It was New Year’s Day and someone was singing.
I had just awoke after a night of banging pots and pans outside and indulging in one too many root beer floats. My grandpa faced me at the edge of their guest bedroom door. Bowing elegantly with an arm draped across his stomach, he jiggled his feet across the floor, and he sang:
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you.
We’re all in our places,
With bright shining faces.
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you.
I sprung from my bed to sing and dance along.
This, he explained, was how his teacher greeted her students every day when he was in school. The children would then sing the words back to her before starting their day.
Thanks to Grandpa – and his and my grandma’s fervent adoration of the Lawrence Welk Show – I know quite a few classics from the 1940s.
I was a too-tall and too-skinny 13-year-old, but in Grandpa’s eyes, I was a princess. He’d greet me with things like “You get more beautiful every day!” and “Look at that smile!”.
Grandpa grew up along the Ohio River in Dayton, Kentucky. The river was his swimming pool, squirrels were his pets, and he’d lovingly sign every birthday card as “Willie the Hillbillie”.
At 21-years-old, Grandpa was sent to England to fight in World War II. A few weeks after the initial Normandy invasion, his troop advanced to France as well. They were soon captured by Germans firing from behind a hedgerow. The captured soldiers marched through France and Germany, finally stopping at a prison camp called Luckenwalde, just 30 miles south of Berlin.
My grandpa is of German descent, and with the last name of Feldman, a Nazi soldier demanded to know why he was fighting against his own blood.
“I’m an American, you son-of-a-bitch,” he replied. Grandpa was the most religious man I knew, and he cursed like crazy.
“I was in the state-of-grace,” he once told me. “I didn’t give a damn.”
After the Russian Red Army advanced into Berlin, and Hitler’s suicide soon after, the Germans quickly abandoned the prison camp. My grandpa was a free man.
He escaped death during those 10 months of captivity, but my grandpa has since made sure that when the time did arrive, he’d make it right to heaven.
He also did his best to ensure that we’d be right there with him one day.
After moving away from Cincinnati, he’d call to see if I was wearing my scapular. Traditionally worn by Catholic priests, it’s said that if you’re wearing a scapular when you die, you’ll immediately go to heaven. Grandpa kept a few hundred at his house and passed them out like Halloween candy.
“Are you wearing your scapular” he asked as I drove home from work one night in Charlotte. “Yes…” I said in the tiniest of voices. “Bullshit,” he said right back to me.
While at my brother’s rehearsal dinner two years ago, Grandpa turned to Uncle Bob, asking “Bobby, are you in the state of grace?”
“Dad,” he replied with a smile, “I’m in the state of Georgia.” This, of course, resulted in Grandpa muttering a few choice curse words under his breath.
While my grandpa embraced the peace and stillness of religion, he also was a man who lived out loud.
He sang, he whistled, and he laughed at everything.
Grandpa was the silliest man I knew, and he never cared if other people thought he was strange.
As the years went by, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and diabetes. Grandpa stayed fairly active for the first five years, but his health was quickly deteriorating by the time I became engaged to Kevin in 2008.
He was thrilled that I was engaged and told me numerous times that “Kevin is a good man,” while also having quiet conversations with Kevin on the side that he “best take good care of me”.
We decided to marry at Sacred Heart Church, the same church that Grandpa and my grandma were once married, as well as my parents. He was thrilled to hear that I was going to be married in his beloved Sacred Heart, the church he’d attended nearly every day since marrying my grandma.
While visiting Kevin’s family in Rhode Island during the July 4th weekend of 2009, I got a call from Grandpa.
“Sara!” he exclaimed. “Just wanted to let you know that I’m feeling great today, and I’m definitely going to be there for your wedding day, I just know it.”
The cancer that had started in his prostate had spread to his bones. Moving around was painful, and he spent most of his time confined to an armchair in the living room.
The year passed by, and Grandpa received more and more medications to ease his pain. Too old for chemotherapy, the pills only served to make him feel more comfortable.
Kevin and I were going on an almost two-year engagement, and while in Cincinnati for my bridal shower in June 2010, we visited with Grandpa before leaving town.
“You’re going to have a beautiful wedding day” he said, kissing me goodbye on the cheek.
Something about the way he said it made me think he wouldn’t be seeing it himself.
“I hope so,” I smiled.
My grandpa passed away one year ago today. He missed my wedding by just one month and two days, but even though he wasn’t physically there – in the church he loved so much – I could feel him all around me.
At Grandpa’s burial service, soldiers paid tribute to honor their fellow comrade and P.O.W. with a rifle salute and a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes.
After one year, it’s still hard to believe that Grandpa’s gone.
It’s strange to think I’m never going to get another crazy phone call, demanding to know if I’m wearing a scapular, and I’m never going to get another birthday card signed by Willie the Hillbillie.
But there are days when the sun is shining bright, the music is playing loudly, and I can feel him right next to me.
Sometimes I can still hear him sing.