My grandfather gave me one of the best pieces of advice when I married my wife five years ago: Never go to bed angry at one another because you never know what the next day will bring.
I modified his message over the years to never end a conversation with him without saying “I love you.” Three small words can provide all the comfort in the world.
As we packed him into the car Tuesday and sent him back on his way to Oxford after a Christmas together I almost forgot. As the car was about to back up I opened the passenger’s door, hugged him, told him I loved him and gave him a kiss.
I’m thankful today that I remembered his advice one last time. Harrison Alexander Ochs died Thursday in Oxford after 95 years well-lived.
The youngest of six siblings Papa, as I knew him, can now rejoin his five siblings — Juanita, Laura, Charles, Henry and Lilburn — his wife of 63 years, Etta, and my aunt Gwen.
His greatest message seems especially poignant today as I fail to sift through my thoughts and memories, wishing I had asked more questions when presented the opportunity, angry that we didn’t get to spend more time together. The fact I got to kiss him goodbye and tell him I love him before my family drove back to Oxford makes me luckier than most; I realize that. But I’m also greedy in the sense I want more — time, stories, hugs, laughs, jokes, anything.
Next to my dad, Papa was my hero for a number of reasons. A proud World War II veteran — and later farmer and carpenter — he was what I always envisioned I wanted to be; a hard worker, a selfless person and a loving man.
Never one to meet a stranger, he had a number of go-to stories he liked to dust off when the occasion was just right. I could probably recite most from memory as if they were my own. Not just old war stories, although as a proud Coast Guard veteran, there were many of those; he also loved to tell stories about growing up in St. Louis in a crowded blue-collar house with six kids.
“It was a big ole two-story house. It was big to us, but not by today’s standards,” he told me in 2012 when I finally decided to interview him about his life, filling up 45 minutes without taking a breath. “Seven years was the nearest one to me, so I ended up being raised as a spoiled ole baby.”
There were stories about the infamous goat — “It did a good job cutting the grass, but he was hell on clothes” — and the family gathering around their player piano at Christmas. Then there were the times the mischievous brothers liked to push “H” in a buggy down the stairs to see if he could ride it out into the street. He recalled painting the Model T sky blue with yellow fenders, and, of course, how he met my Nannie on a double date while back in St. Louis on leave.
But there are also the stories I remember. Wrestling when I was a kid; his “C Dione” license plate — named after his ship, the Cutter Dione — being mistaken for an homage to Celine Dion; watching him tirelessly raise countless amounts of money and clothes for veterans who were less-fortunate; learning to fish with an orange Snoopy pole; and of course the numerous camping trips in his RVs.
We haven’t gone fishing or camping since maybe 1998 but I cherished every visit in the two decades since.
Visits in St. Louis
As I got older, it was me who would visit him in our hometown of St. Louis; typically going to a Blues or Cardinals game and ALWAYS frequenting Imo’s Pizza and Ted Drewes. On one such trip with a college friend, we woke up early after a late night and drove up to St. Louis, arriving just in time to pick up Papa and take him to Busch Stadium for an afternoon game. By the fourth inning all three of us were sound asleep. The next morning I was the last to wake. I walked out of my room to find my friend cornered, learning all about the infamous U.S.C.G. Cutter Dione reunion that probably happened decades earlier; they had paid a German to speak about “the other side” of the war — only to find out years later he was an imposter. I chuckled to myself then and can’t help but laugh about it now.
Always with me
He’s constantly in my subconscious. A photo of him at my grandmother’s grave — now his final home, too — is pasted in my cubicle at work. His University City High football team photo — one of my favorites — is framed in my home office. Then there’s his old reunion jacket, draped over my chair; the chair he got after renovating Busch Stadium, his last gig before retiring; the signed Stan Musial baseball that he had on his dining room table for probably a year before remembering he had sought it out for me; and the photo from Aug. 1998 of him, 13-year-old me, my younger sister and my grandma, during a camping trip in Kentucky. It’s been on my desk for so long that I had forgotten about it, if that makes sense. Today I noticed.
With his health declining and his short-term memory not far behind I knew this Christmas might be the last time we saw one another; an uncomfortable thought, but a realization nonetheless. While my family was on the Coast for Christmas we made sure to commemorate the visit by taking professional family photos. I knew he was struggling with his own decline, unable to do things he was capable of just a few months earlier, but he reiterated it was worth the long drive just to be together once more.
He was perhaps most proud he had lived long enough to see the birth of his first great grandchild, my daughter, Alexandria Grace Ochs, now 10 months old.
“How wonderful!” he exclaimed anytime we talked about her on the phone. The last time she sat on his lap, she slowly leaned forward, opened her mouth wide and kissed him. My eyes welled up, much like they are right now.
I’d give anything right now to hear another story one more time. I’ll have to settle for our lifetime of memories and traditions that I’ll pass along to my daughter in much the same way I learned them.
Maybe I’ll start by teaching her to fish with that orange Snoopy pole.