HE MAN WHO enabled me to become a church musician was profoundly hard of hearing. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have to over-enunciate in his presence, even though he was only 54 when I was born.
His 1980s-vintage hearing aids used to whistle sporadically, driving Grandma crazy. “Oh, Paul,” she would admonish (half perturbed, half amused, fully English), “turn your hearing aids down!”
Granddad would fiddle with the devices and then go on being the life of the party, relying heavily on lip-reading to help him along. Minutes later, those hearing aids would whistle again.
How could this man have made my life as a church musician possible? If Granddad and his brave colleagues in the United States Air Force hadn’t landed at Normandy, fascists could have conquered the world. I might not even be alive; tyrants might have slaughtered my Catholic family.
This Veterans Day, as always, I’ll be remembering Granddad.
“Well, Look Who’s Here!”
I’ll also be remembering Grandma. For every soldier, there’s a concerned wife back home taking care of the babies, hoping and praying for good news. But Grandma was even more than that. Before becoming a full-time Mom, she had been a nurse in the Royal Air Force. She met Granddad at a function that brought the U.S. and U.K. troops together.
Grandma was born just six days after Granddad in Chester, England. She never lost her prim accent. When I was a little kid in Phoenix, we used to visit my grandparents every Saturday evening. As soon as we came through the door, Grandma’s chipper voice would ring out, “Well, look who’s here!”
Grandma spent the last few decades of her 96 years in agonizing pain due to a botched hip replacement and the ravages of osteoporosis. She never complained. Whenever I called and asked her directly about her suffering, she’d say, “Oh, well, you know, it’s pretty bad, but….how are you? How is the music going?”
Happy Trails, Dear Grandparents
These two veterans stood up against fascism, which is one reason I’m here today. Another reason was their openness to life as they joyfully raised nine children. But there’s also a musical significance to this story.
Grandma was a performer at heart. Back in high school, she starred as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She glowed whenever we asked her about it.
Meanwhile, Granddad loved to sing and didn’t let his impaired hearing stop him. When he and Grandma finally moved to Thunderbird Retirement Resort, he was called upon to introduce himself and his bride to their new neighbors. After summarizing their life story and providing stats on their three generations of offspring, he concluded, “And I can sing a little, too!”
He then sang “Happy Trails” but somehow managed to end on the seventh scale degree. (Had he been able to hear well enough to realize this, he wouldn’t have been even mildly embarrassed.)
I’m sure my grandparents passed along many of the traits that have enabled me to make music for God’s glory. Most importantly, though, they passed along their Catholic faith.
The last time I saw my grandparents, Grandma was in the throes of dementia. I spent a day with them at their retirement home and had nearly the same conversation with Grandma about 30 times. Grandma was still Grandma, but we had to start over every 15 minutes. It was like compressing my entire life to fit into one conversation, one living room. It was a joy.
As afternoon turned to evening, I realized I needed to get going. Moments before I left, I leaned over to my Grandma as she sat in her rocker. I looked right into those Dresden blue eyes, sensing that it would be the last time. “Grandma,” I said, “I know you pray for me and offer up your sufferings for me. And I think that any spiritual progress I’ve made these past few years has happened because you were sitting here in Phoenix, praying Rosaries. So, thank you.”
I could see in her gaze that she understood me—and that, at least for a moment, she could recall the countless hours she had spent in prayer. Her response was unmistakably Grandma. “Oh, well…. I’m happy to do it!”
May my dear grandparents—and all those who fought to keep fascism from reaching our shores—rest in peace.