On Sunday, January 22, 2017, my Grandfather died just 6 days shy of his 97th birthday. He died in the presence of family, but I wasn’t there on that Sunday. I wasn’t there that weekend either although I knew it may be his last. I had gone to Washington, D.C. to join in and March for All, with the Women’s March to be a part of a historic movement following the election. And I had no regrets because I knew he would be proud of me for raising my voice and standing up for the ideals I believed in to contribute to my community and my fellow citizens, much like he did throughout his entire life. Community was everything to him, just as it is to me.
I was asked to speak at my Grandfather’s funeral — he hadn’t passed yet, but we knew his time was coming. His mind was still strong and sharp with humor and knowledge, but his body was fading. This was hard for me to watch. As I got older, I developed a special bond with my Grandfather. As soon as I made it through high school and set off on my own, I made it a priority to really get to know the old man who lived less than 3 hours from my childhood island and discover the lessons he possessed. Our relationship developed when I made time for frequent calls, letters, and visits.
This relationship with him and my Grandma Frances led to me speaking this past Friday, February 3rd to deliver his eulogy. Giving a witness statement was a great honor and I was looking forward to this opportunity, but once we arrived and I sat there on the front row with a program in hand that included me as the only one representing the family, my heart raced and my hands shook. I would make him proud though. I made my way to the pulpit and wished he was in the room to hear me share his story and what he meant not only to me, but to so many.
The following remarks are what I shared at Main Street United Methodist Church:
Good Afternoon. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Lindsay Kelley Saunders. I am the fourth of Kermit Riddick Kelley’s 11 grandchildren. It is a privilege to honor him and his memory today. This moment is as much for him as it is for you, Grandma Frances, and all of us. But, for him, we know you were a treasure.
As I got older, I got to know you both better. Of course, he was charming, funny, and witty. We were in awe not only his adoration of my Grandma Frances, but also his value of community.
From time to time, he’d share something that would amaze me. I discovered that my Grandfather was a vault. Though a friendly, sometimes talkative man, he didn’t rush to share some stories. Either you had to dig for them or he just plain entertained you with his nonsense jokes. I loved both sides.
I’ve made a trek to Washington, D.C., for the past two years, to attend an international conference on poverty and meet with Congressmen. Some people alluded to the fact that I could find someone to marry there. My Granddad didn’t. He just wanted to hear about what I was learning and my trips. I liked that.
Last summer, I called and, much to my surprise, he answered the phone himself. As most of us know, Grandma Frances often answered the phone and played Secretary for him. I asked him one piece of wisdom he’d share. True to his sense of humor, he said, “Don’t necessarily behave yourself. Just have a good time.” That’s what I’ve tried to do. As they say, “well-behaved women rarely make history.”
“Don’t necessarily behave yourself. Just have a good time.”
He told me about meeting Frances and how she was a young, pretty woman. Even in the past few years he said, “She’s always doing something.” He adored her. I grew up seeing her as the Angel he saw her. He admitted that no matter what they’ve gone through, “We don’t ever give up.” He told me that I take after him in that regard. Despite challenges in life, I believe in being an optimist and living with gratitude. And to quote him,
“As long as you’ve got a positive attitude, you can’t go wrong.”
One thing we need to remember today that he also shared, “There are always two sides to every street.” Like many, I think he struggled with our recent change in leadership. But, like him, I agree that we need to see what’s on each side of the street and try to do a better job of listening to each other. During my visit last summer, he told me how, while he was on the Board of Education, he’d listened to the community members of Suffolk speak of the importance of desegregating schools. He told me he heard what people were saying and thought it was just nonsense for black children and white children to be bused in separate directions. Why not just bring them together? I had no idea my Grandfather had been part of that. I wondered if that’s where I get my desire to be a crusader for change and fighting inequality.
“There are always two sides to every street.”
On that call last June, he told me about where he’d lived. Atlanta in Georgia. Ozark in Alabama. Suffolk in Virginia. Indiana and even near Washington, D.C. Briefly he thought about living in NC and “that it didn’t seem too interesting.” Thanks Grandad for insulting my home state. He never had a desire to live in NY, but was proud of my cousin Kelley for venturing off on her own and my cousins who’d pursued their passions. I loved hearing how proud he was of his grandchildren’s adventures.
“Really, you never stop learning.”
One thing I shared with him was his love of learning. “Really, you never stop learning,” he said to me. At one of those doctor’s appointments last May, he really wanted to drive an automobile and be able to take himself to the library again. The doctor encouraged him, “If you want to do something, go do it. What have you given up that you enjoy doing?” And so that’s what he did. On the way home he stopped by the library and struggled to choose between two books. I guess I know where I get it from. I usually walk out with four.
He told me he remembered the things I used to send him that I was writing and working on in grad school. It was me talking about big ideas and doing big things, being empowered as a woman studying communications and culture. I loved that he didn’t scoff at some of my big ideas, while some of my family just looks at me like I’m crazy. You want to be an activist? That’s great! I can see him smiling and hear him saying that now.
My Grandfather withheld judgments. Talking about his interest in equality he told me about differences and the divide between high ranking people. As he said,
“If they wear pants, so do I. I don’t have a problem talking to them. People are people.”
In a week, I travel to Zambia. It’s one of my activist missions for my commitment to ending poverty. My Grandfather visited many countries during his service. “We went wherever they sent us,” he said. He said he never had a desire to go into the Army, but it was very nice since he didn’t get killed doing it. He finished Virginia Tech as a 2nd LT one day and in the Army the next. He went off to war and didn’t come out until it was over. I heard about all the funerals and memorial services he attended over the years. I remember thinking about how hard that must be. He said to me,
“All you have left is memories. You think of the good things that you remember.”
Since he had long standing service from the City Council to the Board of Education and Mayor following service in the military, I wondered if he would want to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but he told me that had no desire to be buried there. Suffolk was home. Though he was a very formal man, he was not someone who liked fanfare and lots of attention. I respected that he wanted to stay where his friends are in Suffolk and had picked out spots to stay close to home with his friends and family, especially his soulmate, my dear Grandma Frances.
My Grandfather’s parting words:
“Do today what you can’t do tomorrow.”
Thanks for the honor of being mine for 33.5 years, Grandad. I’ll miss you old man.