by Josephine Myers


If you can keep your head when all about you   

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute 

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

—Rudyard Kipling

I remember the stories he told me. Every night I visited my grandparents’ house, I demanded them. Nothing about princesses, dragons, or knights in shining armor. I wanted their stories, and his stories I remember enjoying most. He told them while I lay on a smooth, fern-green futon with its matching leafy sheets and the special soft feather pillow that he always got out for me. There in their bedroom, I gazed at the painting that hung above the copper-colored wood headboard as my grandfather told me about his life. He told me stories of catching frogs and how he and his cousins put them in their tied-up shirts for safekeeping. About his aunt’s mushroom farm that he visited every summer. There, the barn was damp for the fungi that grew in piles of sawdust on rows and rows of shelves before being sold to Campbell’s. He talked about fishing with my grandmothers family at their white cottage on the twin lakes in Wisconsin. He spoke of how he and my grandmother’s brother Bob had to sit on the front fenders of my great grandfather Clem’s car to balance out the trunk filled with rocks. Those rocks eventually made up the walls of a set of earth terraces that went like steps from the back patio of the house down towards the edge of the lake. He showed me his determination, his drive: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” (Kipling lines 30-31). He told all these stories and more, but none were ever truly sad. I think about it now and wonder why he didn’t tell more sad things, especially because of what he had lived through. 

His father died when he was four years old. Joseph was a war hero and fought for the freedom of his home country, Poland, in World War One. Unlike the instant or quick deaths to guns, bombs, and infection, for great-grandfather Joseph, the war took its time. The chlorine gas, or mustard gas as it was referred to, gnawed away at his lungs slowly. Very slowly. It took him in the end, leaving my great-grandmother Marium and her two children my great aunt Sofie and my grandfather Stanley, the younger of the two, in the middle of the Great Depression. Despite this, Dzia Dzia never talked often or in great detail about what it was like to be raised by his older sister while his mother worked two jobs. She never received compensation or support from America since great-grandfather Joseph fought for a country that had to reestablish its existence after nearly a century of Russian and German rule. Dzia Dzia didn’t talk about what it was like waiting outside of his Polish Catholic school for hours because his mother had to leave very early for work; there he sat outside, where not even the nuns would take pity on him. He showed me his resilience in the face of adversity and life’s challenges. He showed me what Rudyard Kipling wrote of in his poem “If—”:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;   

(Kipling lines 10-13)

Instead, he talked about getting beer for his uncle and reading the paper with him on late Sunday afternoons at the kitchen table. Instead, he talked about how he met my grandmother the first time when they had mutual friends and he offered for her to ride on the handlebars of his bike. Instead, he talked about how he loved to dance and how his friends in the band would introduce him as “Stanley the greatest polka dancer in Chicago!” at any event he saw them at. He never let the bad things harden him. If anything, with age he got softer. 

While my grandfather’s stories were my favorite, the stories he made with me are even more precious than any he could have ever told. He was like a river, calm and smooth on the surface, yet unimaginably deep and full of love. When my brother or I became sick, he was the one my parents called. He would pick us up and take us to his and Busia’s condo in Geneva. He would put us to bed with an ice pack and cold medicine, come to check in every hour or so, and drive us home when mom or dad got off work. He was so patient like the little Polish star in the old folk tale. He dealt with my demanding grandmother’s every wish with an unwavering love. He cared for her when she was diagnosed with diabetes and heart failure, making sure she wanted for nothing to the best of his ability. This, in spite of the fact that he was diagnosed with worse illnesses that slowly ate away at the blood vessels in his body and made his back bend in on itself like a bow. There is no memory of him complaining of the pain or of the fatigue. While his body was giving up, his mind never did. He was the embodiment of resilience and selflessness. He showed me

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”

 (Kipling lines 22-25) 

He died fighting his demise until the end instead. He woke up every morning before everyone else to do stretches and exercises, and change the thermostat to a warmer temperature because he knew Busia liked it that way when she woke up. He was generous, never believing the fortune he made was meant for him but rather for us, his family. Often, he would say in his low, comforting, and even voice, “you’ll have something.” It was a comfort knowing he was making it possible for us not to start where he started.

Kipling’s poem holds the embodiment of who he was. A real man. A selfless man who had his flaws, but who was so much more than them. He was a rock, both literally and figuratively. He showed me how 

If you can keep your head when all about you   

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

(Kipling lines 1-4)

Always the one slowest to take a stand on an argument; never too proud to believe himself a genius among fools, like so many in the world today; accepting defeat when proven wrong, he worked tirelessly to build himself up from the dregs he was born into. He used the tools given to him to help those around him rather than using them for his own personal gain. He never was filled with malice or jealousy for others, but instead supported and built them up. 

In the end, though, words will forever fail to describe his unconditional love, his forgiveness, and his integrity. Many people talk about their role models as being military leaders who helped win wars, tech geniuses who made billions off the things they create. When will people choose role models who don’t kill or take advantage of people? When will they decide they don’t want to idolize people who make money through the abuse of others? My grandfather showed me what it’s like to follow someone who earned the world and everything in it.