It’s been three and a half years since Papa died, but I can still hear his familiar, embarrassing greeting. He came to my house almost every day when I was growing up, and the greeting was a tradition that had sprung up over the years. He’d walk in and say his hello, and I’d run over and give him a hug, blushing. After, we would sit in the family room and watch the Tigers game or Michigan football together.
It may not seem like much, but it’s one of the things I miss most about him.
Papa Henry, my father’s father, was a hard worker, fiercely loyal to family and, above all, he was kind. In the almost 18 years I got to spend with him, I never once heard him say something negative or hurtful about someone.
He was a good man, and he made me a better person.
Papa was a joker, constantly making us all laugh, even if we had heard the joke once or twice before. He was a favorite among friends and strangers alike. He loved crossword puzzles, and he fell asleep every time he picked up a book.
On days when I thought the world was out to get me, he was my ally, comforting me when the tears wouldn’t stop. And when I felt insecure, Papa was there with a bologna and mustard sandwich, ready to make it better.
He had a big heart, and he filled it with family. My grandma was the love of his life, and they had a marriage any couple would be lucky to have. He raised both of his sons to be respectful and kind. From driving my cousin, D.J., to school each morning, to sitting through every last one of my dance recitals, he loved each of his grandchildren unconditionally, and continuously showed it.
The memories, of course, are endless. But my favorites revolve around our annual family trip to Traverse City. We were all on different schedules, but every year we set aside time for the Family Vacation because Papa wanted us all together. Truthfully, the games of putt-putt, rounds of go-carts, family softball games and sand castle-building competitions are some of the best times my family has had together. We still go to Traverse City every year, and we still have a great time, though his sunburnt feet are noticeably absent.
Papa was a family man, but he was also one of the biggest sports fans I’ve ever known. Baseball was his game, but he loved Michigan athletics, too. My first game at the Big House, I was sandwiched between him and my dad, trying to learn the chants as I reveled in the glory of Michigan football.
Admittedly, I don’t remember if we won or lost that game. But I do remember Papa let me borrow his Maize and Blue cap to keep the sun out of my eyes.
He loved Michigan, but Papa didn’t go to college. He had ten brothers and sisters, and his parents just couldn’t afford it.
When I was growing up, Nana and Papa would bring over bags and bags of presents every Christmas for their four — and eventually five — grandchildren. When Papa was a child, the Salvation Army brought him a pair of shoes every December.
But he, and Nana, worked incredibly hard and sent both of their children to college. In that regard, Papa is the epitome of the American Dream. He worked tirelessly, painting houses and eventually working for General Motors, so he could give his family what he himself never had. For his children, it meant that they would receive a college education.
For me, it meant a college degree from the University of Michigan, specifically. My family has bled Maize and Blue for generations. Michigan was my dream — and Papa was my biggest supporter.
So growing up, I studied hard, I played sports, I joined clubs and I watched every Michigan game with my family on TV. I sang “The Victors” with the rest of my family when my sister was accepted in 2008, and I explored the campus with her, wide-eyed, counting down the days until I could join her in Ann Arbor.
Everything was running smoothly, until it wasn’t. Papa passed away two weeks before my high-school graduation. It happened so quickly, we didn’t get to say goodbye, and Papa never knew that my dream of attending the University would come true. I transferred here in my sophomore year.
It wasn’t fair, but that’s how it went.
At the time, it felt like I lost my best friend. Sometimes, it still does. Almost four years later, I still cry when I try to talk about him. Writing helps.
When I graduate from the University this May, I know Papa won’t be in the Big House with me. But I know how proud he would be of me, and I’m so thankful for the 18 years I got to spend with him.