My Grandfather: King of the Little Things

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James Bodenbender was born in 1933. He died on November 13, 2016. His mother was dearly loved by all who knew her for the way she made her home a haven to those who entered. His father died when he was just 10 years old. He didn’t graduate high school, because he signed up to join the army. He fought in the Korean War, serving his country well. He was a scrappy young man with a love for beer and ladies. Always ready with a swagger and an outrageous story to tell.  He was a boxer, and no stranger to bar fights. Apparently even once fighting a peacock in a bar! That’s the man I’ve heard tale of, but he isn’t the man I knew in my lifetime. He would always tell us stories…elaborate, unbelievable stories. We never really knew if they were true or not, but then again, Grandpa was such a character anything seemed possible. Some were from his boxing days…or stories about other interesting characters he knew. We had nicknames for him…Grandpa Dundee because of his Crocodile Dundee hat and most well-known, Grandpa Holy Mackerel…due to his vivacious love for the phrase: “Hoooooly Mackerel!!”

What I didn’t know about my grandfather is that he achieved the unheard of honor of working his way from general laborer to superintendent in his construction career, educating himself on engineering by reading books. My mother described his work as blowing up mountains to build roads and bridges through them. I’m sure it was much more complex than that, of course. But, he was a proud, hard-working, intelligent man who did not allow the lack of a traditional education to keep him from educating himself and achieving his goals.

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He married my grandmother, Marge, and they had six children. Their relationship was tumultuous, as he continued his outrageous antics. Both with fiery personalities and a strong will, they divorced while the children were still young. Proud and stubborn, neither admitted it much, but a tender place remained in their hearts beneath the pain. For, they did dearly love each other once. And, that kind of love doesn’t just disappear.

Doris was the woman I saw him with the most when we were growing up. He would smile with his entire face, eyes disappearing, as he put his arm around her, or my mother, or me. Many of our family vacations included visits to the various places he lived. He usually lived in places that had hills or mountains…so it was always a beautiful drive. Much more to feast our eyes on than the flat lands of our home in the Midwest. I especially loved to visit him in the fall when the trees were changing colors. Gorgeous tree-covered mountain splendor. We would play car bingo and eat snacks on the way. He had an Atari and an Intellivision that we loved. And a keyboard that played different rhythms. One time, we found the best walking stick ever and walked around the mountains with our find. My brothers loved it! You really can’t beat a good walking stick. Grandpa was telling us stories about mountain lions (which may or may not have actually lived in the area) while we walked. Doris was a southern lady, and always looked at our grandfather with such admiration. She was welcoming and kind, although they two had their troubles. After they parted ways, he moved to our small town for a time, much to my mother’s delight. She always had a special bond with him and it meant so much to her to have him close. My youngest brother, Sean, took a special liking to Grandpa in those days and they’ve continued their bond through the years. They  are two peas in a pod, full of bologna, crazy antics, and unbelievable stories.  His time with us included a whirlwind road trip, a pet pig (in town), and holidays with his famous grin.

Elaine was the woman who loved him during the last 12 years of his life, caring for him in sickness, watching the Molly B Polka Show, and laughing with him. They called each other each night at 7pm if they were apart.  Grandpa loved her and her children and grandchildren as if they were his own. He was so grateful for her part in his life, and so are we.

Reflecting on his life and love in the last few weeks, I wrote…

We talked today about the thing that matters most as we reflect back on our lives…love. He held my hand tightly, whispering, “There’s so much love…so many different kinds of love…in this world. So many, I don’t even know. It’s the only thing that matters.”

My grandfather was a simple man, shopping at the Goodwill store and flea markets. Oh, how he loved a good deal! He found simple treasures everywhere. Jars and jars of his beloved marbles. Bells he collected, rescuing and repairing the broken ones to fill his time. In the last days of life, he said, “You don’t think the little things matter much, but they do. They mean so much. The little things are everything.”

He loved nature, building a house in the country with a fish-filled pond near the woods where deer and the occasional fox would wander. He made the best venison jerky around. He fed the birds and laughed at the squirrels from his porch swing. A mighty, strong man, he overcame a stroke, various forms of cancer, heart disease, and more throughout his time on earth.

Regarding one health scare in 2009, (from a former blog post):

“Grandpa was just battling for his own life in the hospital recently. He woke up not able to walk. He crawled to the door and drove himself to the hospital. After frightening a nurse when he motioned to her to come to the car (it was the middle of the night.), someone finally brought him a wheelchair and got him into the hospital. Yes…most people would have just called the EMS. Grandpa Dundee is not most people. After being told, his chances were very grim. And if he walked again, he would have to recover in a nursing home, Grandpa said, (not so sweetly) that he would have none of it. He walked out of the hospital several days later. And he is currently at home, in his house in the country, refusing a nurse’s care. Watching the squirrels slide down the pole (that he greased, so they couldn’t steal the bird seed in the bird feeder!) And eating his six year old turkey jerky. Because he can.”

He lived 7 more years after that.

Much of his last days brought back memories of watching our mother at the end of her life. I wrote these words one week ago:

At the end of her life, my grandfather sat beside my mother’s bedside, just to her left, for 4 weeks. While others were in and out, it was mostly the three of us: my youngest brother Sean, Grandpa, and me…sitting by her bed, interpreting her moans, listening to her raspy breathing patterns, stroking her hair. Me singing or saying a prayer. Mom occasionally waking for a one-liner.

I have buried three of my children, and I can honestly say…those 4 weeks of watching her suffer were the most traumatic of my life…of our lives. It was an honor and a privilege…beauty in the broken…but it was utterly…life-changing…devastating.

The three of us understood like no one else what she endured. My love for our grandfather…and desire to honor him for staying with her…with us…is beyond description. Not only did we not want to leave her in those days…we didn’t want to leave each other…like soldiers in battle together.

Yesterday, I walked into the hospice center…and sat beside him to his left…

We spent so much time with him this month, soaking in his last days. He spoke some of his regrets and I reminded him of the grace and forgiveness Jesus gives us. Nothing can separate us from His love. While looking through boxes of pictures and other mementos he kept throughout the years, I sat in awe, picturing him with a proud grin as he cut out newspaper articles from when his son ran for County Sheriff, my feisty mother’s letters to the editor on a crusade to right the wrongs of the world,  or when his grandchildren were featured in the newspaper for their sports achievements. He was quiet and proud, spending so much time alone. But, it was evident that his family was never far from his heart. I had no idea how much every note, every picture displayed with pride on his refrigerator…meant to him. How he treasured every little piece of our lives. He was in hospice care for 3 weeks at home and spent one week in the in-patient facility before passing on to glory. He said several times that those 3 weeks had been the best of his life, surrounded by love and family. He had seen his family more in the last 3 weeks than he had in the last 30 years. Those words pierced my heart in a way I hope to never forget.

Many precious hours have been spent holding my grandfather’s hand the last few weeks. In the picture above, as my sister-in-law, Megan, and I were holding his hands, he put them together. Such beauty in the holding of a hand. Even when there are no words spoken, love is expressed.

Time stops at the beginning and the end of our earthly lives, so that we soak in the moments that matter. I wish we stopped a little more in the middle, sometimes.

 

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