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Thursday, December 29, 2011

In Memory of My Grandfather

Dr. Walter William Kelley
June 23, 1915 - December 10, 2011
Today, the extended Kelley family gathers in Los Angeles to celebrate the life of my grandfather, Dr. Walter William Kelley, who passed away on December 10th at the age of 96. I am unable to travel, so this blog post must serve as my  memorial.

My grandfather with his son and
four of his five daughters in 1958.
My grandfather grew up on a farm in North Dakota, spent several years in the CCC after high school, attended the University of North Dakota where he met my grandmother, went to medical school, spent several years post-WWII serving in the South Pacific, and then settled in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where he practiced medicine and raised six children. He outlived my beautiful grandmother, who passed away in 2000 after 56 years of marriage, and his youngest daughter. With the help of caregivers, at the time he died, he was stilling living in the custom California ranch house where he had lived for 55 years. He is survived by five children and their spouses, twelve grandchildren and their spouses, and five great-grandchildren.

My grandfather and extended family at his 90th birthday party.
My grandfather loved being a doctor and spent his career practicing family medicine. He particularly liked delivering babies; one year he delivered a hundred of them! He kept up his medical license for many years after he retired and until the very end, even after he'd forgotten almost everything else, he always remembered that he was a doctor.

Here I am, at the age of three, taking my grandfather's blood pressure with the cuff
from my Fisher-Price doctor's kit, proud to be playing doctor with a REAL physician!

He also loved to work in the yard and was especially proud of his roses, his lemons, his olallieberries (a relative of the loganberry) and his vegetables.

The entire back fence of the large yard was lined with roses.
At his 50th Wedding Anniversary
party in 1994.
My grandfather played golf well into his eighties and followed the fortunes of the Dodgers and the Lakers and played a mean hand of gin, but he was much more interested in words and ideas. As a boy, he used to read during the sleigh-ride to school. He discovered Shakespeare in college, kindling a love that would remain with him all his life. He relished the sound of rich language; my grandfather was not a religious man, but he loved the sound of the Bible, of poetry, of Shakespeare. He used to recite the Gettysburg Address in his head before going to sleep at night. He also liked a good joke! He was a thorough reader of the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker. He kept up on politics and always watched Crossfire on CNN and other shows that addressed current events. If he didn't know something, he always looked it up. The dictionary and encyclopedia were regularly called upon during conversations. After the rise of the internet as a resource, my grandfather would often call our house to see if we could look something up for him. During one of my final conversations with him, I explained Twitter to him as best as I could; he called because he'd been reading a story in the LA Times that was using the word "tweet" in a way that he didn't understand. He believed in being curious and well-informed and lived his life very much by those principles.

The two of us in 2008.
It was over this love of language that my grandfather and I bonded as I grew into an adult. He was delighted to learn that I liked Shakespeare and could recite several speeches from memory. It meant a great deal to me that he saw me as an intellectual equal. While there is no doubt that I inherited my pre-maturely grey hair from him, I like to also think that I owe some of my own intelligence and curiosity to the strength of his genes.

But when I was growing up, he was simply "Grandpa."

Teaching me how to swing a baseball bat in 1984...

...acting as raft for my sister and me while vacationing at Lake Havasu in 1985...

...helping us pick oranges in a neighbor's yard in '88...

...playing cards with me and my grandmother's aunt later that same year...

...posing with me and the rest of his grandchildren in 1994...

...and attending my high school graduation in 1999.

And of course, Grandpa went hand-in-hand with Grandma. He once said that the two best decisions he made in life were becoming a doctor and marrying my vivacious, stylish, and loving grandmother, a woman I miss dearly.

On Easter with three young daughters...

...on their 50th anniversary...

...sharing a kiss a few months later at their 50th anniversary party...

...and together in 1997.
My grandmother's hair was still naturally black!
After my grandma died, my grandfather learned how to cook and do the laundry, worked hard to develop close relationships with all of his children, continued to host events at his house, play bridge, and remain active. He became increasingly frail as he got older, but up until the last year and a half of his life, he retained his sharp wit and enough mobility to live in his home alone.

