Dear Papa Bear
A tribute that includes fishing, snoring, and La-Z-Boy chairs.
Dear Papa Bear,
I don’t know what my first memory of you is. You’ve just always been. I remember staying the night at your house when I was a kid–so many sleepovers. I would wake up for two reasons: you were snoring or you were leaving for work at Dow Chemical at 5 a.m. in the morning and it was still dark. That darkness impressed me, it meant you were responsible. That snoring scared me at first and then turned comforting. No one would dare break in because they could tell a big strong man was on the other side of the wall. Plus, I was awake and could alert you if things went sideways.
I remember being a little scared of you at first with your big booming voice and policeman stance. Then I realized that, as your only granddaughter and first grandkid, you loved me so much and showed love the only way you knew how: talking and sharing your knowledge. I’ll never forget calling to ask you about World War II concentration camps for a report in seventh grade. We were on the phone for over an hour, I was bored out of my mind but didn’t want to cut you off, I respected you too much. Stationed in Germany after WWII and a policeman back in Bay City, Michigan. You kept the peace, abroad and at home.
Infamous fishing trip. Me with my prize-winning perch ($10!), you with your…fish.
You had a silly streak, though you didn’t always show it, it was hidden deep inside. I love that photo we have from Thanksgiving or Christmas where you put that huge mound of whipped cream on your head and green olive in place of a cherry. You loved to get ice cream, “First person who sees the Mackinaw Bridge gets a sundae!” worked every time…we all knew you just wanted ice cream and we were more than okay with it. Steak and ice cream—it’s in the Britton family genes. When we go to the U.P. this summer, I’m going to play that game with the girls, I think I want ice cream.
I loved all of the times we went fishing. I remember playing the Olympics on your old computer in the 80’s. That was pretty forward thinking of you, to get a computer when they were so new. I loved sitting on the foldout seat in your pick-up truck, going to McDonald’s and feeding french fries to the seagulls, and visiting your mom and getting those big pink peppermints from her. I loved you telling me about how she kicked that old woman in the wheelchair out of the way. You had picked her up from the nursing home to take her to lunch for her 90th birthday and —BAM! The old woman who got in the way was kicked out of the way.
As a kid I loved stealing your La-Z-Boy recliner from you. Andrew and I would race to see who could get to it first before you would come back, pretend to be upset, and kick us out of the recliner. I loved playing on that big back deck you used to have. Chippy the Chipmunk would scurry about and Grandma would give us sunflower seeds to give him. We had a Chippy in our backyard last Sunday. I’ve not paid attention to chipmunks in ages. I took a picture of that one though, thought it was a nod to Grandma…maybe it really was.
What you must have faced as a young man with an abusive father. Working to provide for your mom, brother, and sister; forcing them to leave your dad for protection. No one did that back then, I always admired your strength and bravery. You had my grace because, even with your booming voice, you stopped the cycle of abuse and even helped your dad in his final days. I remember meeting your dad once, towards the end of his life. He was absent up until then, I wonder what brought that change. I wish I would’ve talked to you about all of that.
You and Grandma, Germany 1950’s
When Grandma was dying from cancer, you cared for her so well. Although you two weren’t that demonstrative in your affection I seem to remember a peck on the head or two. In her final days the attention to her comfort, the resolve to take care of her, and the love in your eyes were apparent. As I sat next to her and her breathing changed, I remember calling for you. You were next to her quicker than I’d ever seen you move before. You commanded the room then, just as you always have, with confidence, purpose, faith, and love.
Gloria, Grandpa, and the girls in October last year
I am glad you married Gloria after Grandma passed away. It was hard only because Grandma was gone. Gloria was actually a great fit for the family because we’ve known her our whole lives. I’m not sure if someone else would’ve fit in so seamlessly.
Your faith in God was at the center of who you were. You wrote plays for church, performed in dramas, led Bible studies, and helped new pastoral staff feel at home. You didn’t seem to waver in your faith after Andrew or Grandma died, or even what you went through growing up. You were the head of our family in faith and as an example of faith.
You were so proud of dad. I’m not sure if you ever told him, but you told me. When the business went through a rough patch a few years ago you asked me how he was doing and I could tell you were concerned about him. You were proud of him for getting out of Bay City and starting something for himself. I wonder what you really thought when, in the 70’s, dad hitchhiked across the U.S. from Michigan to Idaho and back. When he and mom got married I’m sure you were relieved because dad is a creative guy and mom could ground him a bit. They’re pretty good for each other, aren’t they? A lot like you and Grandma, really. I see that in how they are grandparents to my girls now.
God, this hurts today. It’s coming in waves. You were my Papa Bear. Even though you held people at arm’s length, I understood why. You probably didn’t feel like it was at arm’s length, and in fact, those arms grew shorter and shorter the older you got. When Grandma passed away from cancer, you drew us all in, and realized we all needed each other. I’m glad you did that, now we know what to do with you gone. Time to pull it all in again, this week is gonna be tough. I hate funerals.
Head Image by Mark Basarab on Unsplash ( I think this is how my grandpa would look, as a bear. This one is pretty cuddly once you get past the teeth.)