grandfathers: an open eulogy

“I love you girls.”

These were the last words Judge Leo Foran said to my sister and me. He spoke them on October 30th at La Pita Restaurant in Dearborn. Merely two weeks later, I woke up in Jordan to a message from my sister: “Judge Foran passed away today.”

Judge Foran was not the type to express his love so frankly. What he said just before those three words prefaced his intention: “You know I am 86 now, right?” He had a feeling that he would be leaving us soon. He wanted to leave us without a doubt about what we meant to him.

Judge Foran was the closest person I’ve had to a grandfather throughout my life. My mother’s father suffered from polio that left him paralyzed, and he passed when I was only a couple years old. My father’s father also passed away relatively young, before I was born. Surely, these men are part of the woman I have become. They so greatly shaped my parents, and in turn my parents have passed traces of them down to me.

[Stories and photographs of my grandfathers haunt me in the benevolent way of friendly ghosts. I feel their presence as warmth punctuated by a sense of loss. I wish fate had dealt them different cards, so that I could have made my own memories with them. It is hard to know someone through the memories of others.]

And so, within this vacuum, Judge Foran came to play the role of grandfather in my life. He was one of my dad’s closest friends. They met through my father’s work as a lawyer in the courts of Detroit. I realize now, how little I know of how they became friends, of what drew them to each other outside the confines of their professional lives.

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In any case, my adopted ‘grandfather’ had been part of our family life from the time my siblings and I were babies. His presence marked so many milestones, from birthdays to graduations. If the weather was cold, he would show up in one of his thick cable-knit wool sweaters; if it was warm, one of his light polo shirts with a pair of crisp trousers.

He was distinguished by his tall stature, good nature, and Irish heritage. He always found little ways to tell me about the country where his family came from. For my 11th birthday he gave me one of those big coffee table books, titled: “The Irish Americans: An Immigrant Experience.” He always encouraged my reading habit and asked me about the current books on my shelf.

When I was older, graduating high school, he gave me another book, “A Peace to End All Peace.” It was about World War II, which he had served in. He still had so many memories from Germany. He wouldn’t delve into them too deeply with us. I imagine it must have been tough for him to talk about. At our last lunch, he told me about some of the German words he still remembers.  

He had this immense aura of dignity and wisdom that is difficult to capture with words. Dignity, because you could tell he lived a life that he took seriously, because he was intentional with his words and actions. Wisdom, because you could tell he had a lot of knowledge to impart, but he was wise enough to do so in subtle ways, rather than directly delivering his message to ears wary of unsolicited advice.

There was a softness to his interactions with others. He would ask us questions about our lives with curiosity in his voice and brightness in his eyes. He would show us he had been listening with a few jokes here and there relating to what we had just said, laughter in his voice. He would deliver an important message in-between this gentle banter, inserting a statement like, “You know you can be anything you want to be, Andrea. I have always believed in you.” Words like these meant so much to me, and I wonder if he understood that before passing,

I realize as I write this there is so much I still don’t know about Judge Foran’s extraordinary life. I know that he spent most of his life in southeast Michigan, but he did spend a portion of his childhood in Canada, and that he went off to serve in Germany for a few years. But the details are fuzzy. He never spoke too much about himself. He preferred instead to enjoy the company of others. He liked to ask questions, and he was comfortable sitting in amicable silence, too. He did not feel a rush to tell his stories.

[I regret not having asked him more. Maybe this is one of the major sins we commit in youth: We are curious about the world and its objects, but we often lack curiosity about the people closest to us. Especially those we consider family, those whose presence we take for granted.]

I started to become more curious about his life as I got older. At our last lunch we even talked about some of his early memories from the neighborhood block in Hamilton, Canada: The ice delivery man that came by horse and carriage so that people could keep their non-electric refrigerators cold; The woman down the street who he always thought to be his aunt and only later realized she was not a relation – but that was just how the neighborhood was, everyone took care of each other like family. I treasure these stories, yet they are only a few beads that long to be strung with others into a whole necklace.

There remains so much left unsaid. On this page, there are not enough words to describe Judge Leo and what he meant to us. Between me and my Irish jido, there are still too many stories left unshared.

I will deeply miss his patience and light-hearted spirit, his generosity of kindness and attention, his quiet yet radiant strength. He has left a mark on all of us in this family. We may not be able to retrieve the words left unsaid; we will never have that necklace of stories to carry. But we each have an imprint of his soul onto ours – and maybe that is enough.

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