Monday, December 22, 2008

Arthur Winifred "Dusty" Rhodes: May 11, 1917 - December 19, 2008

My grandfather (shown above on his 91st birthday with my cousin Patty) passed away quickly this past week, having lived an incredibly long and rich life, active and mentally acute right up to the end.

I greatly admired my grandfather. Anyone who met him knew that he was considerate, polite, charming, helpful, involved in life, always present. He could put almost anyone at ease, easy with a story or joke in his soft Missourian drawl and a twinkle in his blue eyes. His charm masked a blindingly brilliant mind, with thoughts firmly grounded in practical matters, a strong and determined leader when situations demanded such a role. My grandfather was also deeply committed to his family, always looking for ways to help us, always wanting to know how we were. He seemed to believe that nothing was impossible, that with enough information, the right tools for the task, and enough helping hands we could solve any problem, from drywalling to a broken heart.

He and I shared a love of maps. As Corban noted, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the roads of New England and the east coast was incredibly helpful, and was one of the ways in which he most often shared his love and concern for us all. When my wife and I were setting off on a roadtrip from Boston to New Orleans, he made sure we had a route that took the most beautiful roads, had some picnics along the way, and avoided as many tolls as possible. He made sure we had water and a flashlight. And he was pleased to learn afterwards of the new bridge in West Virginia that not only cut down on driving time, but had a truly spectacular view west down the valley.

You see, he was always learning. Even though, at 92, he knew it wasn't likely that he'd be driving through West Virginia any time soon, he hoarded and cherished facts as much as he did other useful things, like bits of rope and scrap lumber. You never knew when it might come in handy. But our shared love of information went beyond what was merely useful: we would flip through his atlases, or later the online Google maps, revelling in the sheer amount of information represented there and the vastness and diversity of the world's geology and habitations. Through maps, we would explore Europe, retrace his family's travels there, and go off on new adventures through Russia, following the path of the Trans Siberian Railway or the coast of the Mediterranean. When I told him of my planned move to Australia, out came the maps, and together we learned of the continent's sparse population, inhabitable center, and exciting proximity to Antarctica.

His life-long learning extended beyond facts, though, and into matters of conscience. Long an ardent Republican and proud veteran, Grandpa Dusty nevertheless expressed his concern and disappointment with the Iraq War and the general state of today's military. And closer to my own heart, he made sure I always knew he loved and supported me, even after he learned that I was gay. He comforted me when, in high school, he happened to be visiting when I was heartbroken by my first love: 'Tears are tears', he said, and gave me a hug, even though I saw that he was confused. My mother tells me that he took it upon himself after that to educate himself about gay issues, reading materials from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and participating in a church discussion group with the aim of supporting gay people in his community. And year later he warmly welcomed my wife into our family, read from First Thessalonians while smiling proudly at our wedding. Some of my friends were surprised that such a traditional gentleman would be so loving to his lesbian granddaughter, noting that their own grandparents' values had ossified years ago. But knowing that Grandpa Dusty's deepest roots were those of love and loyalty, combined with a commitment to always learning more about the world, those around him, and himself, I wasn't surprised.

My grandfather made the most sense to me after I visited Caruthersville, Missouri, where he was born. There is rich soil there. The land is so flat that you can see the curve of the earth, inviting the observer to imagine what is beyond that edge, and to take a step to see more, and more again. And the deep Mississippi pushes fast and strong along the edge of town, coming from somewhere, going somewhere, with power and boats and people and evidences of northern storms. It is a place to cultivate just such a grounded adventurer as my grandfather was.

It's so hard to speak in the past tense, isn't it? "Admired", "was". They seem wrong, because I still see his best qualities in his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And I still admire the way in which he lived his life, I still aspire to be as helpful and loyal and full of grace as he. Though it may sound trite, I know that my Grandpa Dusty will live on as long as we continue to learn from him and hold memories of him.

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