A Letter to the Grandfather I Never Knew

Dear Grandpa Burns,

I mean, I guess that’s what I would have called you. I called my other grandfather “Grandpa Brads” and I called your wife “Grandma Burns,” but the truth is, I don’t know enough about you to know whether you would have liked to have been called “Grandpa” or “Grand Dad” or “Papaw”. But in my mind, you’ve always been Grandpa.

But your name is Laton. Lay-TON, everyone always thinks there should be a “y” in it but there’s not. I love your name, I gave it as a middle name to my 2nd son, Jonah. I wanted it to be his first name, but that’s a story for another day. You can talk to your grandson-in-law about that one. 🙂

I’m already rambling. But I’ve never written a letter like this before.

I wonder if you know all the things that happened after you died suddenly of a heart attack on Labor Day, 1970. You were only 44 years old. Did you have a clue it was that bad? My mom says you WALKED into the emergency room on your own, and that Grandma was stunned when they came out and told her you were dead.

laton Christmas

This picture above of you at Christmas is crazy to me because although I have seen Grandma smile a LOT in my 38 years, I have never seen her smile with her mouth open in a picture like that, ever.

Maybe she stopped doing it after she lost you? I know she loved you so much.

You were 44. She was 45. My mom, your daughter, was 22, your son just 21. He would get married just three weeks later, the wedding date already set. Life had to move on, but how could it move on without you? One foot in front of the other, I suppose. Breathe in, breathe out. My mom was pregnant with my older brother, your first grandchild and also your namesake. He was born almost 6 months later. She says you were happy about becoming a grandfather, even as young as you were. You were so young! You could have been such an energetic Grandpa, chasing after those grand kids. But it wasn’t to be.

Laton alone

The baby gave them all something positive to focus on, but it couldn’t take away the void you left. Throughout my childhood you were never there, but your pictures were. Pictures of you as a  boy, as a Navy sailor in World War 2 serving in the Pacific (an 18-year-old from the literal  holler of Eastern Kentucky about to see Japan and China…was your mind TOTALLY blown, or what?), your wedding photo with Grandma…you were always missed, but those you left behind did not dwell on your absence either.

Laton Navy

I suppose they knew you wouldn’t want them to.

Your five grandchildren, all born after your death…well, we had no idea what we were missing. Still don’t, I’m sure.

I had a wonderful Grandpa, you knew him after all, he was your pastor years before he became your daughter’s father-in-law. He was amazing. But I wonder what I missed out on with you. He liked to take me to Dairy Queen in town. Somehow I’ve imagined that you would’ve taken me on a country drive to a fruit stand like mom said you used to do when she was young. Perhaps some fresh juicy peaches instead of a Dilly Bar. I think we would have made our own fun and our own memories. But the truth is, I have no idea.

Laton and Diane

My mom says I redeemed your death a bit by arriving on Labor Day, 1977. A holiday that held such sadness because you died on it seven years before now took on a happy connotation as well. Did you put in a special request with God for that one? After all, I WAS 3 weeks early, and my mom had never had a baby that early before. I like to think maybe you and God cooked that one up together, so thanks for that. I rather like my birthday being during a holiday weekend, I can pretend it’s ALL about me. 🙂

Grandpa, I know that I missed out on a lot by not knowing you. But since that was never in the cards, I also like to think about what I gained from your absence. Does that seem crazy? I’d rather have had you in my life, but because I didn’t, I got to see your wife, Kathleen, my beloved Grandma, become the epitome of strength. My mom likes to say Grandma must have a “backbone of steel”. Would I ever have seen it if you were still here? She set an amazing example for me and your other granddaughters, Dan’s girls, Emily and Anna. She was widowed at 45, she had JUST learned to drive and gotten her license. She’d been a mom and wife her whole adult life, never held a job outside the home, and now all of a sudden she needed to provide for herself.

That woman. Man, you would be so proud. She got a job and she worked at it for over 20 years until she retired (too young, I think at 65, because that’s what you DID when you were 65, I suppose, in your generation, but really she could have kept on going). She mowed her grass, she got up on ladders, she did all the things—EVERYTHING— for herself and BY herself and she didn’t waste a minute on self-pity. And through it all, through her heartbreak and hard work, she served her family. She served us so well. She made us a  huge family dinner every Sunday and sent us home with piles of leftovers. She babysat us grandkids whenever she could and she was the BEST playmate ever. She re-used, reduced, and recycled LONG before it was cool, never wasting an ounce of anything, ever. And she showed her grandchildren how IT’S DONE. “It” being “LIFE”.

grandma and jack 2

What would I have learned from her if you’d lived 20 or 30 years longer? Plenty of wonderful things, I’m sure. But maybe different ones. And I’m so thankful for everything I’ve learned from her. She is a treasure, as I’m sure you know.

Grandpa Laton, I am really, really, really looking forward to meeting you one day. I am thankful for the hope we have in Christ of seeing each other face to face in heaven. I have a feeling, I just really do, that when we meet it will be as if we’ve always known each other. I think I’ll look at you and see my mom and Uncle Dan and myself and my brothers and my children in your eyes. And I think a lot of things will just make sense.

When my mother talks about you she says you are “forever young” to her. Forever 44. And though I don’t know you, what I know ABOUT you tells me you spent most of those 44 years working hard protecting, serving, and caring for those you loved. “Providing for his family was his life,” your daughter says about you. In doing that, you set the foundation for the life I’ve lived, loved, and enjoyed…and I strive to do the same for my family. So thank you for that, Grandpa.

Until we meet face to face,


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Jenny Rapson
Jenny Rapson is a follower of Christ, a wife and mom of three from Ohio and a freelance writer and editor. You can find her at her blog, Mommin' It Up, or follow her on Twitter.