It feels a bit like Groundhog Day: wasn’t it just a couple months ago that I was sharing a granddaughter’s reflections upon the death of a grandparent? This past Saturday, my granddad John slipped away suddenly to join his late wife Peggy of 68 years who had been his companion until two months ago.
Just a few days earlier, I’m told my granddad was praying with one of the pastors from his church, perhaps seeking solace in his grief, when, in the middle of their prayer, Granddad John blurted out, “Peggy, I’ll be with you soon.” His words were prophetic: on Saturday, a massive stroke took Granddad Home quickly–mercifully, maybe—and surprisingly. (Many of us thought Granddad at the age of 90 had at least a few more years in him: he had gone back to work the week following Grandmom Peggy’s funeral, doing what God had called him to do across decades and the thing he loved most—being an advocate for the poor.)
Doing justice by the poor was how Granddad worshiped God
“Retirement” was a foreign concept for Granddad John. Before defending the disenfranchised, he had become a partner in a respected corporate law firm in Albuquerque—and he was highly successful at what he did. But (as I recount more extensively in my book) at some time during the peak of Granddad’s corporate law career he experienced what he would call a “conversion.” One night he spent hours driving across rural New Mexico roads feeling suddenly overwhelmed by God’s love for him in the person of Jesus Christ and feeling called, “convicted” really as he told it, to do “more” with a life so loved and with the profession in which he had been trained.
Then, or sometime after that, began Granddad John’s love affair with the poor. I was a small kid when for a number of Christmases Granddad would take our family around to doors in blighted communities with a bag of groceries, Christmas carols and the time, if invited, to sit down and chat for a while with our hosts. In many cases, our hosts would be eager to talk with Granddad—like one in particular whom I happen to recall, a woman in a trailer home who invited us into to her cramped, decrepit quarters. I don’t remember too much of the conversation—I must have been 8 or 9 at the time—but I do remember how she spoke with Granddad; it was with so much affection and trust; and I remember how my granddad addressed her with so much respect and genuine interest in her life. The poor loved Granddad John; and he loved them.
My granddad’s midlife conversion experience left him with the zeal of a convert. For a while there, during summers spent with grandparents, I’d spend more than one uncomfortable moment in the backseat of Granddad’s Buick station wagon watching as he handed out Campus Crusades “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts to any stranger in his path. That sometimes discomfiting zeal would remain, maybe softening just a bit, so that in church worship services much later in life I’d sometimes look over to see him looking heavenward, with both hands enthusiastically lifted in praise, belting out “Amazing Grace.”
Favorite reminiscences of Granddad growing up
Family, tradition and fun were important to Granddad. In fact he was the life of every party, it seemed—so much so that when friends met him for the first time at my wedding, they would remember him with exclamations like, “Your granddad is a riot!,” and “What a great granddad you have!” (This I knew of course—and know even more now.)
Granddad John loved to sail. As a young adult, I was privileged to spend many a summer with Granddad John in his role as “Admiral” of the annual “Robb Regatta.” Every summer at Granddad’s childhood vacation home in Shelter Island, Long Island, New York, a herd of Robbs would gather to enact with great fanfare a sailboat race. Every year we were enlisted to participate with a letter from Admiral Granddad himself, regaling us with the highlights and winners from the previous year’s regatta and summoning us to attend, always signing his name with the closing, “Affectionately, Dad.” A couple years I (not really a sailor myself) considered it an honor to be the dead weight in Granddad John’s Sunfish. Granddad’s heart sang on the open waters.
Granddad held the affection and respect of so many people. During my young adult years when I was working in D.C., Granddad would come to town to meet with various people and organizations working on the issue of legal aid to the poor. On one of his visits, he invited me to attend a dinner put on by the organizations of Christian Legal Society and Christian Legal Aid. I remember feeling like I was in the company of a celebrity to see and hear how this man’s colleagues and friends looked up to and cherished him.
There are truly so many things by which to remember and cherish Granddad John that I won’t do justice to them, but I’ll try. I never saw my granddad angry or lose his temper. I never saw him complain of his ailments, so that even at the age of 90, when old age had rendered his once imposing, dignified 6’3″ stature pitiably frail, and when life was full of aches, pains and hospitals, Granddad was always remarkably thanking God for the gifts of life and loved ones; never once did I hear him complain. Granddad was always incredibly generous with everyone. He always sought to believe the best in people, and loved his children and grandchildren unconditionally. He was loyal to family and friends. He was always praising God and loving others by seeking to take an interest in their lives. Every time we were together, he would be deliberate about taking me aside to inquire about what I was up to and to express his love and affection for me; and he genuinely wanted to know, too.
Like all of us, my granddad had his faults—but maybe because my granddad’s life (for as long as I knew him at least) seemed to overflow with faith, hope and love, those “sins” or omissions or failings, (if they could really be called that), seemed not to matter, or, in the end, to be so tenderly forgivable—like the slightest blemishes that make a great work of art even more real, eccentric, beautiful and one-of-a-kind. Granddad John left some big shoes to fill; I certainly can’t fill them. But what I am so deeply grateful for is the opportunity to have known John Donald Robb II as “Granddad” and to have been given a bit of his story to tell.
A farewell benediction
This time Granddad John’s boat has set sail on halcyon waters and he, maybe uncharacteristically, has set sail without notice. The Robb Regatta, if it continues, will be sadder, muted by the palpable absence of our commanding admiral. But this I know: that Granddad has sailed to far better shores than we can even begin to imagine, where there is much celebration; and there, saints, sinners, the poor, the lame and the “least of these” are giving thanks to God for the homecoming of one who sailed nobly to the finish line in the race that was given him. I love you, Granddad. May the wind of the Holy Spirit always fill your sails and ever buoy your boat on the waters of faith, hope and hope. Affectionately, Kris