Sad Epitaph for a Generous Man

He never had much, much that is except a loving, generous heart. But everything he did have, he gave away. What a better place this world would be if we all did likewise.

grandpaI had flown back on emergency leave from my overseas duty assignment to attend my grandfather’s funeral. To honor him, the one person in my family who, I felt, never doubted my potential to succeed, I wore dress greens with all my ribbons and badges of qualification. From Frankfurt, Germany to Salt Lake City, Utah, even over the polar route, it is a great distance — a very long flight. I was still feeling the effects of jet lag.

With me at her side, looking down into my grandfather’s casket prior to his funeral, my grandmother said of him, “He just wasn’t a very good provider.”

Standing next to her, I remained silent but moved closer and put my arm around her. I anticipated a sob or at least a tear. Neither happened — she just stoically, ever so lightly stroked the lapel of his burial suit. It was his only suit, a brown single breasted one bought for him to wear at his son’s first wedding many years earlier. He had worn it only rarely after that, once to my graduation commencement at the University of Utah. He was the only one there for me that day other than my wife.

My grandmother’s goodbye quickly over with, we moved together to take our seats next to Uncle Paul, Grandpa’s only blood offspring. The rest of us, he made his. Paul was paralyzed from the shoulders down, the result of a tragic but preventable accident several years prior. In a very meaningful way, I’m sure, that accident prematurely ended my grandfather’s life. He said to me once, weeks after Paul had been released from the hospital to spend the rest of his life in bed or in his chair, “I’d rather see him in his grave or be in my own than have him be this way.” Sitting there then in his motorized chair, Paul’s eyes were upon me and his mother. He gave me a discreet little nod of approval. I nodded back.

Waiting now for extended family members to say a few words in remembrance, I couldn’t help thinking:  What a sad, sad epitaph: “He just wasn’t a very good provider.”

Grandpa did not practice nor did he profess belief in the family’s predominant faith, Mormonism, so there would be no words offered by the Ward Bishop. But with all men of the faith sharing the priesthood, even Jack-Mormons like I was back then, I would be giving my Grandfather his final rights at his graveside service. The prospect of doing this made me nervous, but Grandma had asked me to do it.

His birth certificate identified him as Thor Maximilian Herbert Shell, a boy child born to a young Hawaiian woman. The birth certificate did not identify his father by name; entered next to father was, unknown. That his birth mother had been impreg- nated by a young Mormon missionary to the islands from Murray, Utah was not something that anyone talked about, but it was a conclusion one could easily intuit from the circumstances. Grandpa had been adopted and raised by his maternal aunt (Uncle Paul and I called her Grandma Bloomquist, best remembered by me for her cinnamon roll bread). Not being proud of his Polynesian ancestry, at least not until his later years, he took his father’s family name – Dahlberg. I never heard what became of his father.

Affecting to be Swedish like his father’s family, he was close to only one other family member, a cousin named Lou. I gathered from bits and pieces of stories told to my mother and me by Grandma after Grandpa’s passing, that he and his cousin Lou were quite the hellions when they were young — black sheep in the land of Zion during Prohibition. They rode motorcycles together and liberally imbibed any kind of alcoholic beverage they could get their hands on.

Owing to a “bathtub gin” poisoning that, according to Grandma, “…nearly killed him,” years before, Grandpa never again touched a drop of anything intoxicating so long as I knew him. But despite the Mormon prohibition against it, perhaps even more because of it, Grandpa never gave up smoking. He was a pack-a-day Camel man.

What attracted my grandmother, daughter of a devout Mormon couple, to young Herbert “Herb” Dahlberg, nobody seemed to know. Whereas she was a tall, truly beautiful thoroughbred of Scandinavian extraction, he was shorter by a good inch. His complexion was dark, he had bad teeth, and his eyes were oddly bulging and large for his face. Before meeting him, she had had a brief marriage to a gambler and drug addict annulled. That was the man who was my mother’s father. Grandma was also estranged from the father (never married to) of her second daughter, my Aunt Colleen. Yes, Grandma had a history of preferring the company of men who were well outside the mainstream of Mormon piety. So, perhaps it was the rebel in them both that fomented defiance of others’ expectations. What maintained the bond until death did them part though was their son, my Uncle Paul who was six years older than me.

It was my Great Aunt Gen who stood up first to speak at my grandfather’s funeral. In her genealogical account of the Anderson Clan, the maternal side of my family, Aunt Gen referred to my grandpa as a “strange” person. But she was kind in her eulogy. She told the story of how my grandpa came to have both of his legs crushed when I was still a babe less than two months old, justification for why her dear sister had chosen to spend her life with a gentile (nonbeliever) like my grandfather. The story goes like this…

To escape the summer heat, Grandpa was driving the family car up Big Cottonwood Canyon, a scenic drive in the Wasatch Range of mountains east of the Salt Lake Valley. He, his wife and son, along with Grandma Bloomquist, were enjoying a Sunday afternoon excursion. I, or so I’ve been told, was in my Grandma Bloomquist’s lap when Grandpa pulled over to the side of the road. He got out with his son following along behind to collect some water from a near-by spring just below the infamous Horseshoe Turns in the canyon. The water would be for the overheated radiator, cooling systems of pre-war production cars being prone to overheating, especially at higher altitudes. Grandpa and Paul collected a coffee pot full of water and were on their way back to the car when they heard the squeal of tires and the scraping of a car’s fender against the mountain road guard-rail above and behind them. Instinctively, Grandpa dropped the water and picked up his son, throwing him out of danger over the guard-rail. But it was too late for Grandpa. He tripped running downhill toward his car trying to get out of the way and, as he was trying to get under the guard-rail, the drunk, out-of-control driver ran over his legs. I can’t even imagine the horror his wife and adoptive mother must have felt as they watched it all happen right in front of them.

