Out of the Zoo: “Remembering Grandpa”

VanHeulen

A few weeks ago we introduced Annie Thorn, a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our new intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she offers a moving reflection on the life of her grandfather.  Enjoy! –JF

This weekend, I’ll be heading home to Michigan for the funeral of my grandfather, Norman VanHeulen, who went home on Saturday morning after a month and a half of hospice. My Grandpa VanHeulen passed a day before his 86th birthday; recounting his experiences would be a history lesson in itself. However I think there’s a little something more we can learn about history, and about people in general, from the liturgy he practiced faithfully throughout his life.

Historians write and remember. We reincarnate human life on the pages of books, on the walls of museums or in the body of classroom lectures. We set loose memories once thought lost, after years, decades, or centuries of captivity. My grandpa did that, too. Every day for most of his near-century-long life he wrote in black leather-bound journals, which now sit in heavy boxes in my aunt’s storage room. He recorded everything–from an event so significant as the birth of four grandchildren in less than 24 hours, to something so trifling as the price of a cup of coffee. I have countless memories of spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa VanHeulen’s house, playing cards or eating ice cream or watching Disney Channel (my family didn’t have cable) while Grandpa sat in his chair, pouring words into those journals until they overflowed.

Maybe someday I’ll read through all those journals. In my Introduction to History class in the fall we had a long discussion about our family histories–I got to gush about my wonderful grandfather and his own archival work. When I do get to read them, I’m sure I’ll be reminded of the ways my grandpa loved people well for decades. I’ll see that though his life was long, he didn’t waste a minute of it.

One of the fondest memories I have of my grandpa took the form of a short voicemail he left for me one afternoon while I was at school. Exactly a year previous, my grandparents sat on the sideline at one of my soccer games, as they often did when they still lived in Kalamazoo. I remember standing in our dining room as his warm voice crackled through our answering machine. He read his journal entry from the year before, in which he recorded the events of my game. He recalled that I scored four goals and wrote about how proud he and my family were of me that day. To say I was touched by his minor gesture would be a massive understatement. I remember wiping a couple tears from my eyes. He remembered something that I had forgotten about–and not only that, he went out of his way to let me know he did.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not very good at remembering things. The only reason I can remember my siblings’ birthdays is because my brother and sister share mine. It’s not easy to remember things, and sometimes it’s more painful than we expect to look back on the times that we know were difficult. Sometimes it’s even harder to reminisce about the years things were better or easier than they are now. With my Grandpa’s funeral approaching this weekend, I’m sure I’ll experience a little bit of that pain firsthand. Nevertheless, there’s something deeply good and meaningful in digging up our past for others to see–my Grandpa showed me it’s our duty to do so.

There is power in remembrance. That’s what history is all about.

7 thoughts on “Out of the Zoo: “Remembering Grandpa”

  1. I cannot remember ever reading anything like this, and was profoundly moved by your meditation on familial loss, memory, words, and the historian’s act of finding and creating meaning in what others have left behind, be it written documents or memories of times shared. Your grandfather was a blessed man to have had time with such a thoughtful, sensitive, and gracious granddaughter. I lost my mother last year and have found myself treasuring every handwritten note I have from her. You have given me a great gift in your eloquent affirmation of what treasures they are. Thank you, and may God grant special comfort to you and your family at this time.

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  2. Super proud of you Annie!! This is such a thoughtful tribute to your Grandfather. Grandparents are so special to us all. See you this weekend. Love ya!

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  3. Annie,
    VanHuelen sounds like a classic Dutch surname. How many generations was he removed from Holland? I know that parts of Michigan are well-represented in Dutch migration.
    James

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      • It would be very interesting if you were able to gain information on what caused him to originally leave the Netherlands and settle in Michigan. Also of much interest would be a good historical treatment of the early Dutch settlements in Michigan. I have often wondered why so many Dutch were attracted to that part of the country.

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  4. Very thoughtful article, Annie. How comforting that he left so many written memories for you to treasure and share with your children some day.

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