My grandfather’s name was John. He was a six-foot-something giant of a man quiet and unassuming, a second-generation immigrant who fiercely protected his family. Nothing was more important to him than that.
John had been blind in one eye from the age of 13 when a splinter flew from a piece of wood he was chopping. He never drove a car because of that splinter, but instead walked everywhere he had to go or asked one of my parents for a ride until the day he died. I vividly remember walking to the bakery on Sunday mornings after church as a boy to bring home a Jewish rye for lunch. Those were the kinds of things he did with his grandchildren.
John was a janitor at the local public grade school. Today janitors are looked down upon, as if that task is below us. I mean, who really wants to be a janitor and empty the trash, clean the bathrooms, scrape gum from under desks, and paint the hallways? John never saw it that way though. The children in that school respected him as much as they respected the principal. The students, behind his back, affectionately called him “Sneakers,” because he always wore them and they could never hear him coming when they were getting into mischief. One of the graduates of the school told that to us at his funeral as he relived those days. He said that John was tough, but he was also fair, and would give any kid a break when he or she needed one.
It didn’t occur to me until years later that John’s blood and sweat was in that school. That is why, when I was four, I remember the look of sadness on his face the day he walked me a block from our home to watch the school being demolished. He took pride in having been a part of an institution that gave so many kids a head start in life.
John never really said much. That day, he said nothing. We just stood there together, my small hand in his, and after a time, he finally said, “Well, Davey, let’s go home.”
I would like to say that the time he worked at the school was more simple than now, but I think there is more to it than that. People actually had respect for each other then. John and his friends respected their nation, and God help any who stood or spoke against her. His blindness never allowed him to serve in the armed forces, but that did not in any way squelch his national pride. They also took pride in their work, and they understood that they were expected to put in a full day for their wage. They looked-up to the janitor in the same way that they looked up to the judge, because both performed a needed function in society (that, too, has changed).
Oh, John knew his neighbors back then, too. When someone new moved into the neighborhood—a rare event, because most people didn’t move around much back then—he, his wife, Mary, and the other neighbors walked to the house and brought a bread or a pie to welcome the new family. When a neighbor was in trouble, everyone helped out in any way they could, because—well—it was just the right thing to do.
Most of his neighbors had very humble beginnings. They typically were first or second generation immigrants, and so to own their own homes was looked upon as a great privilege and not a right. They bought them by working and sacrificing until they had the money. They took pride in their homes—even the ones they rented—and you could find them on their hands-and-knees, washing their sidewalks on Saturday mornings. Do that today and your neighbors would wonder who you were and what was wrong with you.
Faith in God was a given. Everyone went to worship on a Sunday. The various ethnic communities that sprung up always had their church building in the middle of them. They spoke about their faith because it was important to them. Today, we hide it from our neighbors and coworkers and acquaintances to avoid being ridiculed as foolish, and if that’s “progress” then you can keep it. But back to John.
John was an excellent carpenter. Were it not for him and his patience, I would not be a woodworker today. He built my first piece of furniture with me—a cabinet for his shop tools. It was a nice piece of furniture that you could use outside the shop. It lives in my living room to this day because he explicitly instructed me that—on the day he died—I was to go immediately to his shop and take the cabinet home. I did just, because as kids—even 19 year old ones—you did what Grandpa told you to do.
The other reason the construction of that cabinet sticks in my mind is because I remember him hammering his thumb so hard that it nearly made me cry. All I heard from him was a sharp intake of air. He looked at his split thumbnail and said, “Be right back. I’d better get a Band-Aid from Grandma.” That was John. As much as he didn’t talk much, he didn’t complain much either. I tried to remember that when I ran my thumb through my table saw after 33 years in the shop with no accidents.
The week before he died, John wasn’t feeling particularly well, but he never spoke of it. My Mother noticed and told him that she was going to take him to his doctor. All he said was, “My father died in his bed, and I’m going to die in mine.”
Mary, his wife, fell asleep in the living room a few days later. When she awoke around 3:30 a.m., she noticed John’s light still on and went to check on him. He was right where he said he would be. In his bed. The coroner’s report said that his heart had given out.
I would like to be able to tell you that his death had a great impact on my family, but it didn’t. We Christians don’t view death as an end. No—the impact his life had on us was far greater. He truly was our hero because he understood what it meant to be a man—and unlike many today, he wasn’t afraid to be one.