My father’s father, Russell, died when I was very young.  In fact, my only memory of him is flying back to Washington DC at Christmas time, basically so my father could be there when his father died.  I never really knew him.  I never thought much about my grandfather.  At family gatherings, people would tell anecdotes about him, which I would laugh at (my family are natural storytellers), but I never heard one that made me think “I wish I could have known him.”

Then my father told a different story.

In the late 1950s, when my father was a teenager, two men bought a house in the neighborhood.  At the time, my father didn’t know about homosexuality, but the adults in the neighborhood did, and they were very upset about “those people” moving in.  Everyone except my grandfather.

When my father got a part-time job doing chores for the couple, my grandparents had a huge fight.  My grandmother forbade my father from going to the men’s house again, and Russell defended them.  Of course they didn’t actually say what they were fighting about, so my father had no clue what the problem was.

Whenever someone in the neighborhood said something nasty about the men, my grandfather would speak up for them, saying things like “they’re not hurting anyone” or “they can’t help it.”  To suggest that homosexuality was not a choice, which implied that it was in some way natural was a very radical thing at the time.  But my grandfather held his ground.

It was my grandparents’ turn to host the neighborhood Christmas party that year (a nice old fashioned tradition) and my grandfather thought nothing of inviting “them.”  When they arrived, all the folks from the neighborhood huddled into a corner, watching warily. But my grandfather walked right up to them.  “Watcha drinkin?” Russell asked heartily. He fixed them drinks, slapped them on the back and treated them as welcome guests. Slowly, others began to interact with them, and over time, they became tolerated (if not entirely welcome) in the neighborhood.  Others even began to invite them to neighborhood functions.

I asked my father about this story again, last time I was home. “I think Russell always had a thing for the underdog,” he said with a fair amount of pride.  And he reminded me of another story I had forgotten about.

During World War II, a couple of German immigrants, the Kelles, lived in the neighborhood.  Despite being naturalized citizens before the war, they were suddenly outcasts.  Mr. Kelle, with his thick accent, had ridden the bus to work, but now the bus driver refused to allow him on.  For the duration of the war, my grandfather would go out of his way to drive Mr. Kelle to work every day.

In a time and place when speaking up for the underdog was a dangerous prospect that could get you arrested, or worse, my grandfather would not stay silent. He spoke his mind and defended those he felt deserved it, even in the face of popular opinion (or a shouting match with the wife).

Over the years, my grandmother came to see my grandfather’s way.  After his death, she moved to the west coast to be closer to her children and grandchildren, and her best friend was an openly gay man.  She also moved in the expected “elderly lady circles” among whom you often find less enlightened views.  And whenever someone would talk about “those people,” it was my grandmother who spoke in their defense.

My father and uncle have the same qualities as my grandfather, and so do many of my generation.  And it comes from Russell’s simple humanity.

I wish could have known my grandfather.

Young Russell Our Russell