Goodbye, Mama-Papa

My grandfather Lorn died Monday evening on his way back to his apartment after dinner. He was walking back from the restaurant to his apartment in the retirement home where he lived, when he sat down for a rest, and simply died. It was probably a stroke or seizure; he died quickly and without suffering. Lorn lived a long and full life; his 95th birthday would have been next month.

Thoughtful Lorn by Michael A. Lowry
My maternal grandfather Lorn Lambier Howard was always ‘Mama-Papa’ to me.

Lorn Lambier Howard was born on 28 November 1917 in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. He came from a family of simple means, but he worked hard and diligently to improve his situation in life. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1936 to 1946 so that he could go to university (thanks to the G.I. Bill). He studied electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia and the University of Illinois at Urbana. He obtained his doctorate from Michigan State University in 1959, and became professor of electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. While on shore leave from the navy once in San Diego, Lorn met his future wife Etha Johannaber. They married in 1941 and they had three children. Their first child was my mother Alaire.

When I was growing up, Mama-Papa (as I always called him) was one of my favorite relatives. He was generous, kind, and loving, but also thoughtful, introspective, and rational. His characteristic blend of logic and humanity were an inspiration to me as I grew from boy to man and sought my own identity in life. Here was a man who had built houses as a side job during college, but could also play the piano. He was a true renaissance man, and I always admired and looked up to him.

Music was always important in Lorn’s life. Some of my earliest memories are of the music that filled our home, thanks to the love of music my mother inherited from her father. When we visited my grandparents in Dallas, Mama-Papa would often play the organ or piano. I also remember the winter mornings in Austin, when Lorn would wake us all up playing jazz renditions of Christmas carols on the piano. He could play almost any tune you asked him to, and he was always inventing playful and poignantly melodic improvisations. A few years ago he even recorded an album of jazz standards together with my cousin Lowry, who also wrote a touching remembrance today. I attribute my love of jazz music to Lorn. Although my parents occasionally enjoyed jazz, it was at my grandparents’ house that I heard the widest variety of jazz—played on Lorn’s record player, or by him on the piano. When years later I fell in love with swing and Lindy Hop dancing, it was surely in large measure due to the fact that I was already a big fan of the jazz and big band music to which these dances are danced! Lorn also played the carillon at SMU and Highland Park Methodist Church. I’ll never forget the time when he rang in my birthday on the carillon in the U.T. tower in Austin two decades ago.

Lorn had a keen scientific mind. I looked up to him, and as a boy always wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a scientist. At family gatherings, Lorn often retold the story of the time when, as a young boy, I took apart his alarm clock . Rather than getting angry at me, he took the opportunity to turn it into a learning experience. He sat with me, showed me how the parts of the clock worked, and helped me reassemble it. When he heard me (or another family member) make an unfounded or imprecise statement, Lorn would often quiz me about why I held that particular belief. ”What do you mean by that?” he would ask, or “Why do you think that is?” He never let me get away with making vague assertions. If he suspected that I did not understand what I was saying or lacked the facts to back up my claim, he would ask questions and help me find the answers. It could be infuriating at times, but it was immensely helpful in helping me to form my rational worldview. From Mama-Papa I learned how to think.

Despite his ability to be stubbornly rational, Mama-Papa was nevertheless a very funny man. I remember the time one Christmas when the whole family was gathered at their house in Dallas. Someone had the idea of buying a bunch of plastic dart guns, and the family proceeded to engage in a rambunctious dart gun war throughout their beautiful home. Lorn was a real sneaker, starting down one hallway only to turn back and go around the other way. The laughter and joy that filled that house are among my fondest childhood memories. Lorn and Etha shared many grins, winks, and knowing glances. They had their own humor to which the rest of us were only occasionally privy. Etha’s dry wit contrasted with Lorn’s warmer and more playful humor, and it was a true joy to be with them together.

Despite their differences, Lorn and Etha truly loved each other. It was sad to see the change brought about by Etha’s strokes. She was no longer the same person. The sparkle in her eye was gone, and she was tired and moody much of the time. Despite this, Lorn loved her until the day she died. He also did not give up once she was gone. He continued to find pleasure in life, playing piano for the wine & cheese parties at the retirement home, flirting with younger women (only in their seventies!), and going out for Mexican food with his Dallas grandsons. Lorn was a rational rather than religious man; perhaps it was partly because of this that he strove always to get the most out of life. He fought to stay alive and remain active until the very last day of his life. For example: until just recently, Mama-Papa still played the carillon at his church regularly—a task that required climbing the steps of the church tower. For a man of almost ninety-five who’d undergone three open-heart surgeries and was on his eighth pacemaker, this was no mean feat! Lorn’s perseverance and ability to find motivation and joy in life are yet another source of inspiration for me.

Lorn was also one of the inspirations for my love of nature and the great outdoors. In his youth, Lorn had been an Eagle Scout, and years later I followed in his footsteps. I have many happy memories of camping together with my family and with the scouts.

For years now, Lorn had been living on borrowed time. After his heart troubles, he changed his diet and started a regular regimen of exercise. Even so though, no one lives forever, and I knew he would be gone soon. He knew it too. In recent years I heard more sentimentality in his voice, and when we talked on the phone or on Skype, it was clear that he never wanted to say goodbye. I tried to resist the temptation to cut him off and end the conversation; but often he would want to stay on the line just a bit longer. Lorn also opened up to me in recent years in a way he had never done before. He told me stories about his youth, including some of the challenges and doubts he had had as a young man. When I was growing up, Mama-Papa always seemed like an invincible hero to me; it was touching to see the more human side of him, and to switch places with him in a way. Now he was the one telling me of his troubles, and I was the one offering consolation and reassurance.

When one gets to be almost ninety-five years old, most of one’s friends are gone. It’s a lonely stage of life. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my Rummel cousins in Dallas for being there for Lorn. They lived nearby, and often visited Mama-Papa for meals, to help him with his computer, or to run errands. I know they were a source of comfort and camaraderie in the last years of Lorn’s life. They were also there by his side just minutes after he died. After saying a few words, my cousins toasted Mama-Papa’s life with bottles of his favorite drink, cream soda. It was a touching tribute, and I’m sure Mama-Papa would have appreciated it.

I knew this time would come, so in a way I was prepared for it. Yesterday I distracted myself with chores and work. Today though, when I sat down to write this remembrance, the memories of my beloved Mama-Papa came flooding forward, and I was overcome with emotion. I’m sad I’ll never be able to talk with him again. I will miss his warmth, his humor, his common sense approach to life, and his quiet determination to keep on going no matter what obstacles life threw in his path.

The best way I can remember Mama-Papa is to follow his example and be the best man I can be. As I see it, Lorn’s philosophy of life comprised two main parts: thinking and feeling. The thinking part means learning, practicing, and becoming good at what you do. The feeling part entails treating others with love and respect, and trying to make the world a better place. I am reminded of a famous quotation by Neil deGrasse Tyson that sums up this philosophy quite well:
“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”
Goodbye, Mama-Papa. I will miss you very much.


Mike said...

What a great tribute, Michael. Thank you for sharing!

mer said...

Michael - I just came across your beautiful words. I'm so so sorry for you and your families loss. Lorn sounded like an amazing man, that you were so blessed to have in your life. Your words have certainly managed to move me to tears. You've done your Mama-Papa proud.