What it means to be a Bradbury

Jen Bradbury
Apr 19 · 5 min read

I first met Grandpa Elmer when I was 19. After a summer apart from each other, my then boyfriend, Doug, invited me to join him for Perry Pioneer Days - a local festival that included a parade that he and his Grandpa always walked in.

As clowns.

At the time, I thought it was a bit of a strange invitation and, let’s be honest, a bit of a strange custom. As a Chicago girl, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this type of small town festival… And I definitely couldn’t picture Doug as a clown.

But I was head over heels in love with Doug so of course, I agreed to go.

I watched with something between awe and horror as Doug and Grandpa Elmer carefully painted their faces white, put on oversized gray pants, striped shirts, and clown shoes and then threw on red wigs. They pushed wheelbarrows in the parade and delighted everyone they passed, young and old alike.

Afterwards, as they took off their clown attire, they recounted endless stories about their years clowning together. They even pulled out pictures from when Doug was a young clown who rode in the wheelbarrow.

That day, it was clear to me that Doug meant the world to Grandpa Elmer.

As Doug and I continued to date and eventually marry, it became clear to me that Grandpa Elmer also meant the world to Doug.


After we’d been married a few years, we ran out of gifts to get Elmer. I mean, what does someone in their 80s really need?

Instead of getting him yet another gift, one year we decided to go to Grandpa Elmer’s for his birthday and actually stay at his house. (At that point, I think it’d been years since someone had actually spent the night at Grandpa’s house - the house he built and raised his kids in.)

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While we were there, Grandpa showed us the Grandfather Clock that he reset every New Years to get Doug and his brother, Dave, to go to bed early; The ceramics that Grandma Freida made; The organ that Uncle Ken played; The quilts Freida made; And the boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings chronicling his family’s accomplishments. We also looked through photo albums and asked questions about the photos we saw. He answered our questions by telling us stories.

We heard stories about family members and square dancing and traveling the world with his bride. Stories about being a husband, father, grandfather, and friend. Stories of playing basketball, farming, of WWII, of Grandma teaching, and of raising his boys. Stories of how he cared for all the “really old people''. Grandpa shared stories of heartbreak and grief - at his age, he’d outlived most of his friends and even some of his family. But he also had plenty of stories of hope, healing, and love.

Over the years, I got to the point where I could recite many of these stories right along with Grandpa Elmer.

We all could.

When you hear the same stories again and again, it can be tempting to think the person telling them has become forgetful. But Elmer remained sharp right up until his final weeks.

I think he told us the same stories again and again because he knew we needed to hear them; He knew they’d shape our identities.


For years, our trips to Perry to see Grandpa would include a trip to his farm and his workshop, where he’d spent hours building things. When Doug was young, he used to go there with Grandpa.

Grandpa made him a tiny workbench (which our girls now use) and one day, Grandpa asked Doug what he was doing.

Doug confidently told Elmer, “I’m makin’ something.”

It’s a story I heard Doug and Grandpa tell numerous times.

I never got tired of hearing it.

I don’t think Doug did either.

More than just a cute anecdote, it became THE story that defined who Doug is: A maker.


When Elmer turned 90, I had the privilege of putting together a scrapbook of well wishes, stories, and pictures that Elmer’s friends and families sent him.

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As I worked on this, I marveled at the volume of Elmer’s friends. (He’d routinely count how many Christmas and birthday cards he got. They numbered in the hundreds.) Everyone who knew Elmer loved and respected him.

He was the patriarch of our family.

He was a leader of Perry Presbyterian Church.

He was a mason.

He was a central figure at men’s coffee, first at the Wagon Wheel and then at the the Fast Stop.

He was a prankster, a maker, and a caretaker.

He was - in every way - a pillar of his community.

He belonged… And because he did, wherever we went with Elmer - Orr family reunions, church, or heaven help us, lunch at the Fast Stop - we belonged too.


When I was 24, my Grandpa Johnson died.

Not long after that, we saw Elmer. He asked how I was doing and how my Grandma was doing (He’d met my grandparents at our wedding.)

As we talked, he asked about my other set of grandparents. I told him how Grandpa Nelson died before I was born and how Grandma Nelson died when I was 14.

Upon hearing this, he said with sadness in his voice, “You hardly had a chance to get to know your grandparents.”

He’s right.

I hardly had a chance to get to know my grandparents. And none of them really got the chance to know me as an adult, let alone as a parent.

I’m so very grateful that Grandpa Elmer did.

For the last 23 years, he’s been Grandpa to me, in every sense of the word.

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Tonight, I feel his loss acutely - not just because of what he meant to Doug, but because of what he meant to me.

But tonight, I also feel gratitude.

I feel grateful I got to know this man - who I met when he was 79 - for 23 years.

I feel grateful that he got to meet and know my kids.

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And I feel deeply grateful that Grandpa instilled in me the same stories that he instilled in Doug and that they have similarly shaped me; That because of him I know what it means to be a Bradbury.