My grandfather died this week, at the ripe age of 100 years old.
The Albert DeLucien I knew was simultaneously a big tough guy and a kind, funny, caring grandfather. My family and I lived in Virginia from the time I was 5-10 years old, so that is where I formed the bulk of my memories of him. I remember a granddad who would “steal” our noses, drum on the door with an ominous rap and, when we giggled and said: “who’s there?” would respond, “fee fi fo fum… I’m going to bite your thumb!” Then he would burst through the door with a roar and arms laden with ice cream, much to our delight. He made sure we were subscribed to all sorts of magazines — Muse, National Geographic, always some kind of puzzle book, to keep our minds sharp — and recorded shows on cassette tapes and clipped comic strips from the Sunday paper for us. We always looked for the telltale packages and fought over who got the comics first.
My Grampa — that’s how he spelled it — never forgot a birthday. I received regular correspondence from him for as long as I can remember — once we left Virginia and returned to France, he made sure to hand-write “air mail” on the outside of his letters. It wasn’t necessary, but I think it was a nod to his beloved airplanes and eternal wanderlust. He and my grandmother were pilots and flew in the Civil Air Patrol, together they traveled the world.
Half of his letters consisted of travel recommendations painstakingly copied from guides and magazines. When we went to D.C. in February, I took the kids to the air & space museum — one of grandpa’s favorites, of course — and Jonas climbed into a Cessna, just like the ones my grandparents flew.
The other half of his letters were usually devoted to telling stories about life with my grandmother, Alice, who died from cancer when I was eight years old. I remember how often he would visit her grave, he drove us there a few times and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. He waited 23 long years to see her again, and I’m sure it was quite a reunion.
But I also said he was a big tough guy. He was very tall — my sister Sylvia, when she was a toddler, once ran to hug him but wrapped her arms so low around his legs that she toppled him right over! My Grampa was a prankster and teased us and loved us, but I also remember being intimidated by him as a little girl. He had a sneeze that would make you jump out of your skin. If we got too rowdy, there would be scary outbursts before he was back to making jokes. Albert was born only two years after the Great War, then lived through the Great Depression.
He enlisted as a Marine right after Pearl Harbor and saw action quickly — he was in the first waves of soldiers to hit the beaches at both Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and Peleliu in Palau (you can read more about his military service here and also here). He never talked much about his experiences to me but once, I got a letter with a few war stories. I can’t imagine the horrors he saw; he described crawling over something hard, under fire, and realizing it was a fallen soldier’s skull. He came home from the war with white hair.
My grandfather was a proud Marine, and signed off all his letters with “Semper Fi.” He spent as much time as he could having a cigar and a glass of red wine down at the Marine Corps League — they call him Big Al there — although I’m sure it got lonelier as, one by one, his buddies stopped coming around. It didn’t prevent him from being a local legend though, and he always attended the Marine Corps ball and birthday. Tradition dictates that the oldest Marine there gets to cut the cake with the sword, and then passes the piece of cake to the youngest active duty Marine, but a few years ago he said something to the effect of, “you know what, I’m old enough that I’m going to cut my cake and eat it too!”
Grampa was a caring and giving person. I was little, so I probably didn’t catch on to everything, but I know he helped pay for ballet and horseback riding lessons and Easter outfits… he sent white chocolate roses for Valentine’s Day, a red one for my mom and pink ones for each of us girls. He wanted to make things magical. He donated to all sorts of causes — I know, because I’d get the organizations’ stickers in the mail! — animals, children, world hunger, veterans, education, adventure. I remember he always had peanuts on hand to feed the squirrels on his patio and we loved watching for them through the sliding glass door. He was an Episcopalian and often talked about guardian angels. He got Christmas cards from George W and Laura Bush. He hand wrote monthly letters to all of his grandchildren and great grandchildren until that became too much, then he typed them on the computer and printed them — still adding Xs and Os at the bottom, he taught me what they stand for when I was little — until in the last few years, writing at all became difficult. I regret that I didn’t respond nearly as often as I should have, although I did make efforts to send a “pretty picture post card,” as he so often requested, from time to time. I made sure to have Adelina send drawings too. But we are so selfish in our youth.
He was sharp as a whip and quite an adventurer: my dad’s brother tells the story of when he visited them in Paris. My uncle was supposed to pick him up at the airport but when he got there, no sign of Albert. They got back home, trying to figure out where to look for him next and suddenly who rings the doorbell but my grandfather, who had rented a car and driven through Paris on his own to find their home in the suburbs — and remember, this is pre- cell phones or google maps! He loved coming to visit us in France if only so he could enjoy some of that good French food.
You might remember we traveled to Washington D.C. earlier this year — right before the world shut down — to attend his 100th birthday celebration. I’m so grateful we were able to make that trip. I’m glad my children will have some small memory of him.
Adelina especially has some sweet memories of meeting him when I was pregnant with Jonas, she immediately took to him and basked in the attention as he teased her about her binky. She likes to hear stories about Grandpa Al.
There’s so much of him that I never knew, partly because I lived so far away for most of my life, but I’m grateful for his legacy of sacrifice and caring. His fighting spirit lives on, in part, in one of my cousins who recently enlisted as a Marine. She shared that she thinks of her Granddaddy every morning when she puts on the uniform. She has big boots to fill, and we are proud of her. I’ll always remember a fun Grampa, one who was always just an air mail letter away. A few years ago, the local news station interviewed him (watch it here) and he told them, “I have too many friends that have gone on. I’m 96 years old and they’re all gone. But they’re waiting for me. And when we get together there, it’s going to be one hell of a party.” And I’m so happy that he can finally, finally see his dear Alice again.
Love you Grampa, XOXO, Semper Fi