I was talking to my sister Katy the other night on the phone, and she asked me if I would include something in the eulogy for her. I told her, “Of course.” She said, “Will you be sure to mention what a great smile grandpa had? He had the best smile. It lit up his whole face.” And it’s funny, because I had just been thinking the same thing earlier that day as I started to consider what I was going to say when the time came for me to stand up here before all of you, the most important people in his life, to pay him tribute. When I think of my grandfather, I think of him smiling that wonderful, beautiful smile.
Your smile is something you have your whole life, something that makes you distinctly you. I found myself thinking of my grandfather smiling throughout his life, how he shared that smile with the people he loved for over 96 years on this earth.
He was born November 16, 1919 to Carl and Grace Dillingham in Mayetta, KS, one of six boys. Six. Boys. I think about that sometimes, and more specifically, I think about Grandpa’s mother. She was either crazy or a saint. From what my dad tells me it was the latter. My dad remembers her as a warm, kind-hearted lady, the sort of woman you picture when you hear the word, “Grandma.” I bet she loved her son’s smile.
It can be hard to think of your grandfather as a child—you tend to think of him entering the world fully formed as a sixty-year-old-man, replete with dashing mustache—but I feel that I had a glimpse of Grandpa as a boy when I took my own two boys to visit him.
He loved it when Hank and Gus came to see him. He loved seeing them and playing with them. He would show them his wooden train or toss a tennis ball around with them. The man was in his 90’s, playing with a kindergartner and a second-grader. And he would smile that smile and tell them about his childhood. He was almost boyish himself when my sons came to visit.
One thing that particularly struck me was that every time we visited, he would tell my son Hank, “You know, when was your age, my best friend was an Indian boy named Charlie.” He really wanted Hank to know that, to understand that he had been a boy the same age as Hank once, that he had had one of those great, childhood friendships with a boy named Charlie. I’m half-tempted to visit the Prairie Band Potawatomie just to see if I can find out who Charlie was.
Of course, Grandpa grew up as we all must and he became a handsome young man. He met my grandmother, Harriet Hawthorne, at a dance, and I imagine she fell in love with that smile. It was a rakish smile. His smile sometimes had the air of his being up to no good, a smile that revealed the stinker within. I saw that first hand when he would tease Grandma sometimes. Usually, they called each other Grammies and Grampies in my presence, but when he smiled that mischievous smile and teased Grandma, that was the only time I heard her call him, “Donald!”
Anyway, that handsome young man fell for that very pretty girl. Their wedding was not extravagant, but then they themselves were not extravagant. They got married simply at the rectory, and that was that. They were people who knew how to be content, how to appreciate what they had rather than long for what they did not have.
Their daughter Janice was their first child. Grandpa used to talk about what a beautiful baby she was. No squished-up, ugly new born was Janice. No, she came out of the gates absolutely perfect. And I think that’s how he saw her from that day forward: his perfect girl.
Not too long after Janice they had my father, Alan, although they sometimes joked that they should have named him “Furlough.” And since we’re on the subject of my dad, I just want to mention that he has really looked after Grandpa these past few years, and I know that’s been very hard on him. He has been a great son to his father, and I’m so proud of him for that.
So, Alan (or Furlough, if you prefer) came along during the Second World War when Grandpa was stationed in Alaska with the Army Air Corps. (Sorry, Dad, I just kind of outed your age there.) Grandma found out after the fact that no one on his crew wore parachutes when they flew, because they were more likely to survive if they went down with the plane than if they bailed out over the Alaskan wilderness. Grandma said, “And here I thought he was perfectly safe stationed up there in Alaska!”
Fun side note: Since he was in the Army Air Corps, Grandpa sometimes got to fly Bob Hope to USO shows. True story.
My uncle, Rick, came along after the war and rounded out the Dillingham family. He spent the first decade of his life tormenting and needling my dad. They get along great now, so it all worked out.
Grandpa worked for the Rock Island Railroad his entire working life, just as his father had before him. My dad worked for Rock Island, too, to pay his way through college. Grandpa was proud of his work, but he was even more proud that all of his children got to go to college. It was something he had badly wanted to do himself but he had never had the chance.
One of Grandpa's favorite stories to tell was about the day he retired from Rock Island. He went into work that day like any other day. He wound up talking with some administrator about when and how he would retire and found out that if he wanted to, he could retire right then and there. So, he did. He called Grandma to tell her--can you see the wicked grin on his face that day?--and he said, "Guess what I did today." He got such a kick out of her reaction when he told her the news: "WHAT?" She thought he was putting her on. I'm pretty sure she called him "Donald" that day.
