My husband’s grandfather passed away at the age of 99. He’d lived a full life and his passing was peaceful. As I sat in the church, listening to West Virginia University great Coach Gayle Catlett and my talented sister-in-law Anna Whiston Donaldson speak, I tried to reconcile the legend I was hearing about with the man I had come to know in just a couple short years.
I didn’t get to know Charles J. Whiston, the great politician, the Sheriff, the Westover Mayor, the county commissioner of Mon county for decades.
I didn’t stand on the sideline at the old WVU football stadium, cheering on the Mountaineers with him.
I wasn’t there for the ceremony recognizing him, naming the Westover exit on I79 after him in his honor.
I entered his life as he was declining, a shell of his original self, a man who often didn’t remember his family member’s names. My stories of Charles Whiston, or Grandpa, as we called him, are vastly different than the others in the church. To me, he was a kind-hearted old man who loved being the center of attention, whether singing gospel hymns or telling stories of “the good old days.”
It was always fascinating to me how his brain worked –what it had selected to forget and what it chose to remember. He could recite scripture and sing church hymns word for word. He recognized visitors, particularly those associated with his job or with WVU sports, yet he rarely mentioned his late wife of 77 years. When his grandson –my husband– called on Sundays, Grandpa would ask the same question, “How’s your job going?” It was his way of figuring out who John was.
The preacher reminds us to continue Grandpa’s legacy. Love each other. Be kind and show compassion. He stresses that we must share Grandpa’s stories. His memory stays with us as his stories become ours.
My husband is the King of Storytelling. If he doesn’t have a story, something you say will remind him of one. Daily we hear the phrase “that reminds me of a story.” Sometimes more than once. Most of his anecdotes we’ve heard repeatedly, but when asked if we’ve heard it, we respond, “Not today, John,” and the storytelling commences.
I worry that the same meanness that took Grandpa’s stories will someday steal his grandson’s. I’m not confident that our adventures would be one of the selected keepers by his brain, and I don’t want to be forgotten.
Today though, we are remembering Grandpa Charles J. Whiston –sheriff, husband, brother, father, friend. What a legend this man was! The stories these people share are remarkable. I smile thinking of my unforgettable, but not funeral-appropriate story about this man.
About two years ago, John & I had visited his grandparents on a sunny Saturday afternoon. We were saying our goodbyes, hugging their frail bodies and listening to his Grandma’s directions on how to properly take care of her “John Whiston.” Yes, she almost always referred to him by his full name. I’ll spend the rest of my life loving this man, but I don’t know that I could possibly come close to her level of sticky, nauseating adoration.
Nonetheless, as John was headed toward the door, chatting with Grandma, I bent down to tell his grandpa good-bye. He took both of my hands in his. Our eyes were just inches apart. His still the bluest, twinkliest eyes I’ve ever seen. I think I whispered something like you take care of yourself. As I leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, that ornery old man with otherworldly speed turned his head and planted a kiss right on my lips.
A big, wet, sloppy kiss.
He was 98. I was 36. It was unforgettable.
I said nothing. After all, I didn’t want his wife to think I was hitting on her husband. I was already stealing her grandson.
We walked out the door, my eyes were wide, and I told John what had happened. He thoroughly enjoyed it. So much so, in fact, that before we even got in the car, he was on his cell phone sharing the story with his father. The laughter lasted for miles.
I didn’t get to know the legend Charles J. Whiston was, but I was kissed by him once.
It was a bit traumatic, a glimpse into my distant future with his grandson.
The last time we visited Grandpa, he was sitting in his recliner with WVU gloves on his cold hands. He was emphatic that we needed to get the parade started. His caretakers kept trying to calm him down, trying to help him understand that there was no parade today.
But his brain was cemented in some memory from long ago, and he was adamant. We needed to get to the line-up because he was supposed to lead the parade.
That memory stuck with me, and as we followed the police cruisers leading the funeral procession, I thought Grandpa would have loved this. He would’ve enjoyed chatting with some of the great men who honored him –Coach Catlett, President Gee, Senator Manchin. He’d have loved seeing some of the basketball players from decades ago touch his casket. The police cruisers, lights flashing, blocking roads to let Grandpa lead one more parade, would have made him the proudest man around.
He was the parade marshal this final time.
The preacher, WVU basketball great Junius Lewis, stood by the casket, towering over us, saying a final prayer. I think of Senator Manchin’s words –“True leadership does not die: it shines a light on the path forward for those of us who follow in the footsteps of that leader. Sheriff Charlie Whiston was indeed an unforgettable leader, and his legacy and service to the people of West Virginia will keep him alive in our hearts forever.”
What a light. What a send-off. What a meaningful life.