Yesterday marked 11 years since Grandpa Neal passed away. I reflect on his influence on my life frequently, and I wanted to write down some of the thoughts that come to mind when I think of Grandpa.
The most common reaction people have when they discover my relation to Neal Maxwell is, “You always needed a dictionary listening to his talks!” People are very complimentary about his intelligence and eloquence–and rightly so. During his life, I had a sense of how deep and intelligent he was, but I wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate his capabilities with language and writing. As I read his talks and books now that I have more life experience, I continually find myself amazed at his ability to express deep, important concepts and doctrines in meaningful ways. He made wonderful and efficient use of the English language–a dwindling skill in today’s world of text-speak.
However, my own memories of Grandpa Neal revolve more around his humor, his loving kindness, and his undeniable prioritization of family.
(Oh, and his detail-oriented travel itineraries. Those documents could be book-length. Our family vacations ran like a well-oiled machine.)
There was no mistaking that Grandpa’s priority was his family. One day many years ago, we were having a family get together at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The phone rang, and my sister Sarah picked it up (ah, the days of home phones). After talking to the person on the other end, she came into the living room, holding the phone against her side to cover the receiver.
Sarah: “Grandpa, it’s President Hinckley on the phone.”
Grandpa: “Oh, tell him I’m with family and I’ll call him back.”
So Sarah, a little pre-teen, was left to inform President Hinckley that his business would have to wait.
We always knew Grandma and Grandpa were constantly thinking about us. They often let us know that they would pray for us each by name. I have many wonderful memories of my grandparents bringing back little trinkets from their travels around the world on church assignments–representations of the fact that, no matter where they were, they were thinking of each one of us. Grandpa would often stop over at our house to bring a basket of fruit or some other thoughtful gift. We spent wonderful family time at home, parks, beaches, and even on an extended family Church History Tour by bus across the States. Grandpa and Grandma have always been concerned with providing a plethora of spiritual and recreational experiences as a family to strengthen our family bonds. We have had ample time together as an extended family. I have very fond recollections of the grandchildren sitting around Grandpa to hear him tell his Friends of the Forest Stories. These were stories of his own creation with wonderful life lessons and well-developed animal characters. He was a wonderful story-teller.
He also made a concerted effort to spend one-on-one time with each of his grandchildren. With an extremely busy calling and 24 grandchildren, this was no small thing. But I especially remember going with him–just me and Grandpa–to the Timpanogos Temple Dedication. I was his date. Note my uncontrollable cowlicks, hand-me-down-and-down-and-down-again dress, and hemp necklace. I think those things alone demonstrate fairly well how much he must have loved me to take me in public thus attired.
In addition to the enriching family gospel discussions we had with Grandpa as a family, Grandpa made family time fun. He was always beginning unexpected games of trivia with the grandkids. “Martha, by the count of 5, the name of your first dog. 1…2…3…” He also used funny and often-made up words whose legacy continue in the family. “Schlagenfelt” or “schlag” (I’m honestly not even sure how to spell it) meant feeling unwell. “Hakalah” was another one he used a lot and had a similar meaning of something gross (e.g. “Grandma stepped in some hakalah earlier today.”)
Watching Grandma and Grandpa interact was wonderful. Grandpa had hearing aids due to his WWII experiences on Okinawa, and Grandma has a very soft voice. The combination of these factors meant that you would frequently see Grandpa cupping his hand around his ear and leaning toward Grandma, trying to guide the low-decibel sound waves Grandma generated more directly into his hearing aids. She would, in turn, try to speak up, but she just doesn’t have the vocal capacity to speak much above a whisper–her “yell” is softer than my normal speaking voice. This led to some very entertaining exchanges which, at times, ended in Grandpa closing his eyes, shaking his head, and shrugging his shoulders, as if to say, “It’s no use.”
It was always evident how Grandma and Grandpa loved and appreciated one another, and their “compensating competencies,” as Grandpa referred to them, were obvious–and sometimes entertaining. Watching sports games, especially, was always sure to provide some great moments with them. Grandpa was a BYU football fan, and being, as he sometimes referred to it, “a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist,” he would often throw up his hands in the first quarter after an interception was thrown by our team and say something like, “There goes the game!” Grandma, ever the optimist, would believe we could win up until the very end, regardless of the score. And if we won a game, she was primarily concerned for the feelings of the players who lost.
Grandpa’s time was not his own, and he accepted that. I remember being at the airport for the mission homecoming of my oldest brother Peter. After the happy reunions, Grandpa and Grandma left the gate to go home twenty minutes before us, but we caught up to and passed by them as they spent time talking to strangers who would stop them after having recognized Grandpa. This was the norm, and you would never hear Grandpa complain about it, despite how time-conscious he was.
Though primarily known for his speaking abilities, Grandpa was a wonderful listener. We were in the same ward as Grandma and Grandpa my whole life, and when I picture Grandpa on the stand, as he always ways, I see him sitting in a contemplative posture–one leg resting on the other, his hands together, just covering his mouth as he pondered what was being said. This was true of interacting with him personally as well. Though people sought him to speak, he listened.
I remember going over to his house when my sister Sarah needed advice on choosing what university to attend. He listened, asked questions, and then gave wonderful but slightly frustrating advice. He wasn’t one to give specific directions–he was one to guide on how to come to a decision and what factors to consider. I find myself frequently regretting that I can’t hear his insights and wisdom on current issues.
Grandpa’s love for his family led him to give an apostolic blessing to his grandchildren once they reached a certain age. In July 2004, I was 17 and about to leave as a foreign exchange student to France. Ten days before his passing, Grandpa, so weak that he could only put one hand on my head, gave me my own grandfather’s/apostolic blessing. I treasure the words of that blessing, and I treasure the love and selflessness that enshroud its memory and the circumstances in which it was given.
Grandpa Neal wasn’t perfect, and he would be the first one to say so. I remember hearing him quote Lorenzo Snow about noticing some of the Prophet Joseph’s imperfections but, rather than being offended by them, he felt grateful to know that, if the Lord could use Joseph to accomplish His work, there might be some hope for himself. I have felt something similar myself–that one of the many blessings of my association with Grandpa Neal has been to recognize the wonderful contributions he has made and the great work he has helped to accomplish (in the home and in the Kingdom of God) despite his imperfections.
Sometimes it surprises me how keenly I miss him even after 11 years. I am grateful, though, to know that I can honor his memory through the way that I live and love others.