Missing Etta: Final thoughts from a thankful grandson

My grandmother, Etta Mae Deghetto, was born March 4, 1914. Woodrow Wilson was president. Last night, on the 4th of July, she passed away. She was 98 years old. I have always had a lot to be thankful for on Independence Day, but from now on the date will take on added significance.

My grandmother lived with me since I was born, her husband having passed away from cancer shortly before my birth. With my mom and dad both working full time jobs, our family was blessed to have someone waiting at home at the end of the school day to help look after the kids, raise us, shape us and give us all the tools we would need to be honest, productive citizens. She was a living history book, having experienced the Great Depression, World War II, the moon landing, Vietnam and a host of other seminal moments in American history.

Some of my fondest memories growing up involved lying on her bed while she sat in her favorite chair. I’d ask her to tell me stories about what it was like growing up. She was one of 13 children and her family grew up poor — very poor — in ways it’s hard for modern Americans to really grasp. She never went to college, but in many ways I learned more from her than any of my professors.

“What was it like to live through The Great Depression?” I’d ask. “What did you think when you saw Albert Einstein walking through the streets of Princeton barefooted? What did you think when FDR rolled down his car window to speak with you?” I asked these questions repeatedly over the years, and each time I learned something new.

I consider myself blessed to have had someone close to me who could share such experiences and impart the kind of knowledge the internet can never provide. Facebook status updates, Twitter feeds and even streaming video can never fully capture a one-on-one conversation with our elders.

Sometimes, I see a World War II veteran in a restaurant or in a store and I have to force myself not to tear up, knowing that before too long they’ll be gone, along with the opportunity to glean knowledge and wisdom from them. I won’t be able to shake their hand and say “thank you.” There’s a sadness in those moments that stems from knowing I haven’t done my due diligence to pay respect and learn from them. My tears are tears of regret.

With my grandmother, it will be different. Next year on Independence Day I’m sure I’ll well up, but my tears will be of joy and happiness and thanks because God gave me more time with my grandmother than I probably deserved before He called her home. In this world she had to battle breast cancer and kidney failure and blood clots and finally the ravages of old age. And while life is a special gift, it is also a joyous occasion when someone is reunited with their Creator.

Hopefully, in the time that I have left on this earth, I will love those closest to me in ways that would make her proud. Eventually we will meet again, at which point my first words will be: “I love you.”