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Honoring My Grandfather

We didn’t settle on a first name for my son until I’d been in labor for several hours. I guess you could say that we weren’t able to make a decision until push came to shove (insert rimshot here). But there was no such struggle with his middle name: from the moment we found out we were having a boy, I knew that his middle name would be Bernard, after my grandfather.

Bernard A. Mangan, 1924-2010

Bernard A. Mangan, 1924-2010

My grandpa passed away four years ago.

Shortly after learning that I was pregnant, I started to have dreams that my grandfather came back to life– or that he didn’t really die– that it had all been a mix-up. I probably had a dream like this every week for a couple months, and frequently woke up crying. I suppose I’d never really come to terms with the fact that my children will never know their great-granddad. And that’s a shame because he was a truly amazing person.

I was very close to my paternal grandparents. I stayed with them a lot growing up. I can hardly imagine their kitchen table without seeing my grandfather there reading the paper– or their living room where he played piano– or their garden, which he was tending up until the day he died. My grandpa was born and raised in New York City. An Irish Catholic boy, raised in Brooklyn, the second-youngest of 10 children. He grew up very poor; he and his brothers slept on their apartment’s fire escape on summer nights. He lost both his parents at a young age, and was raised by his older brothers.

Grandpa was a singer who, in his youth, rivaled some of the great Irish tenors. When he was 14, grandda sang at Radio City Music Hall. He taught himself to play the piano. He had a deep, abiding love for music, which my dad and I both inherited. One day when my dad was 18, he said, “I don’t want to go to medical school after all– what I really want to do is play classical guitar!”  And my grandfather said “Okay,” and then fought for my dad to get accepted into the music school of his choice.

Grandpa was a WWII veteran, an IBM engineer, and a globe trotter. He was a loving husband and father. He and my grandmother were married for 60 years, and every night for 60 years, he did the dishes without complaint. Grandpa had a quick, self-deprecating sense of humor, and he didn’t take anything too seriously. He loved books, science, British mysteries on PBS, bad puns, and this horrible thing he created called fire toast (It’s butter-soaked bread that’s been charred over a flame so it’s black on the outside and squishy on the inside). It makes me sad to know that grandpa won’t be there to subject my son to fire toast, and to wait– expectantly with his weathered, childlike eyes gleaming– to see if he’d found another person on earth besides himself who enjoys the dreadful stuff.

Everyone who met my grandfather loved him. He was a good listener and he was genuinely interested in what you had to say: He wanted to understand you, whoever you were. He was warm and accepting of everyone. He was happy and kind. He had an easy way with people. I can’t think of how else to describe this quality he had, except to say that he was an light-hearted human being.

I find myself wondering if my son will be as funny and quick to smile as his great-grandfather. Will he be as clever, with a passion for music and reverence for science? Will the differences between people fascinate him and make him think? Will he grow up to be gentle and kind? Brave and principled? Will he have a happy and fulfilling a life?

For me, “Bernard” is so much more than a middle name. It’s an expression of my fervent hopes for my son: for the man he will become, and for all the things I hope he will do and be in life. Thank you, grandpa. I’m going to do my best, but we sure miss you and wish you could be here.

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