Friday, August 12, 2011

In loving memory of Tom Vizanko

(A column originally published in July 2007)

Helping to write my grandfather’s obituary was one of the most difficult writing assignments in my life.
Grandpa passed away at home with his beloved wife, my mother and several more of his daughters at his side on the first day of this month. My father called at 4 a.m. to share the news. Later that morning, Dad E-mailed the first draft of the obituary to me. It was an honor to take the details of my grandfather’s life — his birth, education, service to his country and community and the family he created with Grandma — and weave them into a brief story.
Nothing prepares you for the reality of losing a loved one, though Grandpa had been slipping away from us for years because of Alzheimer’s. My grandmother’s devotion to him never wavered as she cared for him at home. It is a testament to the power of love that even after Grandpa could no longer remember his grandchildren and children, some part of him still seemed to recognize his wife.
My grandparents met in early 1941, at the front desk of the junior college library where Grandma worked. Library patrons were not allowed in the stacks then, and after Grandma had assisted him, Grandpa asked her, “Do you cook, too?”
Grandma remembers their first date was on Valentine’s Day, and they watched a Henry Fonda movie. They married on Sept. 12, 1941.
When the United States entered World War II that December, my grandfather left college to go to work. He then joined the Army Air Corps, serving with the 433rd Troop Transport, the 69th Squadron in the Pacific Theatre, from New Guinea to Japan. He was discharged in March 1946. My grandmother still has the letters they wrote to each other during that time.
After the war, Grandpa continued his education, earning first an associate’s degree, then a bachelor’s and a master’s. He began working as a teacher, then became a school principal. He left the education field to work as the executive director of the newly formed Community Action Agency, but education was still important to the family. After giving birth to 13 children, and with the youngest starting school, my grandmother went to college and earned a degree for a career in teaching.
Grandpa and Grandma bought a former dairy farm nestled between two hills north of Ironwood, Mich. during Memorial Day weekend in 1960. Maple Hill Farm became a second home for their grandchildren. Being the first to spot the television towers on the back hill was always a part of trips to visit them. The towers served as a beacon home.
My grandparents loved to travel, visiting Alaska four times, criss-crossing the continental United States to visit family and friends and making several journeys overseas to visit Finland, Australia, Europe and Asia.
My grandparents’ love and devotion to each other for over 65 years of marriage humbles me. They brought 13 children into this world, and worked hard to provide a home for their family, supporting each other as they continued their educations. They mourned together after the loss of an infant son. Their relationship is an example to all of what true love means.
After so many years of traveling with his wife and family, my grandfather made the trip home alone. Left behind to mourn his death and celebrate his life are his wife, 12 children, 28 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren, three great-great grandchildren, three sons-in-law, two daughters-in-law, a sister, a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, two nieces, a nephew and many extended family members and friends.
I had the week off, so my son and I were able to be in the Upper Peninsula to spend time with our extended family. Almost all of Grandpa’s surviving family members were on hand for a memorial Mass on a sultry Friday afternoon. We sang his favorite hymns, listened to a haunting and lovely rendition of “Ave Maria” and to a brief eulogy delivered by his eldest son. After the service, family and friends gathered for a meal. Photographs of Grandpa, family and friends were on display and flashing on a screen in a digital slide show.
Sunshine from a bright, blue sky filtered through the trees, dappling the cemetery with light last Saturday morning as the family gathered for a final goodbye. Several generations gathered around Grandma in a circle of support during the brief inurnment service.
She didn’t want to watch his ashes lowered into the ground, so many of us joined my grandmother on a pilgrimage through the cemetery, visiting the graves of her parents and brother-in-law. My mother stayed behind, and the city worker standing by to replace the soil and grass over Grandpa’s grave shared a story with her.
While he was there to dig the hole, he saw something he doesn’t usually see at that time of day. An eight-point buck in velvet appeared in the cemetery near the place my grandfather would be laid to rest near his infant son and his parents. Grandpa finally got the buck that had eluded him during many hunting seasons.
May God bless you, Grandpa, as you watch over your family from above. The legacy of your life carries on in the hearts and memories of all who love you.

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