Saying Goodbye - A Tribute to My Grandpa Flynn

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In the past month two of my extended family members have passed away. It has been a season of reflection and sorrow. I wrote this tribute to honor my grandpa, Richard Joseph Flynn (1923-2012). 

I am grateful and humbled by the opportunity to pay tribute to my grandfather. As the first child of the fourth child, I am the seventh grandchild in a line rich with Flynn heritage. Like many of you, I remember countless stories about the man I called Pocky for the first few years of my life.

After the passing of my own father, nearly 20 years ago, our family was surrounded by the support of extended family. It is both bitter and poetic that the two individuals most dedicated and involved in our little lives have passed the veil within such a short space of each other.

My grandpa made an extra effort to be part of our young lives. It wasn’t unusual to see him once or twice a week. He would show up after school to see if we were busy with our chores. Rarely would he miss a chance to pull his golf cart across the tee and buy a cold drink from us mid-game. He was always fixing a broken sprinkler head or a stubborn garage door. He was the handyman that brought us produce from his garden. Grandpa and Grandma were the formative staples in our lives. Theirs was the first phone number I ever memorized. Grandpa made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. And you were. I remember grandpa golfing with my cousin Lance and showing up at my siblings, Caitlin and Curtis’s first birthday party dressed as two old men golfing buddies. Of course it is impossible to talk about my grandpa without also including grandma, his companion of 70 years. Together they attended Tyler and Lance’s football games, clipped articles about Dennis and Sarah’s clogging days, cheered along at Sarah and Molly’s beauty pageants, and were there at Nick’s theatrical debut. They attended more high school and college graduations than anyone should be allowed. Every wedding, baby blessing, or baptism meant grandpa would be there, donning his signature red fedora.

I’d like to share three lessons I learned from my grandpa.

  1. Honor your Heritage. Never a St. Patrick’s Day went by without traditional corned beef and cabbage, nor an Easter or Christmas without hangtown fry (those unfamiliar with the dish should know it contains eggs, mushrooms, oysters, and onions). While food has always been an essential element in passing along family heritage, creating a space of familial pride was part of the territory. In the late 90s my grandparents traveled to Ireland with my Uncle Cort, Aunt Jeannie, and cousin Deece to explore their Irish roots and visit counties relevant to our heritage. Grandpa knew that creating traditions for his posterity was a large part of honoring his heritage. This included boating trips to Lake Powell, where grandpa would steer the boat and croon to Ol' Blue Eyes, sounding like Sinatra himself. Easter in St. George has beginnings earlier than most of the grandchildren. I particularly remember the old trailer grandpa owned, sharing a bunk-bed and creating an outdoor kitchen with my sister made from the magical backyard brick pile. Family gatherings were not only a chance to break bread they came with a typical grandpa speech preceding each prayer. He’d stand, usually at the head of the table, while the food got cold, and expound on the importance of being together. While we might have chuckled or rolled our eyes we knew he was trying to teach us that honoring heritage and family meant more than a potluck dinner. Like Tevya, he reminded us that “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”                        
  2. Share your Stories. Grandpa was never without a story. If you happened to be in the same space with him for more than a minute, invariably, he had already launched into a yarn about Borrego Springs, vidalia onions, or real estate in southern Utah. If you caught him outside working on his truck, Eagle or Plymouth, you’d be certain to hear how he impulse purchased the abandoned cars on a road trip to Southern Utah; how he was restoring the engine and slicking them up with a fresh coat of paint. He talked about his time as a traveling salesman, selling water softeners house-to-house and how to successfully land a sale. Listening to his stories it seemed impossible to not fall into that bygone era. A time when hitching the railroads to California or sitting in a neighbor’s tomato patch with an appetite and salt shaker were all you needed to survive. A couple years ago, when I came home for a summer visit, Grandpa and I sat outside on the bench near the garden fountain he had built. Inspired by several trips to Pepperdine he created a front yard oasis for reflection and sitting, a shady spot for family and strangers alike. As the water splashed and played against the sunny rocks, the cobwebs had already started to cloud Grandpa’s gray matter. As we sat, there emerged an unfamiliar lull in the conversation. I waited, sitting next to this man nearly 60 years my senior. Finally I said, “Grandpa, tell me a story.” Startled, he looked at me and then came back. Launching into a tale of when he was a kid and they’d gone for a swim, but it soon began flooding. Washed away clothing and a boy’s misadventures became fresh as a pot of morning coffee. The week before his passing, my sister, Lauren, and I held Grandpa’s hands and told our stories of him back to him. I think Grandpa may have emulated Ray Bradbury’s admonition to “Live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories...”                                                                                                     
  3. Learning is Fundamental. Although grandpa’s formal education ended around 8th grade, he never stopped dedicating his life to the pursuit of knowledge. Anyone familiar with his morning routine knew that not only did it included coffee and grandma’s hearty breakfasts, but it was never without the familiar spread of the morning paper. Where he devoured each section of the daily news and then expounded on the state of the country. He made car and home repairs like any pro. He learned to fly and operate a small plane. And he could BBQ a rack of ribs like nobody’s business. I remember my grandparents visiting me in my tiny college apartment where they explored campus with me and encouraged me in my academic pursuits. Once, when I asked my mother, Wendy, why after eight years and one kid she decided to finish her bachelor's degree? She answered, Because my dad always told me education is the ticket! Grandpa championed hard work and learned in the school of life. One summer, when my father was on the traveling salesman circuit peddling motivational tapes to the people of Portland, grandpa encouraged him with an incentive that he’d match the top sales day of the entire summer. Grandpa traveled the world and learned of customs and cultures some of us only dream of. Characteristically engaged, he sought opportunities for learning wherever he could find them.    
These are just three of the many lessons that my grandpa taught me. Most of all he reaffirmed that life is an adventure and should be spent surrounded by those that mean the most to you. I love this man and hope that I can honor his life and memory throughout the remainder of my days.


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