Remembering My Grandfather, Donald Murphy

I found out about 20 minutes after he passed away. I had just woken up. I knew the text was coming one of these mornings, but you can never fully prepare yourself to grieve, can you? But the same way I produce work is the same way I grieve: through writing. So I got up, made a pot of coffee, let the tears flow, and cracked open my laptop.

My family moved six doors down the street from my grandparents in Kirkwood, Missouri when I was 8 years old. My parents wanted better opportunities for my brother and me in a better school district. My grandparents recommended a vacant house for sale down the street from them, and the rest is history.

Visiting Grandpa

If we ever wanted to visit or borrow something we didn’t have, Grandpa and Grandma were always just a 5-minute walk away. When we got our dog Bella (who we call Boovy), I’d walk her down to their house regularly for a visit. I’d walk up their long driveway on Oakshire Lane, head to the back of the house, rap a few knocks on the back door, and open the door. I could almost always count on my Grandpa sitting right there in his recliner chair at the front of the family room when I walked in. He would either be reading, listening to the radio or music, or watching TV.

He’d drop the same line anytime he heard knocks at the door: “Who’s that knocking at my door?” And he’d say it in a fake, crotchety old man voice. I think he thought it was pretty funny. Then when he saw who it was, he would greet me with “Hey kid kid” or “It’s my granddaughter!”

When we were younger, he would play tricks on me, my brother, and my cousins– like pretending to pull quarters out of our ears. Or asking us if we had ever tried these nonsense dishes that he made up– like bicycle gazoole. It really brought me joy when my cousin’s kid Caleb got old enough to talk to Grandpa, and Grandpa started asking him if he ever tried bicycle gazoole.

Then I’d let Boovy loose to greet him. Boovy loved Grandpa too. I don’t know what it was about Grandpa, but dogs loved him. And he loved them. Boovy would always go right for his lap and he would humor her obsessive need for his attention.

Grandpa and Pets

Grandpa had different dogs throughout the years who were the best of friends to him. But the dog I can remember best was Mick. Mick was an Irish Setter. I can remember on days when I was home from school on holiday breaks or during the summer, watching my Grandpa from inside my parents’ house as he walked Mick past our house and down to the end of Oakshire Lane. There’s a little memorial bench at the dead end of the street. Grandpa would sit there for a bit with Mick, then turn around and walk back. Sometimes he’d come up my parents’ driveway and say hello. It was really sad when Mick died. That was Grandpa’s last dog. I don’t think he wanted another dog after Mick– they were so close. From then until Grandpa died, he would feed and pet any of the neighborhood dogs that would come to visit him– particularly the next door neighbors’ dogs who knew EXACTLY where to go when they wanted a treat. He also had stray cats he would care for. They weren’t as friendly as the neighborhood dogs obviously, but Grandpa didn’t mind. He just liked taking care of the local animals.

Bonding with Grandpa at Bread Co

When I was in middle school, Grandpa would pick me up from my bus stop after school every Thursday and take me to St. Louis Bread Co to eat and spend some time together. Grandpa always got soup and a salad. We would chat about all sorts of things– my time at school, what I was learning about or working on, Grandpa’s memories of being a young man, stuff he’d been doing while I was at school. I didn’t have many friends in middle school and sometimes the bus ride home was rough for that reason. I was pretty geeky and cared deeply about my school work, plus I’d lost all my friends from elementary school due to bullying. But I could always count on Grandpa picking me up each Thursday and having him as a friend to talk to. I looked forward to that so much. I absolutely loved spending that time with Grandpa.

Authoritarian Grandpa

From the stories I heard from my mom and from what I read in Grandpa’s autobiography (more on that later), Grandpa had a pretty authoritarian parenting style. I didn’t often see this side of him because he didn’t often need to parent me. (Besides, he had successfully passed that parenting style onto my mother, so I was already pretty familiar with it. LOL). But there were times when I witnessed this authoritative style for myself, and holy SHIT was it scary! I can remember one time in particular when I was mowing the lawn of the neighbors’ next door to my grandparents...

