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He Had a Good Time

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My grandfather was named John C. Bonser, but everyone called him Jack. He was tall, with red hair, deep blue eyes, and a ski slope nose like Bob Hope. He was a writer, a poet, a prolific story-teller. When my mother and her three siblings were growing up, Grandpa Jack would enter all kinds of writing contests and win. He won money, vacations, even a new kitchen once.

GRANDPA JACK POOL

When I was growing up, my parents and sister and I spent summers at my grandparents’ house in St. Louis. Many evenings, Grandpa Jack and I would sit on the porch swing in the back yard and he’d tell me ghost stories — one after another after another. I never got tired of listening to them and he never tired of telling them, but he’d always ask me to tell my own, too.

Just as Grandpa Jack encouraged me to tell stories like he did, he also encouraged my TV habit. Every year, when I arrived for the summer, he’d present me with a new copy of TV Guide and tell me to circle all the shows that sounded appealing to me. Then, he’d write out a detailed schedule, focusing especially on Saturday mornings when all the best cartoons were on. Since I only had one American channel the rest of the year (if I was lucky), it was overwhelming to visit the states and suddenly have dozens of channels from which to choose. But Grandpa’s TV schedule, with the corresponding channel codes, made things more manageable for me and, with his help, I had most of my waking hours from June to August mapped out pretty well.

GRANDPA JACK WENDY GARDEN

When Grandpa wasn’t watching TV himself, he was usually sitting in front of his typewriter at the kitchen table working on a new poem. In more recent years, any time I visited him, he’d recite his latest work.

“That’s a good one,” I’d say, approvingly, after he finished.

“You like it?” he’d ask.

“I do.”

“But which one is your favorite?”

My favorite was one he wrote to my grandmother years ago (he wrote her many poems through their years together*) for their 50th anniversary. It was published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book and later inspired a TV special starring Ed Asner (who played my grandfather). My family was together for Thanksgiving when the special aired and we all got such a kick out of seeing my grandfather’s story — well, my grandparents’ story, really — on national television.

My grandfather was a man with several quirks and interests. He liked having his fingers wiggled, for one, and, when my cousins and I were kids, he’d pay us like a nickel each to wiggle his fingers — and twenty-five cents to rub his feet. In the 80s, he loved watching WWF wrestling matches on TV, and, in more recent years, he enjoyed re-runs of “The Lawrence Welk Show.” He liked long drives — especially along the Mississippi River, the St. Louis Cardinals, and playing penny poker. He loved donuts on weekend mornings, salty potato chips to snack on, and, for a diabetic, he could sure put away a bowl of ice cream.

Another thing he absolutely loved was decorating his home for a holiday — and not just Christmas either. Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, even the Fourth of July all got the Jack Bonser treatment, although summer months — the months I always visited him growing up — were certainly more subdued. I didn’t realize the extent of this hobby of his until my freshman year of college when I finally had the opportunity to see my grandparents’ house decked out for Christmas.

Every single room in my grandparents’ two-level home looked like a holiday warehouse. There were trees on every surface, Christmas-themed music boxes that played “Silent Night” or “Jingle Bells” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and tinsel and lights and miniature winter wonderland villages everywhere with miniature snow-capped hills and homes and frozen ponds with miniature children skating around. There were red and green Christmasy throw blankets and Christmasy throw pillows and stockings hung with care. Even the soaps and the soap dishes and the hand towels in the bathrooms were season-appropriate.

“Do you like it?” he asked, his blue eyes twinkling with pride.

“Oh, I do!” I said. And I did.

GRANDPA JACK WENDY CHAIR

I was 23 when my grandparents moved out of the house they raised their four kids in and into a much smaller two-bedroom apartment, and I’ve long thought of my memories of them almost split in a “before and after” sense. But I realize now, it’s not so much my memories of THEM that are split in such a way, but my own identity and the role they played in shaping it. Before they moved, before I was 23, I was still a kid in many ways, and their house was one constant in my life — a life of revolving homes and schools and friends. When they decided to simplify their lives, to size down, and move into a smaller home, it signified for me a major shift. I was two years out of college, about to move to Chicago with a boyfriend, and the one home I’d always known to be consistent would no longer be in my life.

