to the assisted living facility. I hugged her as hard as her frail body would allow me, somehow knowing that it would be the last time.

****

The funny thing about death is how life springs from it.

As my grandmother's funeral and memorial service was happening, a wedding was being finalized between a cousin of mine and his girlfriend. The memorial service was Friday night; the wedding on Saturday.

In a way, it was perfect.

We think so much on the people we love. We mourn when they die, no matter what age. We feel natural guilt, too.

Yet at the same time, so much good springs from what's still alive - a wedding here, a baby birth there, a cousin finding happiness here, an aunt sharing a laugh there, my mother connecting more closely with her siblings there.

My Facebook feed, at one time neglected, filled with so much death and remembrance all week, now had happy photos of cousins across the country celebrating, enjoying themselves.

Out in Astoria, along with the celebration of the happy occasion and the somberness of grandma's passing, perhaps an erudite discussion of the overall merits of the Oregon State Beavers over the relative weaknesses of the University of Oregon Ducks took place. Perhaps a discussion in the particulars of the circumstance behind the expected starting quarterback of the Ducks, QB Vernon Adams took place. Or perhaps more family stories flowed at the tables during the wedding.

In other words, normal, happiness resumed, and the family seemed to adjust back to the happy, positive times from before.   It's not just news cycles that are compressed, it's also grieving cycles, happiness cycles, life cycles.  Life is simply faster than it was before.

We remember our grandparents.  We remember the long, wonderful lives they've lived.  We acknowledge their very important place in our lives.  And we keep the stories alive.  But we also adjust to the quick pace of life as it exists.  We get back on the happy wagon, and we're blessed to be able to do that because we see her fulfilled, happy life.

I think that's exactly what my grandmother would have wanted.

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