Friday, August 24, 2012

Memorial for Boppo

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Boppo Memorial 8/24/12
I don’t have too many happy memories of growing up. But of the ones I do, they usually involved Boppo. Boppo, of course, is James R. Harmon. A veteran of the merchant marines in World War II, an insurance man, a telegraph deliverer, a landlord, a husband, a father, a sometimes worm farmer, and my grandfather. But ever since I was born, he’s been Boppo.

                There are so many great things I could say to try to honor his memory. His industriousness, working well into his 80s to maintain the apartments he’d worked so hard for. His resilience, growing up poor in the Great Depression and gaining so much in his life. His passion for lifelong learning, reading National Geographic and other publications every week and maintaining an active curiosity about the world despite never even completing high school. His love for jokes, his generosity, and so so much more could fill this space. But, to me, the one thing that stands out about Boppo more than any other trait is his strong, dedicated, and so enduring ability to love.

                “Love” is an easy thing to say, but, especially over the course of time, it’s a much harder thing to do. So often we let our fears, our pain, our pride get in the way of letting ourselves meet others where they are and open ourselves to loving them. But although he had his share of hardship with an unstable family as a boy, poverty, the death of his beloved wife, Madge, over thirty years ago, Boppo made love look easy.

                He made it look natural, so natural that it was easy just to take it for granted. He was the sort of person I might introduce a friend to once, and the friend would remember him forever as “the sweetest man [they’d] ever met.”

                When I was younger, I worried that he felt like he had to be generous to get affection. And he certainly was generous. He spoiled me as a child with toys and arcades and trips and food and anything I wanted that he could buy. He was the sort of person who would let neighborhood kids come in to his apartment whenever they wanted and grab a Coke. The sort of landlord who’d be flexible if not downright forgiving when rent was due. The sort of person who’d go down the line at Wright’s Cafeteria at Christmas and give each employee a $20 bill. I worried that he may have felt like he had to give all this money away, because that was the best way to show he cared.

                But as I got older, I realized that it was moreso a matter of priority. Growing up with nothing, he knew that money and material goods were luxuries, not requirements. That, at the end of the day, what truly matters is love. And whatever he could do for love, he would.

                He did the small things. Like trundling up to our daycare once a week to pick my sister and I up in his big blue van, taking us to McDonalds and then entertaining us with arcades and Legos and TV until we went back home. He was always willing to take care of a dog, fix a toilet, drive to help you where ever you were with never a complaint. He enjoyed simply spending time with us, watching cartoons on Sunday morning, going out to eat, watching movies that he may have found too racy or too confusing but thoroughly enjoying the experience simply because his family was with him.

                But he did the big things too. While my family’s home may have been a source of fear and chaos, Boppo’s apartment was a refuge every Saturday night. He would welcome us, spoil us, love us unconditionally. And he would enjoy every minute. Where my father often thought of us as burdens, Boppo always wanted to be with us more. He was always happy to have us visit. Always sad to see us go. He, just like my mother, would and did sacrifice anything for us to be just a little happier.

                And he was brave in his love. He was the only person to ever call the police on my father, during one of my father’s rampages, in an attempt to try to protect us when no one else would or could. And when I transitioned, as so many others receded or fell into their own fears and worries, he alone reached out. This 90 year old man with little formal education, raised in the Bible Belt, who watched Fox News all day called me just to make absolutely sure I knew that he loved me no matter what. Unlike anyone else, he needed to make sure I was ok, that I felt safe around him, that I knew he still wanted and loved me. He didn’t let anything get in the way of love. Because, to Boppo, loving me, loving us was all that really mattered.

                And, of course, that’s just some of my own experiences of his love. Everyone who met him, even for a few moments, can testify to how loving a person he was. Whereas as some families grow apart or always were distant, Boppo’s only got closer. In his final months, he was attended daily by the family that meant so much to him. He was surrounded by loved ones the night before he died. And, in death, he looked like someone who was assured of the deep, deep love in his life.

I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know how he overcame the hurt, the loss, the attendant pains and sorrows that his life knew as well as any other. I don’t know how he loved not just because that’s what one is supposed to do, but because he genuinely felt it. I don’t know how he so internalized that, ultimately, love is all that matters. I really don’t know. But I do know that because of him, because of his life, because of his memory, because of his immense and indelible impact upon me, I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to do the same.

We’ll miss you, Boppo. Your physical presence is gone from our lives, but we will always, always feel your love. And we will always love you, too.

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