Grandpa Roemer loved cars. He loved to look at them, talk about them, work on them. His strong hands were often stained with motor oil from hours of tweaking his gold Mercury. Oftentimes I would sit on a stool in his garage and watch him hunched over the motor in his navy slacks and white T-shirt, his strawberry blond hair always neatly combed. I loved to study his hands — long fingers with neatly trimmed nails, though usually calloused and dirty from hard work. He was passionate about cars and thought everyone else should be, too.
Grandpa often referenced a person’s car when describing someone:
“You know, Ed with the Ford came by the other day….”
In high school he always referred to my boyfriends by the type of car they drove.
“Oh, yes. Greg with the Buick. I like him.”
Always for American cars, he quickly dismissed Jon with the Mazda before I could protest. I should have listened to him sooner.
Grandpa grew up on a farm in Illinois. I listened intently to his stories about the storms their farmhouse weathered, the first time he tried chewing tobacco (he swallowed it), tractor mishaps, and his relationships with his brothers and sisters. A staunch German Lutheran, he proudly showed me his German Catechism books and recited prayers in German. He was a bright student who boasted a perfect spelling record through the eighth grade, the last grade he completed. After that he was needed on the farm, where he worked until the war when he joined the Navy. Sometimes I would sneak into his room where his Navy pictures were displayed on an old oak dresser. I would scan the sea of young faces until I found him in the second to last row — strong and handsome, I tried to imagine what my Grandpa was like as a brave sailor at sea. He was young once.
But there was one thing that bothered me. A lot. I hated the fact that he smoked a pack a day. It was a bad habit he picked up in the Navy, he said. He told me he wanted to stop, but couldn’t. I remember making signs with my younger sister from the back of cardboard boxes and posting them throughout his house. “Please don’t smoke,” “Don’t get lung cancer!” “I love you, Grandpa. Please don’t use cigarettes,” they read in our best bubble letters. We even snuck them into his lunchbox.
It was shortly after this that he made an announcement: ” Ok. I’m going to quit smoking. You are quite persistent young ladies.”
And he did. Cold turkey. We were so proud of him. I didn’t miss the smell of smoke when I went to visit him. Instead, I breathed in the roses he brought in from his garden and displayed on the kitchen table as we chatted.
Grandpa always told the truth. Shortly after I began college I went through a very dark time. When my grandfather learned that I was battling depression and an eating disorder, surprisingly he seemed to be the only one who understood me. There was no judgement like I feared. There was no “Well, why don’t you just EAT?” that I had heard so many times before. There was only compassion. Listening. Love. During this time we also learned that Grandpa had lung cancer. He was battling his own demons, and with the help of God, he told me, all things were possible. I believed him.
I took a semester off of college to get some counseling and re-gain my footing. I treasured the time I spent with him now that I was home for a season. I returned to college the next fall with a stronger sense of identity and determination. I was thinking about Grandpa Roemer one evening while I was walking through a bookstore. I wanted to send him a note, so I picked up a card. On the front was Genesis 31:49 which read, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other.” When I came back to my dorm room that evening there was a voicemail from my dad. I dialed home with trembling fingers, my heart filled with fear. My father picked up, and I knew right away. “I’m sorry, sweetie, Grandpa’s gone. He died at 4:30 today.”
That was about the time I had picked out his card. I wept. My father went on to tell me that he and my mother and uncle were with him when he passed. Apparently he had a moment of complete serenity when he sat up in bed, looked intently across the room and said fervently, “I want to see Jesus.” And then he did.
A few days later I was a pall-bearer at his funeral. He was buried on a sunny November day with a 21-gun salute. Even though it’s been almost 14 years, I still miss him terribly. There are so many things I wish he could be here for. I wish he could have seen me graduate from college. I wish he could have heard my harp audition. I wish he could have met my husband and children.
That’s not what happened, but he gave me something so true and authentic that I try to be conscious to always carry it with me — the gift of understanding.