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January 6, 2019

My grandfather was a pest. Back when my grandparents had the cottage on Big Whitefish Lake, the grandkids would sleep in bunkbeds in the way back screened-in-porch of a room we called “Camp Mimi Papa.” At bedtime, my grandmother would tell him no less than twenty times, “Now don’t you wake those kids up in the morning! You let them sleep!” Grandpa would jerk back with big eyes, looking shocked that she would even suggest such a thing. He would say, “Oh no no no,” as if to indicate, “I would never!”


But then each morning, like clockwork, he would go in and out of the screened in porch doors where we slept, as if there really was something pivotal that he needed from the adjoining driveway at six a.m. Each time he went out, he slammed the door. Each time he came back in, he slammed the door. And he would jingle his change loudly with each step. Sometimes he would even purposefully knock over a broom or bike pump and then have an excuse to clamor at the ruckus. It was usually around this time, that I would tilt my head up just an inch or two, and sleepily rub my eyes. Before they were open more than a sliver, he would holler like a kid on Christmas morning, “Erina! You’re awake! Let’s go get breakfast!” We would both get dippy eggs and toast with bacon. 


My grandpa never really belonged anywhere. He was dropped off at an orphanage with his brother at five-years-old because his mother couldn’t afford to feed him. He told us many stories about his time in the orphanage, or “children’s home,” as he called it. The birthdays were celebrated each month. So, in July, my grandpa’s birth month, there would be cake for all of the children in the children’s home celebrating a July birthday. In the birthday cake, there would be a single nickel hidden. Grandpa grinned from ear to ear each time he told the story of the time he finally got that nickel. I would listen with anticipation, as if I was hearing the story for the first time. “I started eating my cake, and don’t you know! I got that nickel! Ohhh I was so happy!” He talks of going to the drugstore, elated to think how much candy he could buy for a whole nickel. I can still see his face pouting as he recalled how all he got was two measly pieces of chocolate. “What a rip off,” I can still hear him saying. 


Grandpa was a man who loved a good bargain. He once drove with my aunt three miles past empty in order to completely fill up his tank at the Pilot gas station. You see, there was a promotion going on at the time where if you fill your tank up, you get a free cup of coffee. Grandpa eagerly snatched the gas receipt from my aunt, handed it to the clerk and said, “I filled up my tank and I’d like my free cup of coffee now.” The clerk told him how that promotion ended last week but the senior cup of coffee is forty-nine cents. My grandpa left empty handed. He wasn’t going to spend forty-nine cents on a cup of coffee. “What a rip off,” I can hear him saying.


He was the cheapest man I knew. Yet, he was also the most generous man I knew. He helped anyone who was in a pinch at the drop of a hat. He helped any of my daycare families in need, without even needing to meet them. I would tell my grandpa their stories, and a few days later, a check would arrive in the mail. He was committed to making sure each of his children and grandchildren were up to date on car maintenance. I am certain that each of us have received a new set of tires from my grandpa at one point in our lives or another. I can’t count the number of times when my grandfather visited and would ask for my car keys so that he could take my car on over to Valvoline to get up to date on maintenance. A couple of hours later, he would hand me back my car and keys and relay how the oil was changed, and the wipers had new blades, and the wheels had been rotated or changed out. Sometimes people without a good upbringing don’t know how to take care of other people themselves, since they were never taught. My grandpa was the opposite. He took everything that he didn’t get and poured it into his family tenfold.


Grandpa was bounced from foster home to foster home as a child. He got removed from one of his foster families after she burned his hand on the stove for taking a bite out of a donut in the fridge. He relayed to me his six-year-old thought process at the time. “I thought, I’m just going to take one little bite, not the whole donut.” He continued, “If I would have eaten the whole donut, she wouldn’t have noticed but I didn’t want to be greedy.” The school noticed his burn and he ended up back in the children’s home. When you think of adoption, you think of a loving childless couple yearning for children. My grandpa was adopted with his brother so that they could be farm help. After he was taken in, the adopted family wanted to send just my grandpa back. Thankfully, the children’s home kept siblings together and said that if they send my grandpa back, they have to send his brother back with him. So, they kept my grandpa. But he never really belonged the way a son should belong.            


I wonder if that’s why my grandpa has always been so antsy. He was raised bouncing from place to place to place. When would there be an opportunity to teach him how to stop bouncing and settle into home? But there was one place he began to learn how to be still. Church. While most of us grew up squirming through church services, my grandfather was still in church. Church was the place he found the father that he never had but always needed. 


And then he met my grandmother and finally belonged to an earthly family. And this earthly family grew until it busted at the seams. My grandparents now have five daughters and even more son-in-laws. I am not talking about polygamy here, so how does this work? My grandpa worked so hard to finally have a family, that he wasn’t ever going to let anyone out once they were in. Once a Sharpless, always a Sharpless. In fact, he was the best man in my dad’s recent wedding. My dad divorced his daughter, my mom, nearly ten years ago. But nothing ever changed between my dad and my grandpa.


A couple of months ago, I went home to my own ex-husband’s house to pick my children up from him. And there was my grandpa, deep in conversation at my ex’s kitchen table. My grandpa was such a pot stirrer, he wanted to know all of the details about why my marriage dissolved. It drove him crazy that all I would say was, “Well, sometimes these things just don’t work out, Grandpa.” So, then he would call each and every one of my sisters and push and pry. He was the king of prying. He pried until he could finally say with a smirk, “Guess what I heard? Did you know that?” 


We’ve been spending a lot of the morning trying to figure out just how many grandchildren, son-in-laws, and great grandchildren there are. This isn’t easy to come up with, because Grandpa has taken in so many “strays.” And once he takes in someone, they are in. The guest room of my grandparent’s home still houses a lovely man who went from homelessness to a Sharpless. It’s because my grandpa knows what it feels like to not belong. He knows what it feels like to not have a family. To my grandpa, there’s always room for another Sharpless. In the end, the number of people surrounding my grandpa, tips the scale past seventy. Grandchildren have flown in from all over the country to be with him: from Michigan, to New York, to Chicago, to Connecticut, and even Alaska. The whole gang is here. When he was still breathing, I told this orphan boy in a deteriorating eighty-seven-year-old body, “Just look at the way you belong, Grandpa. You are a legacy.” Over and over again I repeated, “Just look at the way you belong.”



My never still, always restless Grandpa passed so peacefully, we didn’t know that it had happened. You see, so much of his life, my grandpa went from not belonging, to not belonging. He didn’t belong in an orphanage, but he didn’t belong with his adopted family either. But because there is such a thing as redemption, God blew it out of the water with the family He gave my grandfather in the end. We didn’t know my grandfather had passed because there was nothing that changed in those final moments. My grandfather went from belonging, to belonging. With my sister curled in his bed, my cousin squeezing his hand, and me patting his leg, his body melted into a river rippling towards divinity. He simply slipped out of our arms and into his Daddy’s. He simply went from home, to home.  

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