Death, Grieving & Family

My grandmother died last Friday. We knew that it was coming, even that it would be soon, but it still managed to take us by surprise. My mother describes her sometimes as having a mischievous streak and I couldn’t help but think that it was her breaking expectations one last time.

What surprised me most was that I cried. It’s not that I’m an unfeeling or unemotional person. It’s simply that I didn’t know her well. Perhaps in this day and age of internet and communications things would have been different, but when I was growing up we had the greater amount of the United States between us and she wasn’t one to write letters.

A couple of times we made the trek to California and likewise she made it to Michigan on several occasions before her health prevented it, but our relationship was not the stuff of lovey dovey Lifetime movies. By the time I reached college her health was already failing and I felt like neither of us knew what to say to each other on the rare occasions that we met.

I know that she liked pink and carnations. She had a diverse taste in jewelry and enjoyed resetting pieces that she had inherited. She always had pets, especially dogs, and took in any number of strays over the years. She traveled and worked and dyed her hair red.

What I remember best are the interesting gifts that she sent – hard cover classic Arthur Conan Doyle, an encyclopedia, a silver coffee service, collectible dolls and the 13 dozen pink carnations that I got for my 13th birthday. Then there’s my engagement ring. Though I’ve yet to meet the man I’ll marry (at least to the best of my knowledge), it was passed on to me from her back when I was in high school. It’s not perfect, but it’s beautiful.

Grandmother was an interesting person, at least, from the stories my mother tells that’s the picture I get and I realized as I contemplated her death that I mourned not the woman that I knew but that woman that I never got to know. Now I never will. I’ve known it for years, but death has a finality that illness and nursing homes did not.

Tomorrow they will hold a small viewing for her down in Louisiana followed by a memorial service at the nursing home she’s been at for the last five years. I won’t be there, but what I know I will remember and despite our lack of deep relationship, a part of her will live on through my mother and through me even if I don’t always recognize it.

Reflections on an Afternoon with Mr. George Hoddy

I attended the funeral of a great man today. He’s someone I wish I could have known better, but feel blessed to have known at all.

I first met Mr. Hoddy two years ago, not long after his 103rd birthday. I was working for the Boy Scouts of America at the time and he was one of our big supporters as well as a consistent donor. Even though I had met him briefly at church, I was rather nervous about calling at first. I had been hearing for some time what an important man he was and here I was wanting to sit down and talk with him when I’m certain he had bigger, more important things to do. I missed him on the first call, but on the second a slightly wavery voice answered who seemed not at all perturbed by my interruption of his day and, after he checked his calendar, we set a day and a time to meet. I know that may sound a bit odd, but that is the kind of man Mr. George was. Even at 105 he was still serving on local boards and often was harder to find a time to meet with than much younger business folks.

On the appointed day of our meeting I arrived at his home with butterflies in my stomach and waited patiently as he made his way down to let me in. He led me through his kitchen and dining room, both rife with antiques and history, to the family room where we ended up sitting and talking for going on three hours. He spoke of his childhood and how much had changed in since then; how he studied engineering at Ohio State before being recruited to come up to Owosso to help build jobs, which he did. The motors that he patented and built not only became integrated into the machinery in homes across the country but internationally as well.

I still remember clearly just staring at him in disbelief as he spoke of taking the train out to work on the Manhattan Project. To him it was just a passing thought to mention. He was more proud of helping bring Baker College to our town and all the good it had and continues to do. He spoke of the future and how important youth are, which is why he invested so much time and money into organizations like Baker College and the Boy Scouts. In the short sermon that Reverend Eaton preached today at the funeral he made a comment about Mr. Hoddy that struck me so much I had to pull out a pen and write it on the program. He said –

“He came to start a business and stayed to build a community.”

Mr. Hoddy was more than just the biggest employer in town for years or the international businessman who traveled the world. He was passionate in his beliefs and the need for us each to invest in the future. He was also one of the most humble people that I have ever met. In spring of 2008 I went to visit him for a reason I cannot recall and in the course of our conversation it came out that he wanted to get a Boy Scout uniform shirt to wear when he was Grand Marshal of the Curwood parade. My supervisor was with me and we assured him that that was something we’d have no problem getting, but when we offered to get him a full uniform he told us no. He didn’t want to wear a full uniform because he wished to support the Scouts but he didn’t want anyone to think that he was trying to say that he was the boss. This from the man who, when I first googled him, came up in a blog/article from an Indian businessman who spoke glowingly of the impact that Mr. Hoddy had had on his life during his visits to India for business.

On my last visit with him he gave me a small jade figurine from one of his business trips to China. It sits beside my iPod dock and every time I see it it reminds me of him and the kind of legacy that I would like to leave behind.

“You don’t ever want to give up, if things don’t work, try something else. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned in my life.” ~George Hoddy