Today my maternal grandfather, Joseph Arben Jolley, will be buried in Vernal, UT; nearly all my family will be there. This is the third family gathering from just this past year that we haven’t been able to attend, and perhaps may not be the last. Living far away from extended family is hard–a hardship that, I think, Grandpa Jolley understood well.
Joseph Arben Jolley was born in 1916, in the tiny southern Utah town of Tropic. His family operated the local grocery store, and farmed with a team of horses, and raised sheep and goats. He was baptized in hole filled with ditch water that had been dug in the back of the church building. He grew up like a lot of boys in the rural West in the pre-WWII years: he got a little education, and he worked as a cook and in a coal mine and on the railroad and in a lumberyard and wherever else they needed able-bodied laborers. Eventually he went north to try to find better-paying work; he ended up in Idaho Falls, running a grain elevator. In time, there was quite a gang there, Arben with his cousins and friends and girlfriends, and they caroused some. Finally, at age 22, at the prompting of a local bishop, he decided to go on a mission. He served in the Central States Mission, came home in January of 1941, went back to Idaho Falls for a while, then joined the Coast Guard, since there was a lot of pressure then for young men like himself to go into the service. He was stationed in San Francisco, working in a supply office. So far, so good.
And then the war came.
Grandpa Jolley didn’t have any war stories to tell, at least not of the type Hollywood today teaches us to expect; his time in the Pacific (mostly working in offices to make sure his fellow soldiers received their promotions and pay grades) was a lot closer to Mister Roberts than any big contemporary WWII spectacular. But that doesn’t mean he escaped the uncertainty of the time. He met Barbara Kirkham and married her while in San Francisco, and when Barbara became pregnant they were surprised but not unhappy: since they knew they would soon be parted, they wanted there to be a child between them, to hold onto no matter what happened. Grandpa Jolley finally shipped out on August 30, 1943; my uncle Kirk, my mother’s older brother, was born three weeks later, on September 23. Grandpa got the word of his son’s birth on October 1, and this is the letter he wrote home to his wife:
Congratulations to you, my sweetheart, my most adorable wife. I am the proudest father in the world, and I send to you all my love and deepest appreciation for the million little things you have done for me. But mere words can’t explain the joy and complete satisfaction that was mine when I received these words today: “Joseph A. Jolley–son born Sept. 23–name Arben Kirkham–both well.” I love you, my darling, my wife. Kiss our son for me. Your devoted husband, Arben.
I didn’t know about this letter, as I didn’t know many things about my grandfather, when I was a boy. Of course, I knew him as a grandson rather than a son, so my perspective is a limited one. Still, the Grandpa Jolley I knew was a gentle, retiring, neatly dressed and (to my eyes) very old-fashioned man, a fellow who kept his head of fine gray hair well-combed, who would laugh quietly at the antics of his grandchildren, and ask us to help him in his garden, where he grew peas and corn and tomatoes. He came home from the war, to his wife and children, and could have stayed in California and gotten into Stanford on the G.I. Bill and continued a life of adventure, at least in comparison to what he’d known in the years before. Instead, what he wanted was something stable. He became a mortician, worked for a funeral home in Salt Lake City, then finally settled in Vernal out in the Uintah Basin, where they bought a mortuary which Grandpa ran for 26 years. He and Barbara raised six children there; later in his life he was called to be a sealer in the Provo temple and moved the family there, but afterwards they headed right back to Vernal. After they sold the mortuary my grandparents traveled a great deal, and brought back trinkets and photos from around the world that I can remember looking at with amazement as a boy. But such travels did not, I suspect, change Grandpa much. He was a small-town gentleman, a bishop and an established figure in his community, a man who as a child I never could have pictured apart from his home and easy chair, his wife and family, the church and the temple. I doubt he would have wanted it any other way.
People sometimes make a fetish out of the “greatest generation,” the parents and grandparents who lived through the Depression and Word War II; they ascribe to these people mythic qualities, and then of course expect their stories to be suitably, not to say outrageously, heroic. My grandfather was of that generation, but in contrast to all that, from what I can tell this is what the hardships of growing up poor and being young in a world at war apparently taught him: faith, dignity, kindness, patience, and quiet humor. For the better part of 30 years, he was a counsellor and guide to the bereaved and distraught in his little town; for many more years than that, he was model to his children, and many others as well. I would sometimes drive up to Vernal from Provo for a weekend or over holidays while I attended BYU, and I would always spend a lot of time talking to Grandma–she was (and still is) a sharp, opinionated, forthright woman; a funny and sometimes uncomfortably honest conversation partner, with whom I loved to gossip. Grandpa would always be there in the background, reading the paper, watching a basketball game, mowing the lawn, weeding his garden. His contentment, and the way I felt his sense of contentment always spread to me, the visiting uptight overly intellectual grandson, was profound. There are phrases I use in our family prayers to this day that I associate most closely with his calm, warm voice. Those days are now long gone; Grandpa’s health has been failing for years. But my memory of those visits, and of Grandpa’s quiet welcome and his so very. . . grandfatherly hug and kiss when I would arrive, will never depart. I wish I could have known then what I know about him now.
In 1967, on their 25th anniversary, Grandma wrote a letter to her husband, one which perhaps unintentionally reveals just how simple this story is. It reads in part:
I do appreciate all you have done for me. I have all the comforts and luxuries I need. I can’t think of a thing I have ever asked for and not received. . . . I have a great and tender love for you that makes me feel very good about the wonderful day we will meet on the other side and begin our eternal life together. I know it will be the same happy feeling I get when I see you cross a street or come to meet me out of a crowd. I’ve always been proud to claim you as my husband. I like the way you carry yourself. I like the way you walk. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from way back in the past when I first looked over my shoulder at you across Market Street.
Today, I pray that my grandmother, her memories of Market Street and San Francisco and that distant, exciting, dangerous world now layered over by more than 60 years of ordinary life and love, will be comforted. And as for my grandfather, I would say “Joseph Arben Jolley, rest in peace” . . . except that for an anxious and undisciplined man like myself to say such on behalf of one who knew the virtues of peace as well as anyone I have ever known–well, it would be little presumptuous, I think. And if there is one thing the image of Grandpa Jolley in my memory tells me, it is never to presume. So instead I will think of this gentle and unprententious saint, picture his kind and guileless smile, and fall silent in thanks.
(Joseph Arben and Barbara Kirkham Jolley, December 2, 1942)