Sunday, April 27, 2014

Howard William

We successfully made it to Wisconsin on Friday night. The flights went really well - Adam slept most of the flight to Chicago, all snuggled up in the ergo. Ellie watched Frozen and sat with Gigi for a bit, though she did do some crying on the way down, since her ears hurt. The nice man at the Admirals Club let Gigi take in all of her guests, and so we ate sandwiches and drank free beer and relaxed a little, and made it just in time for our puddle jumper flight to La Crosse. Dad, the Thiels and Lisa were all there to meet us at the airport, and Ellie and Hailee rode the escalators until it was time to go. I really couldn't have asked for better travelers - Ellie happily pulled her own suitcase through most of the airport, she sat nicely for the most part, and Adam did the best he could despite being incredibly tired at the end. And I'm so glad we had mom and Sara with us to tag team everyone (and again, free beer at the Admirals Club.)

Ellie has been so delighted to spend time with Hailee and Grandma Rosie, and seems to understand the basics of Grandpa Howie being in heaven. Yesterday morning was the Celebration of Life at St Luke's, where Grandma and Grandpa were married, and where we often went with them on Sunday mornings when we were in town. I haven't been to the church in years (and it no longer holds regular services, because the attendance was down so far) but it was definitely a trip down memory lane. There were lots of great pictures of Grandpa around, and everyone who came was so sweet in sharing their memories. Hailee sat with her dad for the most part, but Ellie was in and out of the cry room (which had a million nice toys, and was such a relief for me to see when we arrived) and Adam was content to hang out with Hailee's mom.

It was not as horrible or sad as I was expecting. I brought along a Grandma Pat hankie, but didn't sob into it. It was so wonderful to just be with my whole family, sharing memories, having lunch and laughing. We have also been having fun talking to Grandpa's urn - bringing it around with us, letting him go back down to the basement and check out his old desk, etc. It really feels like he's still with us. Plus the kids keep everything light - when we started singing the first hymn Ellie, in her gigantic pink sequin dress, asked if this was a dancing party. She also liked holding Grizz's hand to walk in and out of church, and was really eager to be allowed up to the front to speak (that did not happen for her.) After naptime, we went over to Lisa and Greg's hotel and Ellie went swimming with Grizz for an hour or so, and then we all went over to John's and had some of the delicious leftovers from the reception. Like savages, we ended up eating the end of the beef brisket with our bare hands, standing around the kitchen island. And of course, ended the evening with a dance party, as we do.

I was honored to be able to speak on behalf of the family yesterday at the church. Below is the text of what I read:

On behalf of the Thiel family, I’d like to thank you all for being here today with us to celebrate the life of my Grandpa, Howard Thiel. Thank you to those who come, having known him as a young man, a father and husband. Thank you to those who knew him as a friend, a volunteer and a coworker. And a special thank you to those from Hillview, who helped care for him so well for so long. I had contemplated getting up here and just doing my series of impressions of Grandpa, but decided that perhaps I would save that for the reception afterwards, though I think Grandpa would have approved, as no matter how sassy our impressions of him got, he was always able to take the opportunity to laugh at himself, and to laugh with his family. He knew he was a character, and that we loved him for it.

My grandpa was a combination of very strong, and very, very soft. He was a big guy and a big presence - his sheer size, his giant bald head, his piercing ice blue eyes and his booming voice. His hands were like giant paws, and when he hugged you, it was a bear hug that crushed you into his barrel chest. He had big opinions too. If a business had wronged him, you heard about it, even if it was twenty years ago. If you were in the car with him and he disapproved of how someone was driving, he’d let everyone know, with classic lines like “it’s people like that who should be riding the bus,” and “the sign says stop, not park.” And he took a special joy in saying “no one here by that name” and hanging up on any telemarketer who couldn’t pronounce Thiel. We were all familiar with his big snore too, rattling the windows even in the middle of the day. He’d fall asleep in front of the television, watching the Weather Channel, but if you snuck in and tried to change it to something actually interesting, he’d suddenly startle awake and say “I was watching that!” Despite his big voice, I don’t remember him yelling at us grandkids very often, despite the fact that we generally wreaked havoc on his home - tearing up the wood post on the front stoop when trying to learn to ride a unicycle, screwing around and wasting postage stamps by plastering them all over his desk blotter, and once, running the facet in the basement bar without realizing that there was no pipe connected to the drain.

Grandpa was also big in the community, with a long legacy of volunteering. He was active in community theater in Holmen. He was a volunteer at Gunderson Lutheran for seventeen years, and he was very active here at St. Luke’s Methodist Church, where he and Grandma were married in 1950. It’s easy to imagine the spirits of him and Clem being here right now, perhaps listening, but more likely wandering around and getting some fixes and chores done. After a brief stint in the Army, he was a proud member of the American Legion in Holmen. He was very devoted to Kiwanis and went every week until his final months, serving as president when he lived in Sparta.

After his stroke, his sense of strength and character became even more pronounced. For someone who was used to doing everything himself, and spending his days helping out others, he bore the loss of his independence with a great stoicism. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, and if he complained, he mostly limited his complaining to the state of the food served to him at Hillview. He was determined do whatever he could for himself, and heaven forbid you tried to do something for him if he could figure out a way to do it himself. Ask Aunt B about getting her hand slapped for reaching over to help him with something on his tray.

