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Katie Houlihan Belanger




Even though I didn’t know my grandpa, I can still feel his presence in our family home—where the ghosts of pain and joy comingle in the humid Wisconsin air. Somehow my birth and his death are connected. Who he was has captivated me, and I’ve tried to discover this man from my mom’s stories and my own imagination.

From stories, I can see him sitting in the corner of the living room, playing solitaire on the card table that has been nestled against his expansive waist. I’m told there was a sense of dread with which the kids—those unlucky enough to be watching television in the living room when he got home—approached the task of untying his shoes. He always wore wingtips and tied the knot of the skinny strings so tight, it required a fork to untie them.   

In another image, he is playing with five of his nine children, building something silently, while the kids tinker with chaos. I’m moved by his separateness—his focused concentration amid childish chatter. And I wonder how, in a family numbering eleven, it was possible. 

In that same image, I catch a glimpse of my mom at seven years old—alert and cheerful. It surprises me, sometimes, that my gregarious mother moved through life with this stoic man as her father, not knowing that, as she grew, she was walking the hallways of her future. For she would not only experience the normal milestones of life from the vantage point of those front steps, she would also raise her own family within those walls.

photo of Katie presenting her videoAnd, years later, she would be able to feel her father’s calm and steady spirit, which must have lingered as he slipped silently away, lying in a hospital bed in the dining room, after a brief and painful battle with colon cancer—only months after he finally admitted to his wife that he had been passing blood, only weeks after I was born. His presence in the home became an intangible weight. An enveloping sense of warmth and sadness, like slipping under the covers. 

And yet, as our family continued to grow throughout the years, generations weaving in and out of the doors of that bustling house, the sadness melded into joy, as only legacies can. And we hang on to what lasts—the subtle waves of his presence, and the stories.