As a kid growing up on Oakshire, I was the go-to, reliable caretaker of pets and homes while neighbors were away. Sometimes that would involve mowing the lawns. Many of the yards on Oakshire are fairly large. My parents had a riding lawnmower that I was used to, but the neighbors next door to my grandparents owned a push mower. It was a really hot day and I was wearing flip flops. When I pulled the mower out from their garage, I decided it would be better if I mowed barefoot– so there was no chance of me tripping over one of my flip flops and I could also enjoy the feeling of the freshly mowed grass on my feet. I was about 90% finished mowing when my Grandpa came storming out of his house shouting at the top of lungs: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I stopped, shocked, and turned off the mower. He laid right into me: “WHAT IN THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING? DO YOU KNOW HOW DANGEROUS THAT IS?! YOU NEED TO PUT ON SOME DAMN SHOES! YOU’RE GOING TO LOSE YOUR TOES! THIS IS THE STUPIDEST THING YOU COULD DO…” I was 14 and that interaction was so utterly terrifying that I broke into tears right there. Grandpa was SCARY! I tried to explain myself to him, but the fact of the matter is that he was right and I was wrong. I think I avoided Grandpa for a couple of days after that for fear of being yelled at for being so stupid. But I’ll tell you this– after that, I never mowed barefoot ever again.

Grandpa’s Dirty Jokes

Grandpa’s sense of humor is something I’m confident I inherited from him. While both of us loved the tricks and utter nonsense for a laugh, there was a dirtier side to his humor that I delighted in even more. Grandpa had this joke he loved to tell about a “Name that Tune” contest at a strip club. The punchline was a pun about boobs and asses. It was crass, it was ridiculous, but the fact that he had no shame telling that joke in front of me and the other kids at family events made me laugh and laugh and laugh. The last time I can remember him telling it was a family Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house when I was a preteen. He stood up in front of everybody and announced he was going to tell a joke, and my Grandma said, “Don, come on, don’t…,” but then he proceeded to tell the same old strip club joke I’d heard several times before. That made it almost funnier– that he knew much of the family had heard that joke from him before, but he wanted to ruffle some feathers anyway with a dirty classic.

Grandpa and Travel

Grandpa loved to travel earlier in his life and had visited so many places in the world. His first trip, however, was to Japan during WWII– but it wasn’t for combat. Grandpa was a skilled electrician who worked on military vehicles in Japan. But traveling for war did not discourage him from doing more traveling. He went all over after his service including American Samoa, Panama, parts of Europe, and many states across the US. He loved studying the history of the places where he traveled and enjoyed taking in the culture.

That’s most certainly something I inherited from him as well, and we were able to bond over that shared passion. That’s why when I took my first international trip to work for my uncle in Hong Kong, I sent postcards back to him and Grandma and brought them back souvenirs. I continued that tradition of bringing back goodies for my grandparents from all of my international travels– France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Iceland, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, and most importantly– the UK and Ireland.

One of the last conversations I had with Grandpa was about my upcoming trip back to London. Grandpa had been long ago, but it was a city he loved. It’s a city that has a special place in my heart too– and it seems to keep calling me back. Grandpa mentioned again in this final conversation that he loved London, and I made a comment about how he previously mentioned that, back in the day, St. Louis used to look like the bustling streets of London. He couldn’t remember saying that, and it was obvious at that point that he was losing his lucidity. But I remembered, and the fact that he could muster another “I love London” made my heart feel good.

But there was only one place more meaningful to Grandpa, and I made sure to bring him lots of goodies and stories from that place: Ireland.

Grandpa, Irish Heritage, and Family Heritage

Grandpa was very proud of his Irish heritage. His grandfather, Michael Murphy, emigrated from Ireland. Grandpa made it a point to learn as much as he could about Ireland and about the Murphy heritage. He was able to find out a lot and compiled an incredible amount of invaluable ancestry research which I later used for a project in my Family Communication course in college. Grandpa just loved being the keeper of all these records and information. I learned so much about our ancestry from him, and I’m so grateful for it.

Grandpa was so into Irish heritage that he studied Gaelic. I even remember him trying to teach my brother and me some Gaelic when we were young. When I found out it was a dead language, I didn’t see much point in learning it, but Grandpa made me treasure St. Patrick’s Day more than most other holidays with his other traditions. My family has the traditional corned beef and cabbage dinner on St. Paddy’s and my Grandpa would always take the time during the day to hide chocolate gold coins around my parents’ house for us to search for in the evening. He always told us it was a Leprechaun who left the coins. He continued this tradition well past my childhood and even while I was away at college. I can remember returning from college for Spring Break and finding chocolate coins in my old bedroom, bathroom, and all around the house. I even found old, dusty coins when I moved out of my parents’ house– and who knows how old those were!

Grandpa’s Autobiography

Perhaps the biggest reason I feel so close to my Grandpa is that he asked me to edit his autobiography. It was 2014, I had just graduated from college and returned home to live with my parents, and my grandpa offered to pay me $10 an hour to edit his autobiography and the biographies he’d written about many of our other ancestors. I was honored that he asked me to do it. And this was my very first real editing job out of college. Through this editing, I learned so much about my Grandpa that I’d never known before.

