In Memory of Grandpa

In Memory of Grandpa
Standing with grandpa in downtown Sandusky. Styling by uncle Kurt (likely).

My grandpa died on August 17, 2022, at the age of 95. Last week was his memorial service and funeral. The weeks leading up to his death and the ones that have followed were marked by reflection, sadness, and appreciation – for his life, our relationship, and the decades of memories. My dad’s dad was an ever-present figure for generations. His authority was unmatched in the sprawling family tree he helped grow. Even for those of us who weren’t as close to him, the loss is palpable.

James Charles Busam (Jim or grandpa) was a strong, family-loving man with deep convictions rooted in his Catholic faith. He served his country in the Navy, raised 6 children, and was a successful engineer who helped build countless buildings from Milwaukee to Raleigh. He was fascinated by genealogy and spent decades researching our family lineage deep into the 16th century.

He valued his German heritage, but had unwavering pride for the United States. He loved a good bratwurst and Yuengling, and perfected his recipe for the morning bran muffin. He rode the same red Schwinn bicycle for 40 years and was doing water aerobics at the local YMCA until he got sick earlier this year. In fact, getting back into the water is pushed him to recover from many ailments.

In recent years, I pulled away from him, along with most of my extended family. A combination of differing political views, religiousness, and absent-mindedness caused me to avoid get-togethers and abandon social media. As my perspectives on the world broadened and changed, I felt like theirs had narrowed. I assumed all conversations would lead to either awkwardness or, maybe worse, something superficial. So, I disengaged.

I heard someone say once that family is just a group of people you spend your life apologizing to. Some families are tightly woven, dueling and laughing in the same day. Other families rarely talk at all. I’m sure the reasons for this vary – grudges, extreme differences, apathy. But, whether we talk daily or never at all, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re our family. We are inseparable through blood. And, I think that counts for something.

I regret not spending more time with my grandpa. Now, I realize all the reasons I didn’t were selfish. The excuses were hypothetical. It’s too late to do anything about it. I visited him at his home a few weeks before he died. He was mostly bedridden, but surrounded by his children, some of my cousins, and a few of his friends. He barely recognized me, but I sat in the chair next to his bed for an hour. I watched him talk to my sister on FaceTime using my mom’s iPad. I watched him gaze towards the television as other people talked and shared stories. I didn’t say much other than to show him a few photos of my girls – his great-grandchildren. He looked through the bottoms of his glasses and smiled, and said, “Oh, they’re beautiful.”

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, grandpa and my uncle Kurt (one of his sons) took me to Sandusky, Ohio, the town where grandpa grew up. We rode in Kurt’s red Ford Ranger. I was stuffed in the small cab between the front seats and bed with a few of our bags while grandpa and Kurt took turns driving the 10 or 11 hours from our home in North Carolina.

In reminiscing about this story during grandpa’s funeral, my mom said, “I have no idea what I was thinking, letting you go all that way with them.” Me neither, mom. But I’m glad you did.

I don’t remember many details of that trip, but I know we visited some extended family, rode on the Red Witch – a sailboat my dad’s cousin operated as a charter boat – and had a big picnic at someone’s house on Lake Eerie. However, I had one detail come back to me during the eulogy at grandpa’s funeral:

I was in a strange house, and it was dark. It was time to go to sleep, but I was feeling unsettled. I asked grandpa if he knew any songs he could sing. He paused for a moment and then started in as quiet a voice he could summon: “My bonnie lies over the ocean. My bonnie lies over the sea. My bonnie lies over the ocean. Oh, bring back my bonnie to me. Bring back, bring back, oh, bring back my bonnie to me.”

Sitting in the funeral home, the memory made my heart warm and feel his loss. It occurred to me that this is a little song I’ve been singing to my girls to help calm them down in the evening. A little song I somehow knew the words to finally reattached itself to the origin in my memory.

I sang the song to Rose last night during bedtime and thought about grandpa. Even in his passing, I think this is the best way I can keep my connection to him – a connection I thought was mostly gone.