About eight months ago, my paternal grandfather died. I’ve written about him on the blog before; just look for any posts about Capt. Ted Snoek. He was 95 years old when he moved on, and his memorial service drew a wonderful crowd. My family invited me to speak at the service. I wrote a piece about my grandfather’s shoes. I told my wife that it was the most important — and the hardest — thing I’d written to date. People seemed to like it, though I’m amazed anyone could understand me — I wept through the whole thing.
Last week, my parents came up the Pacific Northwest for a visit, and they brought me some of my grandfather’s effects: a file box; a plaque his Seaman Center had given him; a small, intricately carved side table he’d purchased 70 years ago in India . . .
. . . and a pair of his shoes.
I’ve memorialized a few people on this blog over the years, writers and teachers I’ve long admired. So it seems fitting, now that I’m crying over these shoes in my hands, to share the memorial I wrote for my beloved grandfather, Capt. Ted Snoek.
This is what I said:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
And since this is a story about Ted Snoek, chances are, you have heard it before.
Something like 25 years ago, when I was in my early teens and hitting my first growth spurt, my Grandpa genes kicked in and my feet outgrew the rest of me. I was still in middle school when I hit size 11; by high school I was wearing what were then size 12. My family went to visit my grandparents, and one day Grandpa pulled me aside, led me down the hall to his room in the back of the house, where he kept his huge desk and two twin beds for grandkids and his church suits in a small closet. He opened the closet and started pulling out shoes for me to inspect.
He was offering me his shoes.
You know Grandpa. You know his shoes. He wore size 14 D. For decades, he had to special-order them. Each one seemed longer than my arm. And these were lovely, classic dress shoes, brown Oxfords, beautiful shoes that I could barely hold in two hands. He asked if I wanted to try them on. I laughed and said, “Grandpa, I’ll never be able to fit into these!”
He said, “Well, not now. But you never know.”
This sounds like a metaphor, and it is, but by now, I do know. Both figuratively and literally, I’ll never be able to fill that man’s shoes.
Actually, there’s no reason any of you would have heard that story before, but I bet you’ve heard one like it, or experienced it yourselves. Because this is who Ted Snoek was: generous, always thinking of others, always trying to give things to people. Food, furniture, files—boxes and boxes of old receipts and genealogy records. Once, my grandfather gave me an old plank full of rusting nails half-driven into the wood. They were his nail collection. He wanted to pass it on to me.
But the thing he and my grandmother gave the most was of themselves. Everyone who wanted to could count Ted Snoek as their family. My mother never called him her father-in-law, she always called him “Dad”; to others, she referred to him as her second father. My good friend Apryl—and Roy will probably tell you more of this story in a bit—she was for most of my childhood a cousin of mine, until I got old enough to realize that she wasn’t related to me at all—she’d simply adopted Ted as her own grandfather, and he gladly adopted her right back. My friends and my sister’s friends and my brother’s friends, some of whom are here today, all knew Ted Snoek simply as Grandpa. Even a teacher friend of my mother’s, Debbie, referred to him not as “Mr. Snoek” or “Ted” but as “Grandpa.” Last week, I received a message from Ellie Cole, a member of Ted and Effie’s old church in Groves. She told me that my grandparents were about the same age as her own parents, and that Ted and Effie—and this is a quote—“were like parents to us too. When I had problems, I would seek them out and they would feed me and comfort me.”
In my Buddhist community back in Portland, we have a tradition around Christmas called Bodhisattva Night. We gather and tell stories about people we consider bodhisattvas, which are sort of like saints of compassion, people who give everything of themselves for the benefit of others. This year, I told a story about how, just a handful of years ago, my grandfather had taken in a troubled young boy. He gave him a room, food, work around the house. The boy stole from my grandparents and used drugs in the house, so Grandpa had to uninvite him. I asked what would happen if the boy ever came around again. Grandpa was cautious, mindful of the risk involved, but he told me, “Jesus said, knock, and the door shall be opened, so if the boy knocks, I suppose I’ll open the door.”
When I finished the story, one of the community members said, “He sounds like a remarkable man. He must have been a bodhisattva to you!”
Without hesitation, I said, “Oh, he was. My whole life.”
My whole life.
That’s something I realized last week, thinking about Ted Snoek’s remarkable 95 years on this earth. There isn’t a person in this room who is older than Ted Snoek was; every person in our family and among his friends drew our first breath in a world that already included Ted Snoek. He has been here our whole lives. And in that time, look at all he’s given us. Each of us, whether we’re his youngest great-grandchild or his eldest sibling, we each have 95 years worth of Ted Snoek to carry around with us.
I plan to carry mine in my shoes, like paper pushed into the toes to help the fit. Perhaps, with his help, with the example of his life, I can try to finally fill his shoes someday.
These are my grandfather’s shoes:
I wasn’t kidding about never being able to fill his shoes. Here is my grandfather’s right shoe — the left shoe is mine from a similarly styled pair:
Today, I have a study that feels, to me, a bit like my grandfather’s old room in the back of his house. It has a closet where I keep not suits but winter coats. And now, that closet will hold my grandfather’s shoes, the same as his study closet once held them.