And now, 14 years later, another shift.

Grandpa Jack died peacefully in his sleep on Sunday morning. He was 90. He leaves a wife, whom he loved so very much, four children, two sons-in-law, a daughter-in-law, six grandchildren, four grandsons-in-law, one great-grandson, and many life-long friends, and other family.

I got to celebrate his milestone birthday with him just last month, and I am so grateful that my final memory of him is such a happy one. He’d been unwell for several months and had recently moved to a nursing home, but on the night of his 90th birthday, he came out for a celebratory dinner with about 15 of us. My aunt brought these silly stick-on mustaches and my grandfather had fun trying on different ones. There was cake and ice cream and laughing and, for one more evening, we had our Grandpa Jack.

The next morning I went to the nursing home to say good-bye before I flew back to New York, but, before I got to his room, a staff member stopped me.

“Your grandfather must have had a wonderful time last night — he’s still sleeping!” she said with a smile.

“Oh, he did!” I replied. And he did.

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Rest in peace, Grandpa Jack. I’ll miss you so much.

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*This is one of the many poems he wrote for my grandmother, his wife of over 64 years:

Winter Rose

My love is like a winter rose
Her beauty blooming still
Though time’s relentless river flows
And frost lies on the hill.

My love is like an evergreen
Bright-leafed against the snow
Though Autumn’s flame has left the scene
Her ashes softly glow.

My love is like a treasured song
That ever sweeter grows;
My heart, with gladness, sings along
Though years the rhythm slows.

My love is like a photograph
Of one whose gracious pose
And gentle ways and happy laugh
The camera’s magic shows.

My love is like a precious grain
In spring a farmer sows
‘Til kissed by sun and wind and rain
To golden ripeness grows.

My love is like a dear old friend
So wonderful to know
Upon life’s path, from end to end,
Together we will go.

My love is like a winter rose,
That frost can never kill;
In memory’s soil, her goodness grows
And beauty blossoms still.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

avatar Addie Pray September 15, 2013, 8:35 pm

Beautiful, Wendy! I’m crying. It sounds like your Grandpa Jack was a great man.

Classic Classic September 15, 2013, 8:40 pm

Oh Wendy, what a beautiful way to honor your Grandpa. This makes me cry, but it is so beautiful. So much joy and love in this. I am sorry for your loss.

Bubbles Bubbles September 15, 2013, 8:54 pm

What a beautiful, loving tribute. It’s so heartfelt it made me cry. Condolences to you and yours.

Miel Miel September 15, 2013, 9:19 pm

You made me cry with this one. I’m very sorry for your loss. You say your grandfather encouraged you to tell story too. Pieces like this makes me believe you definitely inherited some of his talent. The way you told his story was beautiful. Even though I never met him, I was very touched by your words. May he rest in peace.

Copa Copa September 15, 2013, 9:24 pm

So sorry for your (and your family’s) loss. I cried, too! Your Grandpa Jack seems like a great guy who lived a fulfilling & happy life.

avatar Something Random September 15, 2013, 9:30 pm

What a beautiful tribute to your grandpa. Thank you for sharing. I submit my condolence for your loss.

avatar Jean September 15, 2013, 9:34 pm

I met Jack several times since 2006 at gatherings of mutual friends. Everyone always said: “He’s the one that writes all those poems.” I didnt realize he was your grandfather, until now. I’m sorry. Im glad he got to meet your son!

avatar quixoticbeatnik September 15, 2013, 9:37 pm

I am so sorry for your loss, Wendy! He reminds me a little of my grandfather, who passed away my freshman year of high school. It sounds like you got your amazing writing skills from your grandfather. You are lucky to have had him in your life for so long. Many hugs to you from me! It is so hard to lose your grandparents.