The drunk driver had no insurance. But, because Grandpa Herb’s job at that time was in a critical wartime industry at the now-closed Geneva Steel Plant and he was a member in good standing with the Steelmakers labor union, his medical bills were paid in full and his family was partially sustained while he recuperated. But he was never really whole again, never physically fit to resume his job at the steel plant. He was furloughed without pension before the war came to an end. He was able to find work later as a body and fender man with a Chevrolet dealership in Magna, but the pay was never again what he had been able to make during the war. Grandma, who had wanted to become a full-time homemaker after the war, was never able to quit her job with the American Linen Company, a supplier of uniforms, hospital bedding and such.

One of my earliest memories I have of Grandpa was of him teaching me how to drive nails into a block of wood while I sat on the dirt floor of the old garage behind his house on Sunset Avenue. He was still limping badly long after I had graduated into big-boy under pants, and it must have been difficult for him to get down to me on the ground to guide my hands. A family hero, old “Doc” Watson, had worked hours in the hospital emergency room to save his legs after the accident. But they just couldn’t be made right again and one of them, the left one, was an inch shorter than the right. It gave him pain until the day he died. I remember the frequent trips to the doctor’s office in Midvale, which seemed to me like a long way to have to go back then, to have an ugly, scared-over wound beside his shin bone lanced to drain the leg of puss.

Next to speak was Uncle Joe, Grandma’s youngest brother. Uncle Joe talked about Grandpa’s craftsmanship as a body and fender man, how everyone in the family brought their wrinkled fenders to him to fix, how he made them all look good as new, and how he never charged any of them for more than the cost of materials. Yeah, I thought, that’s right. Grandpa never had much to give but he never said, “no,” not to a relative or to a friend, not even to the friend of a friend.

While Uncle Joe spoke, I tried to recall the words of St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer. But all I could remember of it was how it ended: “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

I have lots of memories about my grandpa giving time, labor and money away. Grandma often chided him for it, saying, “Charity starts here at home!” But even though he gave her most of his meager earnings each month, he was always had a nickel for the Good Humor man when I was young. As a teen, his car was always mine if I wanted it for a weekend date to a drive-in movie. He would even give me a buck for gas if I was a little short. He was generous with his time too. Paul brought one of friends to Grandpa’s garage one summer weekend, a friend who had just bought an old motor scooter that badly needed dings repaired and a fresh coat of paint. He taught and coached the two, step-by-step, on how to make the repairs then prepare the scooter’s surface for painting. When they were finished (it took them most of a full day) and he had inspected their work, he mixed some good lacquer paint with the right amount of thinner, fired-up his little home compressor, and did the spray painting himself. The next day, Paul’s friend returned with his own father who insisted on paying Grandpa for the work. But Grandpa said, “Naah… no need. The boys did most of the work and it was just some old paint I had lay’n around the place anyway.”

Grandpa was generous, even with strangers. Once when I was working for him during summer vacation from high school, this was after he had been laid-off from his dealership body shop job and had opened his own little garage in Magna, a man came in with a broken metal part for an antique car. Grandpa stopped what he was doing at his makeshift little desk and assessed the situation. “Ahhh, this won’t take much,” he said.

He fired-up his acetylene torch, donned his welding goggles, and went to work. It took him a little while, a few minutes distraction from other matters. When he was done, he handed the part back to the man with a toothless smile; he had long since had all his bad teeth removed, never going to the expense on himself to be fitted for false teeth. Others’ needs came first for him, so he just cut his roast beef into smaller pieces. But surely this is why he so often complained of stomach pain.

“Wow, nice welding bead,” the man said. “How much do you want for that?”

“Ahhh, that’s not worth much. How about a nickel for the acetylene?”

I never asked my grandfather for anything that he didn’t, in some way, try to provide. He came to my rescue many, many times, and reached out whenever he could beyond his neighbors and his kin. He never had much, much except a loving, generous heart. But everything he did have, he gave away. What a better place this world would be if we all did likewise.

At his graveside I prayed a simple prayer, forgetting what I had stayed up late the night before planning to say: “Father, Your humble servant, Herbert Dahlberg – faithful husband, nurturing parent, generous friend to all, and a true craftsman, is about to depart from us, but in body only. We lay his remains here to rest, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but his spirit remains with each of us who he loved and for whom he tried to do in this life. By example, he taught us much and he will continue to inspire us, reminding us that it’s not what we have but how we choose to use what we have that matters. His place for eternity, we know, has already been prepared for him. But may it be a place to which those of us who are worthy, in our own time, might be reunited with him. Amen.”

Grandpa may never have acknowledged his Lord and Savior, or cried out to Him in pain. I never heard him “talk the talk,” and he certainly had nothing good to say about organized religion, especially about the Mormon Church. But I am confident he knew the Lord’s way, confident too that the Lord knew him — because he truly “walked the walk.”

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Published on November 28, 2008 at 11:37 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Kent, thanks for sharing memories of your grandfather.
    It was very moving and a lesson there for each of us.
    It gives us pause to think and reflect that our time here on earth is to practise servanthood and by doing so, we are serving God. What a beautiful tribute to your loving & generous grandfather.

  2. He never refused to give me a ride when I asked him and and was very good with his hands. I still order my hamburgers the way he ordered them and I sing the nestle song to my daughter the same way he sang it to me. He was saddened at my fathers predicament and he would do anything for him. I was told a lot of neat stories about him and I have fond memories of him.

  3. All I can remember about how our grandpa Herb liked his hamburgers was that he would not eat onions — that is, unless they were sneeked past him some how.
    Yes, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for any of his “kids” if he could. He was indeed a good and very generous man. He taught me a great deal, and not just about fixing things and making things. He taught me to share.

    Opa


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