John Camp, my maternal grandpa, was one of those rare people who loved life a lot and loved people even more. After 96 great years of life, he finally breathed his last here on earth, but he leaves behind a legacy of love, laughter, and light.
Grandpa started life an orphan, yet never once in my entire life did I hear him speak regret or remorse or show any self-pity about his start in life. Instead, he chose to focus on the only parents he knew, the Camps, who adopted him and his sister, Mary, when they were unable to have children of their own. So many times I heard him tell stories of his life in India where his parents served as Methodist missionaries — of his amazing experiences at the boys’ school where he played soccer and tennis with his friends, of his bike rides with his pet monkey, Mussolini, in the front basket, of the long ship rides back-and-forth from the States. It couldn’t have been an easy life in India, but he always shared stories full of love and life and good times.
This was his foundation, the beginning he built the rest of his life on. A foundation of love – his parents’ love, a sister’s love, and Christ’s love.
And it showed.
From my first memories of Grandpa, I remember how loved I felt – so safe, so stinkin’ loved. He and Grandma had to endure the role of long-distance grandparents from the beginning, but they never let that stop them from loving my brother and me…even from afar.
The one memory Grandpa spoke of more than any other was the time he and Grandma met my parents and me in Hawaii (we were living in Taiwan at the time). I was a spunky three-year-old who woke up early each morning, so my grandparents would take me out to the beach. In the quiet of the day, I’d sing and dance along the shore, wearing Grandpa’s big, white t-shirt. I was so happy. I was soaking in the love!
Grandpa loved fishing, and there was one trip when I was four years old that he and Grandma took me to their cabin at the lake, and Grandpa taught me to fish. With my “size-four” fishing pole, I caught more fish on that trip than all the other fishing trips of my life added together. And as fun as it was catching the fish, I loved spending time with this gentle man who loved me so well.
Despite the miles, Grandpa and Grandma didn’t miss much. They’d drive to Houston from Oklahoma on many a Spring Break to take my brother and me to the beach for a week in their RV, where we’d scour the shore for seashells and sand dollars or explore nearby towns or walk along jetties to watch waves hit and splash.
Or they’d meet us in Florida for my cheer competition. Grandpa was literally on the “sidelines” as we came off the mat from our routine to give me a big hug. Then he lovingly reflected aloud, “all those months of work for a 3-minute routine. Wow.” He had a knack for seeing things as they really were and speaking his mind with love. Somehow his reflection filled me with a peace – our routine hadn’t gone well, but we’d worked hard. We were proud of what we’d achieved, and he had spoken to the heart of that.
Every once in a while, he’d get me alone to ask me about my life – like what boys I had crushes on or what I was doing at school. He’d always listen and offer his thoughts. And he always wanted the best for me. Once when I told him I was running for class Vice President, he wanted to know why I wasn’t running for President. I had no other answer except that I just didn’t want that role, but in his mind I was settling for second-best. Oh, the love!
He loved my friends well, too. I couldn’t have been more proud that my friends loved him right back! He’d talk with them as if they were his granddaughters, asking about their lives and giving them big hugs as they’d confide the harder things. And laughing with them at the jokes he’d make.
Recently, my husband shared with me that he and Grandpa had a heart-to-heart talk on my parents’ front porch swing one day. Larry had come by after work to see if I were home, and when I wasn’t, Grandpa invited him to join him on the swing. Twenty minutes later, my then-boyfriend-now-husband left feeling loved and part of the family.
Grandpa just had that way about him. He loved everyone well. Made everyone feel part of something bigger than themselves.
When I ponder what it was about Grandpa that disarmed people and could so quickly make them feel loved, I’m pretty sure some part of that was Grandpa’s infectious laugh and sense of humor. The man was funny.
He loved laughter, and his own laugh was unique and contagious. I almost wonder if maybe at some point in his life, he decided his life-purpose was to make people smile.
When I was little and lived so far away, Grandma would write letters. Grandpa would send cassette tapes. Yup. Not all the time. But every once in a while, I’d get a cassette of music or even a recording of a conversation he and I had had. (I saved at least one of those…I need to go find it!) Part of our entertainment when I’d be at his house was to play with his cassette recorder. I loved singing, and he loved recording me. Or we’d just be silly and make each other laugh…all captured on cassette.
He also loved recording with his 8mm camera. Running along the beach, playing in his backyard, riding bikes at a campout, or doing the RV thing in Colorado – he caught it all. And when you watch them, you see lots of smiles and heads tossing back in laughter. I mean…..John Camp was there, so you know people were laughing!