avatar rachel September 15, 2013, 9:40 pm

Wow, how beautiful. You’ve made me tear up, too. Your Grandpa sounds like a great man, and what a wonderful tribute to him.

avatar jlyfsh September 15, 2013, 9:40 pm

Men of that generation were so unique. My Grandfather passed away in April and the hole he left can still very much be felt. So sorry for your loss and that of my your family. I’ll especially be thinking of your Grandmother. I’ve seen mine trying to navigate a world without her husband (just shy of 56 years for them) and there really isn’t a word to describe how hard it is.

Thank you for sharing your story!

avatar starpattern September 15, 2013, 9:40 pm

Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss. This was so beautifully written. How wonderful that you have all these memories of Grandpa Jack you can look back on.

avatar Taylor September 15, 2013, 10:17 pm

A beautiful tribute, when you draw tears from people who never had the honor of meeting your grandfather. Through your words, I feel like I know him a little bit.

CatsMeow CatsMeow September 15, 2013, 10:17 pm

It sounds like he had an amazing life and you got to share many wonderful memories with him.

avatar Jenny September 15, 2013, 10:35 pm

This was so beautiful, Wendy. You seem to have inherited your wonderful way with words from your grandfather. I’m so sorry for your loss.

avatar April September 15, 2013, 11:05 pm

Your sister posted this link on Facebook. Glad you were able to use his high school yearbook photo and poem that I posted earlier today to tell your story about our grandfather. If you can, I know Grandma would love a letter from you – she’s having an especially hard time.

Dear Wendy Wendy September 16, 2013, 8:14 am

April, you’re correct. You did post our grandfather’s yearbook picture on your Facebook page first. Your years working in high school journalism have paid off and your Facebook photo montage was lovely.

As for Grandma, I was able to give both her and Grandpa my love when I saw them on Grandpa’s 90th birthday last month (you were missed), and I will pay my respects to them again in person this week.

avatar Sunshine Brite September 15, 2013, 11:10 pm

So sorry for your loss Wendy! Those sound like wonderful memories, thank you for sharing them with us.

avatar d2 September 16, 2013, 12:24 am

This was a wonderful story. I’m sorry for your loss.

avatar lemongrass September 16, 2013, 12:44 am

I’m so sorry for your loss. It sounds like he was a great man with an interesting life. It is so hard to lose a grandparent, especially one you are close to. I hope you can take comfort in that he got to know your son.

avatar Michael F. O'Brien September 16, 2013, 2:14 am

Bravo Wendy! I do believe that you inherited more than just some of Grandpa Jack’s writing ability.

BTW, I taught art and photography at Seoul American High School for thirty-four years and retired in ’97.

Michael aka Mr. O’

avatar Auntie Allie September 16, 2013, 9:28 am

Did you know our Mom, who was a half-time English teacher?
-Allison (aka Wendy’s little sister)

Dear Wendy Wendy September 16, 2013, 9:41 am

Did you have a wife who taught middle school English?

avatar Wendy's Dad September 16, 2013, 10:00 am

I don’t know if Michael will see these questions, but the answer to your questions is “yes”. His wife Arline probably taught your English class, Wendy. And, Allison, he worked with your Mom at SAHS. He and I are FB friends and I guess he caught my link to Wendy’s post. Mr. O, as he was called, taught art and was (and continues to be) quite renowned for his work.

avatar Monika September 16, 2013, 2:17 am

A wonderful tribute. I don’t comment much, but had to say something– Wendy, thank you for sharing your memories of your grandfather. I was holding up okay until I got to the photo with you, Grandpa Jack, and Jackson. Then the tears came. I’m happy that Jackson was able to spend some time with his great grandpa, and he’ll have such a lovely picture to look at when he’s older. God bless, and may your grandpa rest peacefully.