I just had my last conversation with Grandpa Duke last night. Just typing that sentence doesn’t seem right, or accurate, or even possible. He has always been such a large influence to me personally, and to the family as a whole. In typical Duke fashion, he kept his humor and guided the conversation. “So,” he began, cutting the heavy silence from across the ocean, “you can cancel my meal at your wedding, looks like I won’t be making it.” I kept it together until the end, trying to tell him everything I needed to. In turn, he told me everything I needed to hear: that I’ve made a fantastic choice in future spouse.
Christine likes to call him The Godfather, a comparison that he would no doubt love (The Godfather being one of his all-time favorite films). The last time I saw him in person was during the Marx Family Reunion in August 2015. In true Don Corleone fashion, Duke sat at his table while the rest of the family came and visited one by one. It was perhaps the happiest I’ve ever seen him–watching his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren all together under one roof.
My first substantial memory is equally as important: in 1989, when I was a scant 6-years-old, he arranged for the entire family–children, their spouses, and grandkids–to travel to Amsterdam, Kenya, and Egypt. Duke loved traveling. Growing up around their home, full of artifacts from their excursions, and photos from the farthest reaches of Earth helped fuel my own wanderlust. His stories from these endeavors–always captivating–only got better with age. Perhaps it was because Duke added a little bit of, shall we say “flair,” to the story with each new rendition, but equally because I grew to appreciate the stories more and more. And as I grew older, with friends’ grandparents and parents passing away, I appreciated just having him around to tell the stories. I might have heard his stories dozens, if not hundreds of times throughout the years, but to this day I can’t tell where the facts ended and the myths began. Nor do I want to.
As I set out into the world, visiting a small fraction of the countries Duke has, I became even more in awe of his accomplishments. He started traveling in a time without ATMs, without reliable communication, without well-worn routes. Today, anyone can sign online, and in a matter of minutes book flights, hotel, and transportation to the wonders of the world. And when they get there they can immediately post their selfie to Instagram. For our generation “roughing it” means being in a place with no cell reception (something that’s becoming harder and harder to come by). Most of the places I visited Duke and Betty beat me there by decades. And some places–such as the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan–I am likely to experience only from his stories. On rare occasion I was able to trod somewhere he never did; he seemed particularly impressed by our two-week trek through Bolivia.
But our mutual love for travel (and the accompanying stories) is not what I’ll really miss, nor what I’ll most remember about the man. When my life was rocked by one parent or the other getting divorced (or worse, not divorcing the wrong person), his loving marriage and stable home provided me with something to hold onto. During especially trying times he always seemed to have one or two helpful things to say, wisdom that can only come from our elders. Sixty-seven years of marriage seems almost inconceivable, but he made it look easy. Still, he would remind anyone who was willing to listen that it wasn’t easy. He told me on more than one occasion that it wasn’t a matter of each person giving fifty percent and expecting fifty in return, but of each person giving ninety and expecting ten in return, “if both people do that,” he’d conclude, “the marriage will work.”
On reflecting on his own marriage he said, “Your grandmother and I are different people. If I need to go to the hardware store to pick up four nails, I’ll buy twelve because I know I’ll probably bend a few, and drop some, but at the end of the day, I’ll have four. Your grandmother would pick up three, because she knows she’d find one around the house.” The moral of the story is clear: successful marriages work because of their differences, not in spite of them.
Duke’s not gone yet, and part of the reason for pumping this out is the hope that he’ll read it (or have it read to him, if he’s up for it). I’m sad about losing him, but also so damned lucky to have Duke in my life for as long as I did. He made my life so much richer and more interesting, and I can’t thank him enough.
The most important thing to Duke was his wife, Betty. I can think of no better way to honor the man than to honor my commitment to my future wife, and make it work through thick and thin. I know he would have wanted nothing more, and nothing less for me.