Despite his bluster, my grandpa was one of the most caring, careful, soft-hearted people I have had the pleasure of knowing. He was generous, honorable, and incredibly kind. In many ways, he remained a life-long Boy Scout. Always prepared with a blanket and a flashlight and a tool box in his car, just in case. When my grandma and I went for road trips around the midwest, he made sure we left the house with a cooler packed with sandwiches and sodas, and that the car had enough gas, and then when we got home, he’d clean up after us. In 1969, when Grandma decided she wanted to take her three teenagers to Europe, he helped plan the trip, and then drove the family around the continent in a VW minibus, without the aid of GPS - just him and Grandma, and a map, trying to show their kids more of the world. And closer to home, he was willing to stop at any quilt store that Grandma wanted to visit, and once she finished spending all of their money on fabric, he’d put together tables in the church dining room so she could get the patches laid out, help pin together all of the layers, and live with the quilt frame in the middle of their house as grandma worked her magic. He also bought a boat and was in charge of driving it when his kids were teenagers learning to water ski, even though he couldn’t really swim and didn’t like the water.

If you needed something done around the house, he was happy to do it. Many people knew his garage as “Howard’s Hardware Store.” If you needed a car fixed or a machine tinkered with, you could visit Grandpa’s immaculately organized garage, and he would find the part for you, fix your machinery and then refuse to let you pay him for his time or trouble, because he’d enjoyed doing it. When my family moved, which we did often, he’d come by and help with all of the little household improvement projects. He helped John and Betty build their new place, and anything Barb needed, he was there to do - I can still see him gently cradling one of her weiner dogs in a blanket so Auntie B could clip her nails. There was also the occasional banging around when it came to home repair - he once got a finicky laptop to work by tapping on the side of it with a hammer, which I’m sure was not Dell’s recommended method of repair. In the Holmen house he built a chute from the bathroom closet down into the laundry room - we always loved tossing our clothes down and watching to see if they made it into the hamper.

As kids, there was always a bike for us to ride when we visited his house, with the tires freshly inflated and the seat adjusted as we grew. Anything he could do to make us happy, he was happy to do. As a nerdy middle schooler, I expressed interest in Readers Digest, so he got me a subscription. He happily saved quarters to help Sara finish her state quarters map, in exchange for the thousand of pop can tabs she collected for him to bring to Kiwanis. He was the kind of man who carried dog treats in his pocket, both for his beloved Clem, and for any dogs he might see while out and about. Despite the fact that when I offered to get him a kitten, he’d tell me it would only end up in a burlap bag in the river, he was often seen with a cat in his lap when visiting our house, and the summer that our family cats stayed at his house, legend has it that he was even caught giving Sparky a little smooch, which earned him the title of “cat kisser.” He loved keeping the bird feeders full and watching the birds in the back yard, though he had choice words for the squirrels.

He was always willing to chat up a stranger and visit for a bit, with his big stern face breaking into his enormous smile. He loved paying for things with the gold Sacajawea dollars, and would tell me “I like to leave them as tips for waitresses. They think they’re only getting seventy five cents, but really, they’re getting three dollars!”

He and Grandma were always there for us kids, to celebrate our accomplishments and tell us how proud they were. They made sure to be there for confirmations and graduations, and Grandpa cried like a baby at our weddings. From our school plays, to the plays we put on in their living room, they were glad to watch us acting, and put up with us acting up around their house. They came to band concerts and piano recitals, and after his stroke, Gramps took great pleasure in going to Kari’s basketball games, even if that first winter he knew he might have to wait in the cold for the less than reliable bus to pick him up. I was able to find my family in the stands at my high school graduation because I was able to spot Grandpa in his Gilligan style hat and his blu blocker sunglasses worn over his regular sunglasses from across an entire football field.

He and Grandma also enjoyed taking us out to see the world - to community theater productions, to the zoo, and a memorable trip to Circus World when David and I were in kindergarten, where Grandpa sat next to me and assured me that the lion tamers weren’t actually whipping the lions when I started crying. Possibly my favorite story about grandpa is when he and grandma came to visit me in grad school, they took me to see the Lion King. We sat down and I joked about a little girl a few rows ahead of us who had a bag of candy, and how lucky she was, even though I was old enough to go get my own candy if I wanted it. During intermission, Grandpa left to use the restroom, and when he came back, he presented me with a giant, overpriced concession stand bag of Sour Patch Kids, which we shared during the second half of the show, despite Grandma’s cautioning him about his blood sugar.

His three great-grandkids didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him until after his stroke, and I am sad at all they missed out on, because I know he would have loved to keep them in bikes and snacks and bear hugs. Even if he was tired or grumpy or not feeling well, his eyes would light up when Hailee, Ellie and Adam appeared in the room. If it was possible, he adored them even more than he adored the four of us. He was so proud to tell stories about them or show off their latest pictures.

Grandpa wasn’t big on saying I love you, but he has always been incredibly loving in his own ways. When we were kids, he would affectionately refer to us as “little monkeys” while we were busily destroying his house and begging for a ride on the ride on lawnmower, and all my life, he’s told me I was “such a girl.” After his stroke, he couldn’t offer up a bear hug, but he would grab me with his good arm and pin me against his shoulder with his arm and his gigantic head.

The first time I visited him after his stroke, I spent my nights listening to Coldplay’s “Everything’s Not Lost,” to deal with my sadness. And even now as we are saying goodbye, I know that everything’s not lost. I know his influence is with us when I watch his kids alternate between teasing and taking care of their grandkids. I know he’s with us when we’re motivated to give back or do something for someone else. I think of him when I figure out a way to fix something with my own two hands or when I find myself putting a blanket in the back of my car, just in case. I know he is with us when I encourage Ellie to practice her own Grandpa Howie impressions by pulling her pants up just a little too high and yelling “I’m Grandpa!” or when I catch myself thinking “hurry up you idiot, and maybe you’ll make it to the front of the line” when someone blows past me on the freeway. I know there will always be a gap in our lives as we figure out how to take care of ourselves and take care of each other the way he would want us to. There is no way to replace the way he loomed large in all of our lives, because he was always such a good man, “such a grandpa.”

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