Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Other Grandfather

I've already written about my father's father, Bill Fuchs, in a previous post. My mother’s father was a man named Herman Thomas Runyan, who was born on April 6, 1897 and died in 1986, while I was away at college. He had spent the final few years of his life living with us in our house, before moving to a rest home in his final days.

Herman was a bit of a mystery to me. I didn’t see much of him growing up, as he was down in Little Rock, Arkansas, which, on the few occasions I did visit, felt completely foreign to me. I remember two little girls cornering me in a supermarket there, one of them saying to the other, “It’s him. It’s Jack Tripper from Three’s Company.”

“Uh, I’m twelve,” I answered.

“Yeah, twelve,” my brother, ten at the time, added.

“Oh my gosh,” one of the girls giggled. “I just think y’all have the cutest li’l accent!”

Herman has a special place in my life, because he is the subject of the only short story I’ve managed to publish thus far, The Watch, which chronicles his days with us at our home in Purchase, as his health deteriorated. They printed it in the Winter, 1985 edition of the SU literary magazine at that time, The Review. It’s not a bad story, I have to say. I just re-read it for the first time in years, and it holds up fairly well. It’s really about a young person having to face up to the aging process, and with the fact that everyone he loves, and he himself, will die one day.

He was my mother’s subject, as well, not only in a high school pencil sketch (above) but in a lovely poem, which is actually a nice companion piece to my short story, called Tea Parties:

The man who used to throw me in the air,

and make me laugh, and shiver with excitement,

I now give baths to.

Every other day: we plan them carefully.

We exercise much more thought

than we ever did

for the tea parties of my childhood.

When he was thirty-five, I was five.

We sliced the apples very thin

and laid them on soda crackers.

Our tea was milk,

and afterwards we often took a walk

in the sweet-and-bad smelling Chicago dusk,

under the rumbling El.

But he can hardly walk now.

He’s 87.

So weak, so frail.

Should “we” lower him into the tub,

or put him in it seated on a stool?

He lets me decide.

Look at all the diamonds,

I used to say.

(The mica in the sidewalk

on which the moon shone

as we walked hand in hand.)

I gently wash his face.

Briskly soap his back, arms, chest, legs.

Attend to each misshapen toe,

then hand the cloth to him

for the remaining parts.

When I was young,

The veins and muscles of his arms entranced me.

He was so strong and wonderful!

The money-earner who, one special payday,

brought me roller skates.

He’s so thin now.


Rising slowly, carefully,

from his beloved bath.

A rosy victim of a holocaust.

Those magic summer days!

Squealing little girls with blue lips

splashing ‘round him in Lake Michigan.

How gallantly he shepherded us

back and forth on the trolley.

I help him dress. We reminisce.

“Do you remember our tea parties?”

he asks.

“Oh, yes, I do,” I answer,

“and all the rest.”

Looking back, I wish I’d made more of my time with him – gotten to know him a bit better. Back then, in my early twenties, I was so very self involved; I didn’t see what a wealth of knowledge, and interesting stories I had with me in that little TV room in Purchase, New York.

I do know, from reading our family genealogy, Tracking the Descendants of Isaac Barefoot Runyan by Marie Runyan Wright, (Gateway Press, Baltimore, 1980), that Herman served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, in the Medical Corps aboard the U.S.S. Wyoming.

I also remember him as an exceedingly sweet man who, in his later years, would become effusively emotional at the drop of a hat. When my friends would come over and say hello to him at our house, he must have experienced their greeting as a gesture of kindness, because he would invariably cry.

I have a photograph of him somewhere, in his Navy whites, handsome as all get-out, with a confident look on his young face. He had his whole life ahead of him.

I miss him, just as I miss all the other Runyans and Fuchses who have left. To say that I’ll see them again someday sounds too clichéd, and I’m not certain I believe it. What feels more accurate to me, if no less clichéd, is that they live on in me, and in my children.

I’m starting to understand that our ancestors are always with us.


  1. This one got to me Dan, great post!

  2. Thanks, Tara. I'm proud of this one.

  3. Oh that poem ... refracting a father through his daughter's mind's-eye ... they both are so present. Very moving, Dan.

  4. I've always found this particular poem of my mother's very powerful, especially having witnessed those final days. Re-reading, and transcribing it here, also brought into sharp focus the fact that I inherited my mother's interest in how we age, and the relationships we make in our families, how they change over time, etc.