This weekend I did something that I thought was going to be a charitable act but turned out to be amazing and wonderful and a little overwhelming. It connected me to some people that have been lost to me for a while, and I am very glad to have them back.
One of the aspirations of the Pioneer Girls project is to connect children, especially girls, with their ancestors and heritage in a deep and meaningful way. My Pioneer Pickle had a great experience learning about our own family history on a daytrip to the mountains.
In a beautiful little town a couple hours north of my home, my favorite Grampop’s brother lives in an assisted living facility. Uncle Jack will turn 95 years old this summer, and he doesn’t get around so great anymore. My Grampop, his younger brother and only sibling, passed away a few years ago. Jack’s wife died a couple of years before that. His daughter and main caregiver died rather unexpectedly a few months ago, leaving my mom and her brothers his closest living relatives. His loving son-in-law is still managing his care from his own home out of state, but we are now geographically Jack’s closest family.
My mom had been feeling a pull to get up there to visit him for a few months, so when we found ourselves each with a free Saturday (when does that happen?), we decided to make the drive up and visit him. We loaded up my kids in the minivan, turned on Lightning McQueen and headed up the road.
A few hours later we found ourselves walking into this facility, tracking down a man I hadn’t seen since my very early childhood. Grampop and his brother had been estranged for nearly all of my life because of some misunderstandings and the famous Gephart Hard-Headedness. They had reconciled about a year before my Grampop’s passing, and it was sweet.
We found Uncle Jack in his room, asleep in front of Lonesome Dove on his small personal TV. My mom woke him up with a one-armed hug and “Uncle Jack! Do you know who I am?” Luckily he is a light sleeper and a sharp man — he recognized her right away and welcomed her with a hug. She turned his wheelchair around so he could see me, a great-niece he hadn’t seen since I was maybe eight, and meet my kids. His face lit up at the sight of this small group of children. You know those old people miss the excitement and happiness that follows preschoolers around.
My mom gave him some treats and my kids taped the pictures they had colored for him — bright, colorful rainbows for springtime — to his walls. They sang “America the Beautiful” and “I Am a Child of God.” As they sang other residents came out of their rooms and maneuvered their chairs down the hall so they could see the faces and hear the voices of the “little angels” (their words, not mine :)). My mom snapped a picture with my phone because she loved the look on his face as my kids sang to him.
Uncle Jack is an old cowboy. He was never a particularly tender man. His language is rough, like the desert country he grew up in. But his humor is still quick, and sharp, and he was so happy to see us. I saw my Grampop in him, in his eyes and in his mannerisms. It was good to see him again.
We took Uncle Jack outside for some fresh air. He watched my kids turn cartwheels and flip somersaults in the grass. Juice was excited to learn about the model train room Jack had in his cabin years ago, and that my mom has video of the setup he’ll be able to watch. We took pictures. The kids took turns giving him hugs and telling him things they want my Grampop, their “Cowboy Grandpa” to know. They know this is Uncle Jack and not Cowboy Grandpa, but they also know that the two are brothers, so Jack will get the message to his brother, right?
We took him back inside and set him up with his lunch and said our goodbyes, promising to mail copies of the photos we took and to come back soon.
It’s hard to see people living in those sorts of facilities. It’s hard for me to leave them there. But I was so glad we went. I felt like it was meaningful to him to connect with his family again, and it certainly was wonderful for me to get a glimpse of my Grampop through him.
I didn’t look at the photos my mom took until we got home that night. I got the kids to the table with some dinner and then pulled my phone out to email the pictures to her. As I did some quick edits on them, cropping and lightening, I swiped to this photo and had to stop.
It’s nothing fancy. The lighting’s not great, and I’ve certainly looked better. But as I looked at that picture I had the distinct feeling that my Grampop was happy, that we had done something good for his brother and he was happy about it.
I’m so glad we went. I hope we brightened his day a little. I hope my kids will remember the feeling of helping a good man feel loved and appreciated. I hope they will remember this trip and meeting their Uncle Jack, and that they’ll connect that memory to all the stories I tell them about their family and who and where I came from, and they’ll take that history with them as they create the future of our family.