My grandfather, Richard Durbin, affectionately known as “Pa Pa” by his family, passed away yesterday afternoon in his home, surrounded by loved ones, at the age of 96.
When my kids ask me how long people live, we always talk about Pa Pa. I grew up hundreds of miles from his house in the country just outside Paducah, Kentucky, and my kids were born farther still. We flew in for his 90th and 95th birthdays, and my oldest especially has been looking forward to the next one. A few months ago, however, I started telling her, “I don’t think Pa Pa is going to make it to 100.” Cancer had spread to his bones.
Pa Pa had ten children and my father Jim is the oldest. To be honest, I’ve lost track of how many cousins I have, but I’m looking forward seeing everyone when I arrive later today in the house Pa Pa built himself after he married my grandmother. He sent all of us grandkids birthday cards every year, including this year in which he has suffered greatly.
Down the hill from Pa Pa’s house is the garage he built and owned. His father shoed horses, but Pa Pa learned to fix cars, including Model T and Model A Fords. When my brother graduated from college in Washington D.C., Pa Pa drove up, but his car broke down on the way. I watched him pull sizable parts out of his trunk, make repairs by the side of the road, graciously decline assistance from the police offer who stopped, and drive on.
Storytelling came naturally to Pa Pa, and his language was colorful and folksy. He didn’t graduate from high school as a young man, but I remember when he earned his diploma. After retiring and closing Durbin’s Garage, he told jokes and stories as the master of ceremonies at the senior center downtown. He wrote newspaper columns for many years, and the final column was published just four days ago, saying, “The tricky part of growing older when you have kids is trying to pretend that you are ok even when you’re not. This is mainly so they won’t try to take away your car.” I hear he was still driving just two months ago. I’m not sure when he stopped dancing.
My uncle George is the one who wrote the final column, actually. Pa Pa has passed down his humor and wit. I’m part of a huge and growing family that has him to thank for our very existence. He taught us to work hard, to be unafraid to fall in love at any age, and to cherish your family and friends. Legend has it he even taught Kentucky Fried Chicken how to make a decent cole slaw.
It’s been hard coming to grips with a world without Pa Pa. My kids got a taste of how Christmas has always been, watching Pa Pa wearing a Santa hat and passing out presents. Now my dad wears the Santa hat. I played Pa Pa’s “forepopper, eye winker” game with my kids when they were babies, and I’m sure I’ll play it again if I ever become a grandfather.
Pa Pa, you buried my grandmother Helen half a century ago and your daughter Caroline a decade ago. It’s finally time to put you to rest. The hole in the earth we dig for you will be filled in a few days but it will take years to heal the hole in my heart.
We’ll miss you, Pa Pa. Even a long life seems short.