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Thursday, July 03, 2008


My Grandpa, John Edward Palmer, was born on February 8, 1921 in the small town of Elsberry, Missouri. He and my Grandma met in the first grade, and were often at odds with each other as kids. Grandpa used to push Grandma off the sidewalk as they walked home from school each day, and to retaliate Grandma would chase him and grab his shirttail and tear it! In high school they became sweethearts, and they were married in 1943 just after Grandpa received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Grandpa flew transport aircraft in the South Pacific during World War II, and in the Korean conflict he flew fighter planes. About his service in the Korean War, he wrote,

"We flew daily flights in support of the war effort and sometimes when things were hot we flew two and three missions. Combat flying is much different than flying other types of missions. On some missions there would be as many as 10,000 antiaircraft weapons firing at the flight. I recall that on close support missions in support of the ground troops you could see the flack and take evasive action to avoid being hit by it."

During Grandpa's time in the military, he and Grandma lived in China for a while. My Dad was there as a baby, too - Grandma took him with her to join Grandpa overseas when Dad was just six months old. Grandpa always had good stories to tell of their adventures in China, and Grandma still enjoys her memories from that time.

After Grandpa retired from the Marine Corps in 1963 (at the rank of Major), he and Grandma settled down in Santa Ana, California, and he worked for the Rockwell corporation in the finance department. He later retired from that position and became self-employed as a CPA. (As a young adult, I called him every March to ask for help with my taxes!)

Grandpa was a dignified man, a man with a great sense of humor, and a man of few words. Grandpa was a quiet, reserved man. He spoke up when necessary, and when he talked, people listened. Grandpa liked golf, jokes, and puzzles. He never spent much time considering himself; he always put others first. He loved his family, and he thought nothing could be too good, or too expensive, or too time-consuming when it came to his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his four grandchildren. He loved Grandma. He called her "a classy lady" - when he wasn't teasing and calling her "a crazy lady." Of course, even when he poked fun at her, we knew he was proud of her.

Grandpa did a lot of things for us. He attended recitals and concerts and track meets - not because he particularly loved classical music or sports (although he did enjoy music and was once a fine athlete himself), but because he loved his grandkids. He and Grandma loved treating us to dinner at a restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, or sometimes for no occasion in particular.

Grandpa was sophisticated. I can count on one hand the number of times I ever saw him not wearing a button-down shirt. He dressed in slacks and a sports jacket just to go to lunch or dinner somewhere, he held doors for others, and he always knew which fork to use, how to set a proper table, and how to serve a meal. But he wasn't too proper to grill burgers with my Dad out on the patio, have a fish sandwich at McDonald's or a roast beef sandwich at Arby's, or even (many years ago) join in a family game of ball in the backyard.

Grandpa loved a good joke. He'd get a twinkle in his eye and exchange a knowing glance with anyone in the room who would catch his puns and laugh with him. He loved to tease - Grandma, or Mom or Dad, or us grandkids, or even himself. He enjoyed reading books of jokes, or the humor sections in Reader's Digest, and sometimes he'd laugh until his eyes got a little teary. I have dozens of forwarded jokes in my email inbox that Grandpa sent me over the years. Grandpa always chose to find humor in life, even in difficult situations. When he told us stories of his time in the military, he usually picked the funny ones, like this story he wrote down in his memories from his service during World War II:

"A couple of days later we flew to Christmas Island which was a Pan Am base used to island hop to the Pacific. I recall Christmas Island because Rod Rozier and I decided to try out our 38 pistols issued to us. We tried shooting crabs which were numerous on the beach. We tried our best but couldn't hit them. We at least learned that it was best to throw the pistol at an enemy rather than to try to shoot them."

One of the many ways Grandpa could make us laugh was to sneak desserts when Grandma wasn't looking. Grandpa was diabetic and wasn't supposed to have sugar - a dietary restriction Grandma lovingly enforced and accommodated for decades. Grandpa had great self-restraint, but just to make us laugh he would reach for desserts or candy behind Grandma's back, and then put on an innocent, "Who, me?" expression as soon as she turned toward us. The one dessert Grandpa really couldn't resist was chocolate pie. He talked about it often, and dove in zealously on the occasion that one was served. In his last days of life, when he wasn't eating much, my Mom made Grandpa a chocolate pie. She said he just lit up and devoured it. Grandpa loved chocolate pie.