My sister and my grandfather, taken this spring.
Then, though, scores of small strokes, an internal bleed that took several weeks to track down, proliferating skin cancers, and just plain old age started to take their toll. In addition to being almost completely deaf and nearly blind, his memory became more and more spotty; by the time he died, he had lost his short-term memory almost entirely. The one thing he knew to the end was that he was a doctor. Increasingly unsteady even with a walker, he fell, fracturing an arm, ribs, and his pelvis, injuries from which it would have been extremely difficult for him to recover, and would without a doubt have required him to move into a nursing home. That night, as he slept in the hospital, his breathing stopped, and, at last, his heart.

When a man of 96 dies after living a very full and wonderful life, it is hardly a sad thing. In fact, for the last year or so, I'd been hoping he would die soon. He had always been a man of considerable wit and dignity; it was hard to see him lose both. I was very fortunate, though, that I got to give him two very special gifts before his memory crumbled, and in that way, I made my peace with his passing, even though it would be a couple more years before he died, and when he died, it would be two years since I'd last seen him.

When my family went down to visit him the summer of 2008, I brought Mouse with me. I was aware that the clock was ticking; it was unlikely my grandfather would live too much longer and so each visit to the house must be viewed as potentially my last. My love for the house where my mother grew up and my grandparents lived is profound, perhaps even more so than the house where I grew up and live now. It was the place where summer vacations happened, a beautiful home with a freezer well-stocked with ice cream treats for visiting grandchildren and beautiful, sun-lit yard perfumed by flowers. I decided to use Mouse to document the details of the place I loved so much and took more than four hundred pictures on that visit. My grandfather was very curious as to what I was up to and charmed by the images I showed him on the screen of my digital camera. From that, I got the idea of making a book for him filled with images of Mouse and the house where he'd lived for more than 50 years.

The resulting book had 50 pages filled with photos of Mouse and every corner of the house and yard. My grandfather absolutely loved it. He took it everywhere with him and showed it to everyone. He was so proud of me. I got to write, so to speak, a visual love letter to the house that both of us loved and was able to share it with him and he, in turn, was able to tell me how much it meant to him. We seldom get to give loved ones gifts that are so meaningful and because I had that chance, I am able to let him go with peace. I do hope to get back the copy I gave him, so I might be able to hold the volume he cherished and feel his love in every crease and mending of the well-loved volume.

My own copy of the book is pristine; I hope to reclaim the much-loved copy I gave him.

If that wasn't enough, I had the opportunity to give my grandfather a second gift. When I saw him the next summer, I was finishing up a children's book featuring Mouse and showed him some of the pictures and poems. Knowing that he would most certainly not live to see the book published, I had a copy printed and sent to him. I saved the voicemail he sent me; the quality is poor because I had to hold my cellphone to the computer's microphone to record it, but I knew I'd want to keep this record of his voice and what he said.

I got a migraine during that final visit in 2009, a headache that was a harbinger of the chronic migraines that would set in a few months later. My persistent headaches troubled him; he'd suffered from occasional migraines over the years, but he had never before encountered chronic ones, and his grasp on medical science was weakening. I spoke to him on the phone from time to time; he always seemed to know who I was, which, toward the end, was something. And now he is gone and the world has lost a man of intelligence and humor, but he was very, very old, and it was time for him to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Every time I get up from the dinner table to look up the origin of a word, I will think of him, as I will whenever I hear or read Shakespeare, or look at one of many Mouse photos I took at his house. In the years to come, I will continue to see him as he looked when reading the paper in his brown leather chair or wandering here and there in the yard, dead-heading his roses and fussing with the rain birds. I'll retain the memory of his gnarled brown hands holding one of his tweed caps and the way he'd play with the carved staff he used as a cane in later years. The day will come when the sound of his laugh will start to elude me, but I'll always remember the shape of his smile.

I love you, Grandpa, and now rest in peace.


  1. That's a beautiful post, Colleen. I cried reading it. It says a lot about Grandpa how much we all loved him, and how much we knew we were loved BY him. He did so absolutely cherish the Mouse (in His House) book. I didn't know you'd sent a one-off of the children's book and am thrilled that you did, and even more thrilled that you saved the message! (I didn't save any message he ever left me and there's one I particularly wish I had.) Anyway. Lovely memorial. Thanks for writing it.

  2. What a glorious tribute to your beloved Grandpa!

    It is one of the saddest things in my life that my children didn't get to meet their Grandfathers and only a few fleeting visits with their Grandmothers before they passed but I try to keep their memories alive with stories and photos :)

    I love your mouse book, how clever of you :)

    Take Care, regards, T. :)