Grandpa had three glorious granddaughters--I'm sure I'm not biased here--and we were and are perfect or, at least, we were in Grandpa's eyes. Grandma and Grandpa had a few stories about our childhood that they loved to trot out. One involved Susan as a toddler waking up from a nap, seeing my oldest sister, Katy, and saying, "Hi, K.T. How you today?" The other involved me in a dress, smoothing out my skirt, and informing them, "I cute."
For me, going to visit Grandma and Grandpa at their house on Fairlawn in Topeka was the vacation of the gods. First of all, we always went to the zoo. Always. I loved the elephants and the rain forest and, most of all, the train. They usually took us to see a movie, too.
And then there was Grandma and Grandpa's basement. They had a pool table down there, and dart board, with real, pointy, dangerous darts. I had pretty bad aim, so there were a lot of little holes in the wall around the dart board. (Full disclosure: Some of those tiny holes were really, really far away from the dartboard, but Katy and Susan still have both of their eyes, so I think we’re good.)
The real treasure in that basement, though, was Grandpa's typewriter. It was an old, heavy, manual beast that smelled of ink and made that hefty clunk with each letter you typed. Sometimes I got over-zealous and managed to stick several keys together, and even that was fantastic. I loved that thing, and since Grandpa did a lot of typing for the railroad, he loved that I loved it.
There was also a guest bedroom in the basement, and that's where Katy slept. Susan and I slept in a bedroom upstairs next to Grandma and Grandpa's room, and my grandparents kept Tinker Toys in the guest room closet. Susan was really good at building with Tinker Toys. I wasn't, but I loved getting rubber bands from Grandpa and making bows and arrows out of them.
We spent a lot of time out back on their covered patio. There was a porch swing, and a double-rocker. We'd just sit and listen to birds or watch a squirrel scooching along a telephone wire. It was peaceful visiting Grandma and Grandpa. You appreciated the simple things when you were around them.
Grandma and Grandpa had a stellar backyard. There weren't any pesky trees in the way, AND they let us play in the grass without our shoes on unlike some people I know (ahem, Mary Kay and Alan). They had a cool yard game that involved throwing and catching a tennis ball with this thing that was like an atl-atl meets a lacrosse net. Susan and I discovered that if you wanted to play but no one else did, you could throw tennis balls onto the roof and catch them as they came back down. I seem to recall Grandpa having to fetch more than a few tennis balls out of the gutters. He never seemed to mind, though.
They also had a Bocci set, and Grandpa taught us how to play. Better yet, Grandpa played with us. He was really good at playing in general. He liked to play.
Really, Grandpa was just a good grandpa. He played horsey with me. He did that Eye Winker, Tom Tinker rhyme and tickled me. He taught me how to snap and how to whistle. Isn't that wonderful? I can snap and whistle because my Grandpa taught me how.
Well, eventually, we girls grew up, and playing horsey wasn't terribly practical anymore. But I did have the opportunity to live close to my grandparents as an adult when I moved to Topeka to work for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Grandma and Grandpa were avid library patrons. They especially loved Red Carpet services, which is a fancy way of saying "Large Print." Grandpa read westerns almost exclusively. He loved them. And he had a special system that involved his circling a particularly page number in each book he read. That way, when he was browsing and found an interesting book, he could just turn to that page to see if he had read that book before. (As a librarian, I'd like to apologize to my librarian colleagues for turning a blind eye to his transgressions.)
My favorite photograph of my grandparents is one that a friend took of them at my wedding. They're both smiling, and so happy. They had a great marriage, those two, and I think being present at my wedding reminded them of their own happiness together. They loved each other and respected each other without question or conditions. Their marriage was an example to all of us.
We lost Grandma very suddenly just a few months after my that. Obviously, her passing was a blow for the whole family, and of course, most especially for Grandpa. But he kept going and kept living. He kept jogging well into his 80s. He kept drinking coffee with the boys at McDonalds. He kept reading westerns and surreptitiously circling pages to remind himself that he'd already read that one.
Grandpa moved to Overland Park just a few years ago, and I'm really grateful for that. I'm grateful that my own children had a chance to know him, to see that smile that lit up his whole face. And I'm glad I got to have that smile in my life for 42 years. How many of us can say that?
It's been a privilege and an honor, Grandpa. I love you, and I'll miss you.