Grandpa was a great cook. He made the best belgian waffles the world has ever known, and topped them with fresh sliced strawberries and whipped cream. He made bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado sandwiches when I'd visit for lunch, and he knew just the right way to layer the ingredients so the bread didn't get soggy and the sandwich didn't fall apart. When it came to dinners, Grandpa was a meat-and-potatoes sort of man. He could never understand why people ate casseroles or other one-dish meals. A proper meal was roast beef, mashed potatoes (Grandpa's always tasted exceptional; it might have had something to do with the amount of butter and cream he whipped into them), gravy, green beans, and maybe a salad. He gave me my first advice on how to eat a steak or other cut of beef: "Don't cut off all the fat like that, Doll. It gives it flavor."

Grandpa always called me "Doll" when I was a little girl. I can still hear his voice in my head saying, "Hi, Doll!" when I'd arrive for a visit. His speech faintly hinted at the fact that he grew up in Missouri, in his greetings and also in some of his other words - R's crept in where they didn't belong from time to time.

I have so many wonderful memories of time spent with Grandpa and Grandma. Running across the patio from the guest house to the main house at their Southern California home when my family was visiting, and being greeted enthusiastically at the back door. Playing in their new home when they moved to Northern California to be nearer us. Hearing Grandma and Grandpa sing down the phone together on my birthday each year. A special trip Grandma and Grandpa took me on to see the Calistoga geyser, a California mission, the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, and much more. Visiting Grandma and Grandpa often, particularly during summers when I was home from college and could stop by each day after work.

Grandpa sent me funny emails, and when Grandma dictated emails for him to type, he'd add humorous addendums like this one:

From: Chief Dishwasher and Sometimes Fry Cook
To: Sarah

Those copper bottom pans are a mess to clean. My preference is the new black pans that are non-stick and are easy to clean. Grandma opposes them because she can't use a metal spoon and bang on the cooking surface of the pan. She has trouble with all the new-fangled gadgets and she's even fighting getting hearing aids even though she can't hear even the television with the volume turned to an ear-splitting high as it will go.

He loved to tease me about my move from California to Massachusetts, particularly because of the politics of this state. He'd write things like this:

Sarah: Mass. is a loser state with Senators like Kerry and Kennedy. -Grandpa

Sarah: Have you completely lost control of your rep in the Senate. He seems to be getting lots of heat from both parties. Love Grandpa

Grandpa was always a good listening ear, and offered sage advice when needed.

Grandpa died at home in his bed on June 24, 2008. He was 87 years old. His funeral was held on June 30 at the church in Southern California that he and Grandma had attended for years. Grandma, Mom, Dad, my three siblings, and I all attended his service. My husband Nathan played organ and piano, and I played violin. Nathan played my Dad's favorite piece of music, "Jerusalem," just prior to the invocation of the service. Together we played old hymns my grandparents liked, like "Precious Lord" and "Softly and Tenderly." My sister Emily sang. The congregation sang a hymn Grandpa had liked, "Just As I Am," and a hymn of my Dad's choosing, "It Is Well With My Soul." My brothers Jonathan and Christopher were pallbearers. As the service concluded, Nathan played Bach's St. Anne Fugue at the organ. It was a nice service, and I like to believe that Grandpa somehow heard it and enjoyed it.

My Grandpa had a favorite saying, which, if you think about it, is quite grounded in Christian beliefs: "People are no damn good."

But I think Grandpa was a damn good man.

My Grandpa: An earnest Christian, a proud American, and a loving husband, father, and grandfather. We miss you, Grandpa.


  1. Sarah, this is a perfect memory/tribute. I was hoping you'd write something like this and I'm glad you did.

  2. A beautiful tribute, Sarah. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your wonderful grandfather!

  3. What a great tribute, Sarah, thank you for writing this. I didn't know your grandfather particularly well of course, but I did enjoy seeing him whenever we'd have family gatherings. I always liked his dry sense of humor.

    I remember a get-together last year where we were playing a card game where people answered the question on the card. Your grandfather was asked something along the lines of "what time in your life would you most want to go back to" and he answered that he'd like to go back to the war when he was flying and dodging flack and all that. We all expressed our astonishment, and he responded something along the lines of "well, it certainly was exciting!" I just loved the twinkle in his eye when he said that.

  4. Anonymous3:40 AM

    Sarah, Thanks so much for writing this. I miss him too. How I wish I could have been at that beautiful service. He was a special guy. He was even at some cross country ski meets.
    Blessings,Jo Miller in PNG

  5. This is lovely. What a treasure to have all those memories.