Joseph Stead Jacobson was born May 6, 1913. I found out yesterday that he was a 13-pound baby! The picture I have of him as a child shows him with curly blond hair and a bit of a cleft in his chin that followed him where the blond didn’t. What I knew of his early years was rather sparse, relayed through stories from my grandmother, my mom, and aunt as we looked through old photos and of course, the slide shows.
My grandpa has always taken lots of pictures and put his world travels onto slides. I can remember so many evenings after a Sunday dinner when he would break out the slide projector and screen and when I got old enough, I got to advance the slides. While in the Navy, I was on leave and brought out my young family to Utah. He put together a show for us and I saw for the first time in my life that I belonged – not because I was in some of the photos, but because I bore an uncanny resemblance to somebody in the family in a photo taken decades earlier. My wife at the time saw it first. She gasped, “You look just like your grandpa.” And sure enough, I did…or do. And as he passed peacefully this morning, I feel like a part of me has gone away. In a real way, it keeps his memory in the forefront every time I look into the mirror, even if I don’t have the cleft in my chin and my hair is only blond-ish. His turned rather dark.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have grown up with grandparents living close by. My memories of my grandpa are indelibly etched into my childhood experiences and it’s fair to say that my academic aptitude and love for the mountains came from time spent with my grandparents. One of my earliest memories was helping my grandpa carry corn out of the field behind their home. The bucket was so heavy and I strained at the load of un-shucked ears. Barbecue after hiking up the trails overlooking the Salt Lake valley in Millcreek Canyon sticks in my mind, but I think the trip that was the most special was a fishing expedition to the North fork of the Duchesne River where I remember catching four good sized trout in less than 30 minutes. Their VW camper was the ticket to adventure and I got to go. As I grew up, I don’t know that anyone was prouder than he, as a career Army officer, that I chose the military life (even if it was the Navy!). While he was part of the aptly-named “Greatest Generation” and a World War II veteran, he never spoke about his battle experience…but a couple of years ago, he let a story slip out about timing artillery rounds to arrive at the right time on the Germans. I do know he suffered from what was then euphemistically called “battle fatigue” or what is called PTSD today. War may be glamorized, but it is hardly glamorous and he bore some rather deep unseen scars. Photos of a uniformed Colonel Jacobson come to memory and a twinge of pride resurges. When I was disillusioned and feeling like my life was about to crumble, he told me, “There’s the real and the ideal. Our aim in life is to get as close to the ideal as we can without losing the real.”
When my first son was born, my grandpa was there and when we brought the little guy home, the namesake first great grandson became “Little Joe” even though it was his middle name! That little guy is now 6’-3”!
Just as there are no manuals written to teach one how to be a parent, there aren’t any guidebooks on being grandparents. You just rise to the occasion and do what is in front of you. While I was figuring out who I was, my grandpa bore a bit of the brunt of my inner turmoil, yet he graciously took and redirected it and was still there when I walked home feeling like a failure. But if there’s one thing he exemplified, it’s reinvention. He had other careers after he left the military that had him learning and teaching at the same time. Amazingly, he was translating Turkish literature and selling the books on amazon.com well into his 90s, not because he needed the money, but because it was a new challenge.
My last face-to-face conversation with my grandfather was last summer when I was in town for my 30th high school reunion. Sure, we chatted about family, work, traffic, and the trials of life, but more, he was still as sharp as ever, discussing Tolstoy and Hugo and other classics of literature and their thematic elements. If there’s anything I can learn from Joe Jacobson, it’s that reinvention is not optional, it’s inevitable. The question is simply a matter of how well and how completely to take that transformation. It’s never too late to learn, never too late to give, never too late to love. When I left that August morning, I still got one of those bear hugs I used to get when I was a little guy myself, including the sound effects, albeit with a little less oomph. I’m so very grateful that the last meeting ignored the failures, forgot the hurt, and never mentioned the mistakes but rather embraced the very best and filled us both with a genuine smile and shared lifetime of love.
My grandfather was 99 years old when he passed peacefully out of this life this morning. I’m feeling a bit numb and a bit lost right now and while it hasn’t fully hit me, I’m missing him. I will remember him always as the tough ol’ guy with a bit of a tender side.
Thank you, Grandpa, for your sacrifice for our country and for the gentle but abiding love you gave me and all of us. Be at peace.
This posting was originally published June 11, 2012. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing