The Best Kale
I am not the first Kale. There are at least three others in my family that I know of.
Nor am I the likely to be the last Kale. The dumb-tasting bitter vegetable made sure of that as its popularity has weirdos naming their kids after health food smoothie ingredients.
And I am definitely not the best Kale. That title belongs to Kale Alonzo Williams Jr., who was born Aug. 7, 1925, in Independence, Kansas — the oldest of seven children who survived past childbirth—and who died today, Jan. 7, 2016, peaceful and surrounded by family in Boulder, Colorado.
Kale Alonzo Williams Jr., or Junior as he was sometimes called for clarity in a family full of Kales, was a daunting man to have as a namesake.
Grandpa was the kind of man who wanted actions to have meaning. As a kid with often questionable intentions, I can remember every night as dinner was finishing up the inevitable question would be raised by those of us young enough to need permission to leave the table.
“May I be excused?” the scripted question came nightly.
“To what activity?” every night came his response.
Watching TV was not an acceptable answer. Nor was talking on the phone, doodling or any other form of general jack-assery. Grandpa wanted your after-dinner activity to have meaning. He wanted you to read a book, to be productive, to talk about issues of the day, even if you were young and uninformed or just plain disagreeable—which, as a garbage pre-teenage human, I often was.
He wanted those things because so much of what he did in his 90 years had so much meaning for so many people.
Grandpa served in the Navy during World War II, where legend had it his hair loss, which was complete by age 25, started when someone closed the hatch of a ship on his head.
War wasn’t his thing, though, and when he came back from sailing the Pacific he became a pacifist. He became such a pacifist, in fact, that he took to Quakerism, a religion which—besides an endless supply of oatmeal jokes—entitled my dad to conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War.
He wasn’t a passive pacifist, though. Grandpa was proactive in his pacifism (an aggressive-pacifist?). He joined the Chicago office of the American Friends Service Committee and, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, he fought for fair housing policies in the city’s marginalized communities.
He worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and walked lockstep with other activists through white neighborhoods during Chicago’s open housing marches of 1966, even as they were pelted with rocks by racist bystanders.
He worked to help struggling Native American communities in the Southwest and later brought his children, my dad included, to Africa to provide famine relief during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. He knew a neighborhood couple, Barak and Michelle Obama, when they were still youngsters living on the South Side.
He was a professor and antique tool collector and handyman and father and brother and uncle and doting grandfather to grandkids who didn’t always deserve it. If I can finish my life being one tenth the Kale he was, I’ll call it a success.
But, to be completely honest, dementia took that version of grandpa from us a while ago.
It wasn’t really noticeable at first. A delayed response to a question, a started thought unfinished, forgotten keys.
But soon efforts to engage him became more difficult. Crossword puzzles, usually dispensed in a matter of minutes, sat discarded. Phone conversations grew awkward when it became increasingly obvious the person on the other end of the line didn’t know who they were talking to.
Grandpa grew unsteady on his feet and began needing help, which he got from my tireless grandma whose praises cannot be sung loudly enough, to do most anything.
He was still himself—settled into a chair every morning with a newspaper, Grape-Nuts, fresh fruit and orange juice—but he was a smaller version of himself, trapped in a body that wouldn’t cooperate with a mind that wasn’t fully able to give it instructions. You could tell it frustrated him, and doubly so when he wasn’t able to express it.
I wish I had paid more attention to his stories while he could still tell them. I wish I had asked him more questions. His wife, his three kids and his five grandkids and large extended family are left with unfulfilled wishes, but for him the struggle is done.
I’m happy about that, but still very sad.
Grief will do strange things to people. It’s why I ran out of my office today to avoid crying in front of my coworkers, only to do it front of strangers on Market Street. It’s why I found myself mentally screaming at my phone earlier when a gif of a corgi dressed as a stormtrooper failed to load. It’s why I’m sitting here considering spending money I don’t have on a very complex and expensive Lego set just to keep my mind busy.
But grief is also pleading with me to gather all the memories I have of grandpa while I can, which is somehow comforting and painful at the same time. Grief is why I’m trying to put it all into words somewhere before time robs me of my own ability to do so. Grief is why I’m sitting here saying goodbye.
So goodbye grandpa Kale Alonzo Williams Jr. You were the best Kale.