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More Grandpa…

October 8, 2008

My mom called me one November afternoon two years ago to tell me the strange, unsettling news.
“Well, Grandpa arrived today,” she said.
“Oh? Really?” I responded.
“Yes, and he’s kind of … heavy.” An awkward silence ensued.
“I had to sign for him …” she continued. “Now he’s here, on the dryer.”
And so, months after saying goodbye, we said an uneasy hello to Grandpa again. The box labeled “Human Cremains” arrived by priority mail, then sat atop the dryer for awhile before being moved to a spot beneath my great-grandfather’s rolltop desk in Mom’s bedroom. There it remained, gathering dust and waiting, if ashes can be said to wait, for us to figure out what to do next. None of us really knew.
My grandfather, Ramsay Harris, was my hero before I knew what that meant. He was a teacher, inventor, poet, and lover of birds. He could stand for extended periods of time with an eyedropper of sugar water gripped in his teeth until an interested hummingbird allowed him the unparalleled joy of coming eye to eye with one of his favorite creatures.
The same background that lent him such patience also instilled in him the inclination to keep everything that passed through his hands. He was born in India in 1900 and in his world everything either had a use or would have a use. Someday. After my mother moved my grandparents into assisted living, she cleaned out their house and found: several cardboard boxes full of empty film canisters, 50 years of Time magazine and the Saturday Review, and four boxes filled with used rifle targets. Once a shooting instructor, Grandpa kept all of his students’ shot-up targets over the years. By years I mean 40 or so.
Toward the end of his life he was saving paper coasters, napkins and coffee straws from nursing home mealtimes. Ditto half-eaten cookies. He filled his dresser with these items, forcing Mom to surreptitiously remove some of them once in a while to make way for the inevitable influx of more.
Despite the fact that Grandpa outlived the love of his life, he was happy. If you asked him how he was doing his response was “I’m a happy man.” This statement was always punctuated with a wide smile. I wonder to this day if his positive attitude was the key to his longevity.
According to the nursing home staff, Grandpa was in particularly good spirits the day before he died, and I like to think that he knew it was time to go and was ready. He drifted away in his sleep that night. He was 105 years old.
October 4 was his birthday, and an appropriate time, I decided, to bring some closure to the amazing odyssey that was his life. Time to get that box out and dust it off. Time to figure out the most appropriate place for his ashes. For a man like him, this was no easy feat. He didn’t care what happened to his earthly body once it was no longer of use — he’d signed up for the willed body program through the University of New Mexico med school, and when he died the school picked him up. Even in death he was a teacher, and that was all that mattered to him.
Ultimately, the scattering of his ashes was closure for us rather than a fulfillment of his final wishes. My sister, Jennifer, and her husband and daughter, Jon and Chloe, just happened to be in town so we set out to the foothills en masse — five kids, five adults — with the box of Grandpa and a bag of wildflower seeds. We walked a familiar trail, looking for a spot that felt right. None of us knew what that spot would be until … we found it.
We came upon a park bench along the trail with a plaque on it that read “Here is the place where Loveliness keeps house, between the river and the wooded hills.” Reading this made me stop in my tracks. Loveliness was my grandfather’s pet name for my grandmother.
I didn’t know how it would feel to see the ashes. To cut open the cardboard box and let daylight fall on the remnants of someone I loved so much. We had our plastic cocktail cups for scooping, we had our wildflower seeds and … it was all so surreal. Still, it did feel right, and the kids confirmed this. We gave them each a plastic cup of ashes and flower seeds, showed them how to rough up the dirt a bit so the seeds would set, then let them follow their hearts. This they did, turning  our tears to smiles and then laughter.
I like to think that Grandpa got a kick out of it too. How he would have laughed to see Soren so seriously sprinkling ash and seed into a furrow in the ground while Chiara danced around sprinkling lightly here and there with Chloe right behind her. How he would have loved to watch Mira pouring precise little piles.
And I know he would have found Gray hysterical as he tromped around in his hiking boots burying ash and seed before running back with his empty cup, and a request that defines what would have been Grandpa’s 108th birthday as perfect in my memory.
“More Grandpa!” Gray said, smiling.
And that we have, because we’ll always remember.

© 2008 Ana June All rights reserved

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Edwards permalink
    October 22, 2009 6:43 pm

    I was one of Mary’s 7th grade students at Foothill in the 50’s and came to know Ramsay because he so often drove down from Webb to pick her up when school was done for the day. He would usually come into the classroom and chat…and I immediately liked this unusual and inspiring man and looked forward to seeing him. He was one of the main reasons I wanted to go on to Webb, and when I got there, he was one of my great favorites, teaching Caesar and life lessons with equal skill. His harrowing account of a bad drug trip he took when he esperimented with something in his youth…his encyclopedic knowledge of Absolutely Everything…the fact that he had read various dictionaries cover-to-cover with obvious profit and mind-boggling retention…and his irrepressible good humor when welcoming me and other students, whether he had not seen them for a day or a decade… “Good Old Edwards,” he would sing…and all the dust of decades would drop away and I would stand there as before, mesmerized by a mind that knew no limits and warmed by a truly kind heart.

    I visited Mary and Ramsay in 1976 when I was on an ill-fated sentimental journey from Erie, Pennsylvania back to California, and they extended me hospitality and a warm and loving embrace, which refreshed me and let me resume my hopeless journey with the blind faith of the trusting child I had once been.

    When a cat attacked a bird at the house of a friend in Salisbury, Maryland in the early 1980’s, there was only one person to call…for advice and reassurance. He couold no longer talk on the phone because of his hearing problems, but Mary relayed his advice and we did what we could for the little victim.

    Ramsay was truly a special soul. How lucky are you all to be a part of his lineage and his legacy!

    Tom Edwards
    Foothill 1959
    Webb 1963

    • Laura permalink
      October 24, 2009 3:28 pm

      Dear Tom,

      How wonderful to hear from you!!! Where are you and what is happening??? Please e-mail me at: — I would love to reconnect.

      Best wishes,


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