I got to fly by myself a few times at Spring Break to spend the week with Grandma and Grandpa, and as I got older, I was allowed to stay up late with Grandpa. Those were some sweet times. Of course, he was tired from a full day’s work at Bolen Oldsmobile and just wanted to watch the news, but I’d find ways to get us interacting.
Like the time I made a balloon-like bubble from this tube of…well, I don’t know what. But the bubble-balloon was light and bouncy – perfect for a spontaneous game of chair volleyball. (Grandpa in the chair, me running around like a fool trying to tap the balloon back in the air before it hit the ground). We’d howl with laughter. Every night. For the whole week.
I’m pretty sure it was that trip when I nick-named him “Poopsie,” a name that hinted at those late night laughs and brought smiles to us for years to come. It’ll be no surprise to you that every once in a while after that, I’d get a letter or gift addressed to “Poopette.”
One camping trip the weather took a rainy turn, so we all piled into the pop-up trailer to wait it out. Not ones to be idle for long, we got a card game going. I remember laughing till I cried in that game because of Grandpa. And I think all he did was squint at his cards. I know. Doesn’t seem funny. But somehow – it was hilarious.
Then there was Epcot Center at Disney World, again in the rain. We had our yellow Mickey Mouse ponchos on that evening as we walked around the park. Grandpa was never one to move fast, but that night he scooted so slowly that we’d have to stop periodically so he could catch up. With his hood up and his packages under his poncho, the shuffling man looked a lot like E.T. So we started calling him that. And he just played along, making all the squeaky noises of the movie extra-terrestrial. Never a dull moment.
Even at his funeral, as about 30 of us circled him at the grave site, people took turns sharing memories. It was no shock that most of them were memories of John Camp at his funniest. There were lots of laughs through tears that day! What was that line from Steel Magnolias? Laughter through tears is the best emotion? Yup. For sure.
Grandpa was always a gadget kind of guy. Pocket knives. All sorts of tools. Fishing contraptions. Golf clubs and accessories. And compasses.
Yes, compasses. Every time someone got a new car, it wasn’t long before John Camp gave them a compass. These days our compasses are digital and come standard in all cars, but I always think of Grandpa when I use one.
Later in life, his gadget of choice was the flashlight. Every shape and size. Flashlights that came as key rings, hat clips, and ink pens; purse-sized, LED types, wrist-strapped versions, and some that had colored lenses. Literally – flashlights for all his friends!
And share he did.
In his 80s-90s, Grandpa volunteered at the Oklahoma City Food Bank. Even though he’d slowed down, he still had his wit, and he still loved making people smile. And one way to do just that was to give gifts – and flashlights were almost always on the menu. For years I heard stories of the many smiles he elicited as he handed out his flashlights to folks who came through the food bank.
When my mom would take Grandpa to his doctor visits, he’d gather a stash of flashlights and other gadgets into a Walmart sack before they headed out the door. Then he’d hand out his treasures to all the office staff. When he’d saturated that market, he started handing out gifts to the other patients in the waiting room. Mom said he could light up the room…and not with the light of the flashlights. 😉
And anytime anyone came by the house, Grandpa made sure they left with several flashlights. No one left empty-handed.
The last couple of Christmases, Grandpa would tote his Walmart sack around the circle of all the gathered family to hand out gadgets and flashlights. No one ever turned one down, even if we already had a stash of them collecting at home. We knew he loved giving. And he loved making us smile.
Even in his final days, Grandpa was ordering more flashlights from his beloved catalogs. So over Christmas, Mom and my Aunt Susan set up “shop” in his bedroom and had all the grandkids and great-grandkids go through to find some John Camp treasures to take home…one last time.
At Christmas every year, we exchange names for gift-giving. This year my cousin’s husband, Gary, had drawn Grandpa’s name. When Grandpa died the week before, Gary made the decision to keep the gift-giving-spirit alive in John Camp’s memory and started a foundation that will continue the tradition he began. At our Christmas party, we were all given a package that included socks, candy…and a flashlight. We were encouraged to give the package to someone in need and to either donate to the foundation in the future or create our own packages to give in Grandpa’s memory.
His legacy lives on!
I’m pretty sure for as long as we all live, we’ll never look at a flashlight without thinking of Grandpa. And yet, as I think more deeply on it, Grandpa’s truer light went well beyond a flashlight. It emanated from deep within him. It was a light that was burning brightly in him, a light that he wanted to share with everyone he met.
I think Grandpa embodied the “light of Christ.” And he took the admonishment not to hide his light under a bushel (no!) to heart.
I think it was this very light that enveloped everyone who met John Camp and made them feel loved and part of something. It was this light that bubbled under the surface of all his laughter. It was this light that shone through his gift-giving and life principles.
I pray that all of us who knew this great man will continue his legacy – to love, laugh, and let the light shine on!
Turning on the light,