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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Rest in peace, Grandpa Jack. I’ll miss you so much.
*This is one of the many poems he wrote for my grandmother, his wife of over 64 years:
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.