The Walking Man

My paternal grandfather, Philo Clyde Riemersma, died last week. My dad asked me to write something to read at the funeral–which was graveside with a small number of people who stood far apart from each other. It was odd, but also Ok. My grandfather had told my dad after my grandmother passed away last year that he didn’t want a funeral. “Just put me in the ground next to Ortha and be done with it,” he said.

So that is what we did. But we made sure he had his military send off as well. Below is what I wrote and read at his funeral.

my grandpa and grandma as seniors in high school

My grandpa was famous. Sort of.

In high school a classmate was talking to someone about the “old guy with a stick” that walked all over town picking up cans and other things. I butted into her conversation to ask, “wait. Was this old guy about yay high? Glasses? Walked like this with a stick that was more for picking through stuff than for walking?” “YES!” she said, “have you seen him too?” Me, “every Sunday. That’s my grandpa!” “You’re grandpa is The Walking Man?”

Yup. My Grandpa is the Walking Man.

He walked all the time. He had routes he would take for the best “treasure hunting.”

 My cousin, Lesly, reminded me that he never came home from these walks empty-handed. When he would see you, he would point his finger at you and then disappear to the basement or garage and come back to hand you something he found on his walk that he thought you might have a use for. Everything else ended up in his basement or garage or the barn. We all joked a lot over the years about grandpa’s immense collection of “treasures,” but it was pretty handy to have someone who seemed to have at least one of everything. My brother Chris was always so impressed with grandpa’s vast amount of junk, that one year for Christmas, my grandpa filled up a box with junk, wrapped it in Christmas paper, and gave it to Chris. We all laughed, but Chris LOVED it. When Chris got older, he and his buddy always knew they could ride their bikes to grandpa and grandma’s house if they couldn’t find a part for a go kart or something.

But walking was not my grandpa’s only mode of transportation. In fact, he was a big fan of anything with an engine or motor. You see, my grandpa was a tinkerer. My grandparents had a one-stall garage, but no one ever parked in it because there was always something in there on cinder blocks. His barn was packed with cars and tractors all in varying stages of assembly. Don’t even ask my dad how many tires my grandpa had.

But he didn’t just collect parts (although it seemed that way sometimes). He did actually finish things too. My cousin Molly remembers grandpa’s big black Ford Galaxy and how he showed up to her parents’ house and took her and her family for a ride down South Shore Drive. 

Grandpa and Grandma’s wedding photo

He was always willing to give a ride, and it didn’t have to be in one of his fancy cars. He gave Lesly rides on the lawn mower around the yard, and my brothers and I all remember riding in his various trucks. Interestingly, when I asked them about those rides we all had the exact same memory: asking grandpa how to put the seat belt on since we couldn’t find it and him telling us, “ya can’t. Aren’t any.” While he could do a lot of things, a perfectionist he was not. He wanted something to work correctly. How it looked was absolutely not important.

But my grandpa DID value hard work. He was not one to shy away from a tough job. He enjoyed working on cars and other things with a motor or engine, but he also puttered around doing every odd job imaginable. After college, my grandparents rented me the house they owned next door to theirs. It needed work before I could move in and my grandpa got right to work next to my dad and me. He redid some plumbing, put in a fridge and stove, and even made me a flower box to put in the front. He mowed my lawn, and fixed drippy faucets. And he did it all in too-short cut off jean shorts much to my grandmother’s chagrin.

When I got married and moved into my current house, Cortney and I decided to put a cement pad down in the back as a patio. My grandpa and dad showed up with a small cement mixer. My 80-something grandfather spent hours mixing cement while my dad took loads to the back of our house with his Kubota tractor. Another time, my brother Chris wanted to assemble a large swing set in the back of his house in Grand Rapids. My dad and grandpa showed up to help. There was my almost 90-year old grandfather again: sitting on the roof of the swingset putting pieces together like he was in his 20’s or something. All that hard work is probably why my brother Mike remembers his handshake as being so strong… ”like shaking hands with a vice,” he told me. And Lesly remembered that his hands always smelled like comet cleaner from all the scrubbing he would do to get the oil and gunk off them.

Grandpa didn’t talk much about his years in the marines, but he was proud to have served his country. He enjoyed participating in the annual Memorial Day parade in Zeeland. He drove his Galaxy, and before that a red Ford Mustang he redid, always with fellow soldiers riding along. After he sold those, he walked, of course. When he could no longer walk that far, his buddy Howie Bowens drove him up until Howie’s death just a couple years ago.

Grandpa was also an avid hunter. Every fall he would spend time with the Riemersma men at the cabin up north for deer hunting season. I am sure there are quite a few good hunting stories, but the one that came home with the guys years ago was when he decided to take Chris’s stuffed dog, Barry, and string him up so he was hanging from the top bunk. Chris was decidedly unhappy about it at the time, but it’s a good example of how my grandpa liked a good laugh…even if it meant poking a little fun at those he loved.

My cousin Molly also remembers how much he loved to joke and laugh before his hearing got bad. When we were little, he had nicknames for my brothers: Paco and Pedro. He knew it drove them nuts, so he, of course, made sure to only refer to them by those names. And when Molly told him they were going to name their younger son “Clyde” after his middle name, Grandpa laughed, told her he didn’t like it, but followed up with, “well, I guess it’s better than Philo!”

It’s those small things that make us smile: his love of black jelly beans and ginger snaps. The way his whiskers tickled your cheek when he hugged you. His disdain–that was really a life-time of love–for the Detroit Tigers. The way he called peanut butter “peen ter butter” and the toilet a “ter let”.

But it’s hard to imagine Grandpa without Grandma. They were quite the pair. He would complain about how she “oomphed” the knife when she cut dessert, and she would tell him to be quiet. He would want you to “toughen up,” but Grandma would commiserate and hand you a cookie.

When Grandma passed on, Grandpa’s life was over as far as he was concerned. He has been existing for the past 10 months, but he gave up living when Grandma was gone. Now he can live again because he’s back with her for eternity. Probably driving her crazy with his comments on how she does things, but also hearing everything she says back and walking hand in hand with her for the first time in a long time. 

And laughing. I imagine there is lots of laughing.

Rest well, Gramps. See you on the other side.

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About Katie

Just a small town girl...wait no. That is a Journey song. Katie Sluiter is a small town girl, but she is far from living in a lonely world. She is a middle school English teacher, writer, mother, and wife. Life has thrown her a fair share of challenges, but her belief is that writing through them makes her stronger.

Comments

  1. Well done, Katie, well done

  2. Carolyn DeBoer says

    Great job Katie! Very well wrote! You did an amazing job!!!!

  3. Julie Tessier says

    What a beautiful tribute, Katie. So sorry for the loss of your grandpa ❤️

  4. Lovely. Your grandpa was so handsome! His character and personality come through so well in the details you share. I’m sorry for your loss, but I understand the bittersweetness of seeing someone reunited with the love of their life. My dad was the same way after my mom died–just hanging around waiting to join her.

  5. <3