Monday, November 02, 2009

Remembering Parky

My grandfather, John C. Parkhurst, was exceptional in every way. He was a noted community leader, pivotal in Illinois legislature, devoted to service, and a respected attorney. His works helped to create the Peoria we know today, not to mention impacting the entire state of Illinois. These are some of the articles that have appeared in the Peoria Journal Star since his death two weeks ago:

John Carlton Parkhurst remembered for service, song

Who's next in line to put their stamp on Peoria?

The link to his obituary is no longer active, but it was written by his six children and was a beautiful tribute to his life.

But as accomplished as he was, I remember the grandpa, not the statesman. I was the first of his twelve grandchildren, his "Famous Amos." I remember playing at his great old house growing up. A creek ran through his backyard, and he and my grandma Hattie used to bring out wicker baskets into the backyard, take us down into the creek, and play Moses in the Bullrushes with us. Parky was always the loudest voice singing the hymns at church, booming out from the balcony. He taught Sunday school, and when I got into high school and college, I became his teaching partner for the fourth and fifth graders. Parky talked to God like He was a friend, and his great faith was evident in everything he did.

I used to spend the night at Hattie and Parky's house when my parents were out of town. It was a great old house, full of interesting things. I remember how patient and loving he was with me. When I was little and refused to eat vegetables, he recited a poem to me about "peas with honey," then smeared a butter knife with honey and painstakingly lined up peas in the honey for me to eat. He played with me on the staircase, helping me find the halfway point, then read me A.A. Milne's poem about sitting on the stairs and being "halfway up and halfway down." I remember going out for breakfast with him, and Parky making me write down my order before I could eat, so that I could practice my spelling. He sat in bed with me at night, reading endless bedtime stories, not just the words on the page, but discussing the illustrations and what I thought about the stories. Parky loved with written word. He read constantly himself, and it was the eloquent letters that he wrote home to my grandmother during World War II that caused her to fall in love with him. He loved playing with words to find just the right combination, and every birthday and family occassion growing up was accompanied by an original Parky Poem. When I grew up to become an English teacher, it was due in no small part to the love he instilled in me for reading and writing at an early age. As I began work as adult, Parky always asked me what my classes were doing, and he constantly told me that he wished that I "had been his teacher."

Parky loved music of all kinds. One of my earliest memories is of sitting at the piano with him, listening to him sing and play "Ball and Chain." Photos show him also doing this with each of his six children, as well as his 12 grandchildren. He sang in the church choir, and he performed in Corn Stock, a very cool local theatre group. All six of his children caught his love for music and passed it on to their kids. My uncles still sing in church choirs, and most of the siblings have performed in various bands over the years. My uncle, as well as his wife and kids, are still deeply involved in Corn Stock. As for us cousins, nearly all grew up to play the piano to some degree, and most of us also sing or play various instruments. None of us have quite the same booming voice as Parky, though--no one does.

That voice was famous while I was growing up. He was on speech team in high school and never outgrew his love for oration. He delivered messages at church and spoke at numerous community events, in addition to his full load as an attorney. He focused not on just word choice, but on projection, enunciation, and dramatic pauses. Every time I ever did any kind of reading or public speaking in front of him, his critique afterwards included exhortations to "enunciate" and "project."

Hattie and Parky's house was always open, to everyone. I think most of my childhood friends made it over there at least once over the years. They hosted at least one huge family gathering every month, often in the backyard on Parky's Patio. All our Thanksgivings and Christmases were there, and we have a series of great family photos in front of the fireplace, watching our family grow each year. Growing up, I was as much at home at their house as I was at my own. We kids ran wild across the big yard, playing in the creek, under the huge pine trees, in the sandbox. My mom and her siblings tell stories about the many parties and gatherings held in their house as they grew up. I remember Hattie and Parky taking us out to dinner all the time, in various locations across Peoria, most particularly Vonachan's, Lum's, and my personal favorite, Long John Silver's. Even though Hattie and Parky were famous in our community, they never acted like it. We went out for fast food with both of them wearing sweatsuits. They were completely unpretentious.

Still, though, there was no denying the fact that everyone knew them. Being the child of one of his two daughters, I didn't share his last name, so people didn't always realize that I was related to him. But there was always an odd little feeling of pride that came when the recognition would spark in adults' eyes and they would say, "OH, you're John and Harriet's granddaughter" and look at me with a new measure of respect. Everybody who met them loved Parky and Hattie, not just for their endless civic accomplishments and awards, but for the love and kindness that they showed everyone they met.

My grandmother Hattie lost her battle with cancer when I was a junior in high school. She was the love of Parky's life, and after her passing, he spent hours and hours every week sitting at her gravesite, telling her in detail about what all of their kids and grandkids were up to. He always talked about how he had been so blessed to have her in his life. When I graduated high school, his gift to me was the center diamong out of the engagement ring he had given her way back in the 1940s. That diamond is now the stone in my own engagement ring, a reminder not just of my commitment to Ben, but of the overwhelming love that my grandparents both shared and exuded, and an inspiration to live in the same way.

The past few years have been very rough on Parky. He has been living in a nursing home, moving around in a wheelchair, often assisted by oxygen. He was in and out of the hospital, and there were many close calls with his health. There were times when he needed to be reminded who the people around him were. But everyone at the nursing home loved him. Even if he was confused about who was who, he still treated everyone around him with respect, and would ask people, in that great booming voice, his tone making it clear that he genuinely cared about the response, "And how are YOU today?" When Bryn Elizabeth was born in 2005, he was already in the nursing home, and all of our pictures of them together show him in a wheelchair. But he was thrilled to meet her and told everyone, "When I was young, I had a Tin Lizzie. Now, I have a Bryn Lizzie!" He was so proud of his entire family.

I could go on and on about what an amazing man our Parky was. He exuded love, faith, and commitment to helping others in all that he did. They don't make many like him. He will be sorely missed.


Cathy said...

That was Beautiful. He sounds like the kind of Grandpa. As I get a little teary for you all, I can't help but agree, it certainly sounds like Heaven's Choir is a little big louder. What a neat guy. I'm so sorry for the loss for you and your family.

SuperSillyAunt said...

Everyone should be so lucky to have a grandpa like that. If they did, I think the world would be a much better place. My deepest sympathies are with you and your family.

Big Sis said...

Wow! Those were such heartfelt, beautiful words! I'm sure your grandpa would be proud. You definitely have a way with words. I've been thinking about you a lot lately. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Anonymous said...

Dear P, What a beautiful testimony to your Grampa!!!!!! You will always have an empty spot in your heart, for your grampa,,,,,,,,but the wonderful memories will BE WITH YOU FOREVER!!!!!!! My thoughts and prayers are with you as you move forward , to life without Parky!!!!!! On a happier note, a HAPPY BIRTHDAY to sweet little BRYN tomorrow..... she is growing up!!! 4 years old already!!!!!.. Luv and hugs to all, Will&Logan's grama...

Melissa said...

What a beautiful tribute to your grandfather. You have so many of the same commendable traits as Parky; his spirit lives on in you. My thoughts are with you and your family.