A Life Well Lived

A few weeks a go my Grandfather passed away. At 84 years old he lived a full life and he did not suffer from any long pain before he died so I feel no agony, sorry that a great man is gone and grief that a loved one is no longer around, but no agony or pain.

My grandfather did indeed live a full life. He was an important figure in the community he lived in and almost everyone who knew him was touched by him in some way.

I don’t know a lot about my grandfathers life, I wish I had lived closer to him so I would know more –I wish I lived closer to my mothers parents for the same reason. But my parents grew up far from each other, Alabama and Minnesota are, within America about as far away both physically and culturally as you could get 50 years ago. In the end my family ended up in Virginia, about as far from my fathers parents as from my mothers.

What I do know about my fathers father is that he started life in rural Mississippi somewhere near Jackson. His father was an engineer on the railroad. My grandpa Beggerly grew up in a poor part of America during the Great Depression.

One story about grandpa Beggerly’s childhood that I have heard and was recently reminded of was how he earned money from his carvings. He would carve a tiny monkey from the heart of a peach pit and his father would sell the carving for a dollar on the trains. The heart of a peach pit is nearly rock hard and only about a quarter of an inch long. Whittling, or carving, is a rare skill these days and I can hardly imagine the patience, determination and skill required to complete the task of carving a monkey from a peach pit. It speaks of a lost time and a simpler life and of the character of my grandfather.

My grandfather joined the Merchant Marines at some point, I think before World War II but I am not sure. I know he learned a great deal about engineering, mechanical and electrical and many other things during his training in the Merchant Marines. Training that he would use over and over again.

Soon after finishing his training for the Merchant Marines my grandfather sailed acorss the North Atlantic to join the Allied forces in Europe. I only have bits an peices of stories at this point but I believe he took part in Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings as an Engineer for the Navy. I do know that after the liberation of Amsterdam my grandfather spent much time in the Netherlands repairing Navy ships.

After the war ended my grandfather was in Amsterdam for some time. Sometime after the war my grandfather, and I suppose many other men who served in the Netherlands, were invited to meet the Queen of the Netherlands. I don’t know the details about the meeting but I know my grandfather saved a bottle of wine presented to him by the Queen for the rest of his life.

I last saw grandpa Beggerly just before I came to Singapore in August 2004. I made the trip especially to see him, I had not been on vacation with my family for years. Knowing his health was beginning to fail him and that I might never get to see him alive again. While I have heard many of the stories above before much of my recollection of them is based on my last visit with my grandfather. Sitting under the oak tree in from of his house we all listened his stories and his politics and some of his stories again.

Unfortunately I was right about never seeing grandpa again.

Looking for information on carving peach pits online I came across this story, interestingly it’s also about loosing someone, a father in this case:

“Reflections on a Peach-Pit Monkey”, by Sam Keene, from the book Dancing with God:

“Once upon a time when there were still Indians, Gypsies, bears, and bad men in the woods of Tennessee where I played and, more important still, there was no death, a promise was made to me. One endless summer afternoon my father sat in the eternal shade of a peach tree, carving on a seed he had picked up. With increasing excitement and covetousness I watched while, using a skill common to all omnipotent creators, he fashioned a small monkey out of the seed. If only I could have it, I would possess a treasure which could not be matched in the whole cosmopolitan town of Maryville! What status, what identity, I would achieve by owning such a curio! Finally I marshaled my nerve and asked if I might have the monkey when it was finished (on the sixth day of creation). My father replied, “This one is for your mother, but I will carve you one someday.”

“Days passed, and then weeks, and, finally, years, and the someday on which I was to receive the monkey did not arrive. In truth, I forgot all about the peach-pit monkey. Life in the ambience of my father was exciting, secure, and colorful. He did all of those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was merely delighting in their existence. One of the lasting tokens I retained of the measure of his dignity and courage was the manner in which, with emphysema sapping his energy and eroding his future, he continued to wonder, to struggle, and to grow.

“In the pure air and dry heat of an Arizona afternoon on the summer before the death of God, my father and I sat under a juniper tree. I listened as he wrestled with the task of taking the measure of his success and failure in life. There came a moment of silence that cried out for testimony. Suddenly I remembered the peach-seed monkey, and I heard the right words coming from myself to fill the silence: ‘In all that is important you never failed me. With one exception, you kept the promises you made to me – you never carved me that peach-seed monkey’.

“Not long after this conversation I received a small package in the mail. In it was a peach-seed-monkey and a note which said: ‘Here is the monkey I promised you. You will notice that I broke one leg and had to repair it with glue. I am sorry I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one’.

“Two weeks later my father died. He died only at the end of his life.” [1]

[1] taken from “In Memoriam” from the Harvard Radcliff, as I cannot find a reference to the book it may be misquoted.