We all have memories and stories to share about our family members and ancestors.
Some of these, over time, get embellished and grow to mythical proportion.
For me, however, I didn’t really need embellishment nor mythology to view my grandfather John Graham O’Neill as legend.
My grandfather was known throughout his life as Graham. As a child, I knew the initial of his first name was ‘J.’ It was ever present as he signed things off ‘J. Graham O’Neill.’
John Graham O’Neill a.k.a. J. Graham O’Neill
I wondered how awful a name that ‘J’ must have stood for that he would consider ‘Graham’ the better choice to be known by.
I called him ‘Granddad.’ He was my mother’s father and in my earliest years, he and my grandmother, his wife Gertrude Ellen Foley, lived just two doors away from my family home.
Granddad was born June 26, 1895 in Toronto, Ontario. He married my grandmother ‘Nanna’ in 1926. Together, they would have five children, four boys and one girl. The eldest and youngest sons, John William and Michael did not survive infancy, dying from hydrocephalus, the same condition that took the lives of my brothers a generation later. The only girl in the family was my mother.
I did a lot with Granddad. He and I shared a love of sports. So we frequently attended Toronto Maple Leaf baseball games (a ‘AAA’ International League team that operated prior to a major league franchised starting play in Toronto). I watched Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night in Granddad’s living room because my parents were not hockey fans so not interested in having the game on the television at our house. He would shout the scores of day games in progress as I played road hockey in front of his house with my friends.
Most of the time, I just listened to Granddad and the stories he told. He was a master storyteller, though sometimes he was dismissed as having too active an imagination. My subsequent research has provided evidence that everything he told me was true.
On December 3, 1979, my late wife Karen and I found out that we were going to be parents for the first time. Our excitement at the prospect of having a baby was palpable. When should we tell our families? How should we tell them? And, what names for the baby should we be considering?
I wanted to call Granddad and let him know that he was going to be a great grandfather. I had heard the names of my great grandfathers but they had all died many years before I was born. But my child was going to know his great grandfather.
Then, on December 10th, 1979, just a week later and 36 years ago today, I got a call from my mother. Granddad had died that morning. He died suddenly. The people my grandfather lived with heard his alarm clock come on, they heard the alarm clock being turned off, and then … silence.
I’m not ashamed to recount that I shed many tears that cold December day.
In the days that followed, we gathered for Granddad’s funeral; we laughed at how somehow appropriate it was that the hearse bearing his body got lost and left the funeral procession enroute from the church to the cemetery. Another great story he would love to tell.
When I returned home from the funeral and checked the mail, there was his last message to me. “Best wishes for a Joyous Christmas and a wonderful New Year.”
Granddad’s Christmas card had arrived (a card I have kept safely stored ever since it’s arrival).
The following summer, Karen and I welcomed our son into our family, the great grandson that Granddad would never meet. His great grandson John Graham Hadden.