30 January 2015

The sweetest

Julian Jasper Cowan
17 April 1922-25 January 2015
On my 27th birthday, which was several years ago now I have to say, I helped my grandpa move out of the house he had lived in for over 42 years.  Many of you probably know this warm and cozy house on Cherokee with the barber shop out front.  When my sisters and I were growing up, Grandpa Cowan’s house was a place of curiosities.  There was buttermilk in the fridge, masses of rubber bands on little nails hung at varying heights, chickens in a coop in the backyard, a bed in the guest room with a set of box springs so bouncy and unpredictable we nicknamed it the Bronco Bed.  Sometimes there would be a little bowl of food or milk on the back porch for neighborhood cats that he never claimed as his own but looked out for.  When the barber shop was in full swing, Grandpa kept a stash of Big Red gum in one of the drawers behind his chair and there was cold pop in an old-fashioned cooler in the narrow closet off the waiting area.  Back in the house, photographs of our family, some in frames, some taped or tacked up here and there, lined most available surfaces, from the top of the television to the front glass of the huge clock that always hung above it, all the way over to my grandpa’s old desk next to the wood stove. 

It was an overwhelming task to sort through and pack up 42 years of my grandpa’s history but we made a lot of progress that day, enough that he could sleep in his brand new house across town that night.  As I was packing one of the bookshelves in the living room, I came across this little wooden shoe.  It had been on that shelf for as long as I could remember and I said something to my grandpa about it.  He told me to take it home with me and keep it.  He said when I was a little girl I would put it on and clomp around his house.  There are pencil marks scrawled across the bottom of it, too, which I must have been responsible for.  He remembered me, he knew me, when my feet were tiny enough to fit into that shoe.  He knew me before I knew myself.  I felt lucky, and I put the shoe with my things and it’s been with me ever since, reminding me of my grandpa and a life so well-lived.

He brought the shoe home from Europe when he returned from the war.  My sweet and soft-spoken grandfather was once a young, brave soldier.  A medic.  I teach English at a large high school in Springfield, Missouri.  Every year, I ask my seniors to create a tribute to a hero in their lives using photos and music and text.  And every year I am so proud to show my students the tribute I created as an example about my Grandpa Jude.  There is a picture of him as a teenager that I’ve surrounded with images reflecting his background working on farms, one of him looking like a young Elvis Presley next to an image of a guitar and music notes.  There’s even one of my sweet grandpa standing in my living room in Springfield next to my dad and me and my little boy from a few summers ago, four generations of us.  There’s a picture of his Bronze Star and one of a medic’s helmet. 

My favorite photo, though, is front and center. He’s in his Army uniform standing in front of a building in Paris.  I can only imagine the horrors he must have gone through on those battlefields so far away from home, but despite that, despite having seen some of the worst this life has to offer, he remained, throughout his life, gentle and kind.  I never heard him speak a callous word about anyone or anything, and I love to tell my students about him.  His kind nature must have shone through even then, to his fellow soldiers, who nicknamed him Mother Cowan because he was the one who would turn the meager food they could scrounge up into some kind of meal when they were on foot and taking shelter wherever they could.  I don’t think I’ll ever be as brave or even as good as he was, but I like to think some of my quiet and calm demeanor and nurturing nature could be traits passed on to me from him.  He also never seemed to be in a hurry to do most things, and to the occasional frustration of my husband or others who have to wait for me, I am often the same way.  I like to take my time and take things slow the way he did. 

My grandpa told me he actually got this little shoe as a souvenir during his travels after the war had ended.  I guess he figured an Oklahoma boy like him might not ever make it to that part of the planet again and he wanted to see all he could while he was there.  I’ve always loved the thought of him as young and curious and traveling like that, and he might have seen more of the world than many of us ever will.    He loved to tell my sisters and me about where he’d been and hear about our visits to some of the same places.  He had such an excellent memory and could recall so many things from so long ago in vivid, specific detail. 

He was able to travel after the war because he’d saved his modest pay rather than spending it on luxuries or cigarettes or things the other soldiers were buying.  He saved lots of things, not only money, and credited his inability to waste or discard things to living through the Depression when people had to make do and make the most of what they had.  Those rubber bands on the little nails all those years came off the newspaper each day and he kept them, wanting to hold on to something useful in case he needed it.  He was a hard worker—so smart and so frugal--and a humble success.  When I was in graduate school at Missouri State, a man in one of my classes mentioned he was from Muskogee.  I told him I was too and that I still had family there and come to find out, my grandpa had cut this man’s hair for years.  He knew my dad and had so many kind things to say about my grandpa, and I felt so proud and delighted to meet, quite by chance, one of Jude’s many loyal and satisfied customers. 

I wish I’d had more time with my sweet and gentle grandpa, but I don’t guess you could ask for much more from life than what he was able to accomplish—a successful career, distinguished military service, a good and honest reputation, a large and happy family who always felt so loved and cherished by him.  He always told me what a pretty girl I was, even when I wasn’t a girl anymore and I’d grown into a mother myself and he always told me how proud he was of what I did in school, that I had become a teacher, small things really compared to all that he had done in life.  When he visited the first house my husband and I lived in after we were first married, I was rinsing a dish at the kitchen sink and my grandpa smiled and said, “Well, Hayley is a homemaker,” and for some reason it made me feel so special--coming from a man who was taken care of by one of the best homemakers there probably ever was, my grandma Trula.  So I’ll keep this little shoe with me always, and I’ll look at it and remember who my grandpa was—a hardworking, kind, brave, accomplished, interesting and special person, someone so loved and so worth being proud of.  And I’ll look at it and remember how he always made me feel like I was those things, too.

****A few months ago my grandpa asked my dad if I would write a piece to read at his funeral.  So I did.  I also read a sweet letter my dad wrote for his father.  It was an honor and I hope I did the both of them proud...

"It's my father who looks diminished now.  As if when someone close to us dies, we momentarily trade places with them, in the moment right before.  And as we get over it, we're really living their life in reverse, from death to life, from sickness to health."

"Such a strange ritual, to send the body into the ground.  I am there as they lower him.  I am there as we say our prayers.  I take my place in line as the dirt is shoveled onto the coffin.  He will never again have this many people thinking of him at a single time...I wish he was here to see it."

Every Day by David Levithian p. 268

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