I finally learned the story behind my Grandpa and my mother– how he kicked her out at age 18 for missing curfew and she never lived with them again. I learned about his experiences in Japan during the war, his travels, how he met my Grandma, how he raised all five of his children as Catholic but then came to distrust the Catholic church himself.

Here’s an excerpt from his autobiography about his faith:

Joan and I were raised Catholics. I was never a strict Catholic but I tried to teach our children the need for a firm moral base. As time progressed, I found myself questioning more and more of the tenets of the Catholic Church. My study of history informed me that many of the laws and rubrics of the church are manmade and that they had changed over the years, sometimes diametrically. Then the massive changes in the mass and the new rules in 1960 left me feeling like a ship without a rudder. I found myself going to church on Sunday and coming home mad after listening to all of the jibber-jabber and the guitar twanging during the services. Sermons became exercises in avoiding offending anyone. I started to skip Sunday masses and I didn’t feel any twinge of conscience. In fact, I felt emancipated from all of the censures and petty rules promulgated by the clergy. I have watched the unfolding of the homosexual and pedophile scandal within the clergy and have been absolutely outraged by the inaction of the Bishops. With all of the infighting between various factions within the hierarchy, it is no wonder that so many Catholics have “fallen away.” I think a more apt term would be that they have “run away.”

Grandpa’s Profession(al Cursing)

Grandpa was a skilled electrician. While he worked on vehicles during the war, his skillset expanded beyond just working on cars. I have many memories of my Grandpa working on electrical fixes in my family’s new house when we moved to Oakshire Lane. I distinctly remember sitting in the basement, playing games on one of our chunky desktop computers while Grandpa worked on the wiring somewhere else in the basement. His vision declined as he aged– he wore trifocals –and we could always tell how his work was going because he would curse loudly when it wasn’t going well. His go-to curses were “Goddammit to hell!” and “Goddammit anyway!” I liked that last one. I interpreted it as “I know I’m going to finish this project, but it’s a damn struggle. So goddammit anyway!” He easily passed his cursing down to his children and grandchildren. My mother, my brother, and I unapologetically swear like sailors. I mean, shit, how could we fucking not? It’s a fantastic way to express yourself and cathartically release your anger.

Grandpa on 4/20

This is one of my favorite, most treasured, and most proud memories I have of my grandfather: smoking weed with him on 4/20. This happened late in his life, almost exactly two years before he passed when he was 89 years old. At this point, Grandpa was experiencing a lot of pain and the typically prescribed medications weren’t helping him much. So he asked his doctor about this illegal substance which he’d heard a lot about but had never tried himself. While a Missouri doctor could not, at that time, directly prescribe or recommend marijuana, he said enough to my Grandpa that he wanted to try it. So, he called up my branch of the family and got his hookup lined up (LOL!). I still remember the group text sent to my brother and me from my mom asking us if we could make Grandpa some special brownies. We ended up getting him the brownies, and then later on 4/20, my brother, my dad, and I came over to smoke with Grandpa in his garage. I will never, ever forget the way he invited Grandma to join us in the garage: “Joan, would you like to partake in the marijuana smoking?” She declined the invitation: “Oh, no thank you.” I laugh every time I recall this moment. It’s lodged in my brain as one of the funniest moments of my life. The only thing that was possibly funnier is when my brother and I left the garage to get Grandpa a glass of water, discussed how he mentioned he “couldn’t feel anything,” then returned to offer him the glass of water only for him to say, “What’s in that?” HA! I responded, “Grandpa, it’s just water.” Classic new smoker’s paranoia. That was the first and last time he smoked, to my knowledge, but he ate the entire half-tray of special brownies we gave him– so he certainly didn’t dislike his brief experiences with marijuana!

In Memoriam

Grandpa lived a long life. He was 91 when he died, and he was accepting of death. I can remember him telling me years ago that he was comfortable with dying, and that when his time came, that would be that. Grandpa was logical, thoughtful, well-traveled, authoritative when he felt he had to be, and funny when he felt he had to be. He loved dogs, he loved his family, and he loved to learn.

It’s so hard to lose someone you love, especially when that person was a fixture of your childhood and adulthood. I’ll always remember him sitting in his recliner chair in his family room. I’ll remember him every time I visit my parents and see the old Lincoln Town car in their driveway that my brother bought from Grandpa after he decided his eyesight was too bad to drive anymore. I’ll remember him every time I travel or anytime I curse a lightbulb that burns out. I’ll remember him on every 4/20. I’ll remember him every St. Patrick’s Day. I’ll remember him every time I use a push lawn mower. I’ll remember him not just as my Grandpa, but as my friend.