Saturday, May 17, 2014

My birthday buddy - my great grandpa Nick Denhof

So far I haven't blogged about anyone that I have any recollection of - most of my "subjects" were long dead and gone before my arrival on Earth.  As I've dug through boxes upon boxes of more "recent" keepsakes I've decided the time has come to blog about a few of those that I knew.

My father's maternal grandfather was born Nicholas Paul Denhof 8/30/1901 at Conklin, Ottawa County Michigan, the 10th and final child of Nicholas Denhof and Margaret Cook.  If you recall my first real blog post about why I got into genealogy, you read that my great grandpa gave me their names, that they were from the Netherlands and wouldn't tell me anything else.  So, via stories and pictures and my personal recollection this is what I know about him.

 I've never understood why baby boys of that day were dressed in dresses but he was.  It certainly didn't fit his personality later in life.  I'm not sure when this photo was taken but he doesn't appear to be over a year old.  I wonder if the dress had anything to do with his baptism.  The Denhof family was (and still is) strictly Catholic and perhaps this was his outfit for that. 

Nicholas was baptised at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Conklin.  I spoke with the secretary there via telephone several years ago and she looked some records up for me but I failed to write down the baptism date.  His godparents were Frank and Gesina Hug.  In the course of my research I discovered that Gesina was born Gesina Kock, daughter of Henderikus Kock and Catharina Drieborg with Henderikus being an uncle to Margaret Cook Denhof, Nicholas' mother.  Her parents died young and from census records it appears she lived with Margaret's parents.
 He attended school in Chester Township, Ottawa County Michigan.  Note that his siblings Rickie (Henrietta), Peter, Bertha and Sena were also in his class.  After doing some research I wonder if he ever knew he was related to all the Vander Laans in his class.  Their parents were John Vander Laan and Ida Kock, Ida being the sister of the above named Gesina. 
Here he is as a teenager.  He was not a tall man by any means, probably 5'6 but he certainly looked and dressed sharp and here looks like he's a ladies man.  I can't quite tell from this picture but he always wore a ring that had an "N" in the middle of it - not sure that's the ring but it does stand out that he was wearing one, even at this age.  He wore the other ring until his death and as far as I know it was given to a great-grandson that carries his name.  I'd love to get a picture of it because I remember it quite well. 


I don't know how or when but he met my great grandmother Doris Colson and they were married 2/6/1926 at Grand Rapids, Kent County Michigan.  I'm not sure what church it was in but they were married by Father A.M. Fitzpatrick and the marriage was witnessed by Nick's brother and sister in law Peter and Florence (Armock) Denhof.  They had my grandmother the next year but didn't have their next child Duane until 1932.  There is then a 3 year gap followed by another 6 year gap.  I found this odd given that they were Catholic but my grandma said that her mom left him quite a few times.
 Nick's children say he was a good father but that he was quite stern.  He ruled the house and what he said was law.  If he decided it was time to go to bed at 8pm then off went the TV, even if Doris was watching it and she was to go to bed too. 
That couldn't have been easy to live with but it was a different time and a different way of life.  Ultimately their marriage lasted 68 years and 10 months and what I witnessed was a loving marriage so I suspect that it all worked out just fine!  An example of Nick's "my way or the highway" thinking - my dad recalls that Nick had a beagle for hunting.  The dog absolutely wouldn't hunt so Nick took him out in the woods and shot him.  It may sound harsh but that's not the light I'm trying to paint him in.  Remember, Nick lived through the depression and it impacted how he lived the remainder of his life.  He said about the dog - if you won't work, you won't eat.  It's just a mindset created by living through those tough times.  If I overheard the talk correctly after his death the money for his funeral was in a mason jar in the crawlspace under the house.  This may or may not be true but it's my recollection.  

Nick was known as a hard-working man and a good provider.  I'm not sure when it was but he worked at General Motors for a little bit (before it was a good place to work).  My knowledge of what else he did for a living is pretty sparse but it usually involved cement work. 

I'm not sure who the "& Son" refers to but I suspect it was my grandpa, Nick's son in law Jerry.  Jerry built houses for a living and they worked on many jobs together.  Jerry's home life  was not smooth but he always connected with his in-laws in a special way.  My grandma remembers that Jerry would knock when he visited his dad and stepmother but he'd walk right in when he was visiting Nick and Doris.

 My grandma and grandpa's house has a 2nd level to their backyard and Nick did the cement work to build the stairs up to the upper level and I'm guessing the retaining walls and possibly even the foundation of the garage itself.

He made sure to leave his mark so that everyone could see that it was his handiwork.  When my grandma finally sells the house I hope the person that buys it leaves this.  If they don't want it I'll gladly chisel it out of there and use it as a stepping stone or something in our yard. 

Nick and Doris spent many winters in Florida - I don't have the city handy but I want to say it was Bradenton.  I've found pictures from the 1940s through the 1970s so I'm guessing they made a lot of trips down there.  He loved to fish down there and was quite successful.

This picture was taken at their trailer.  Doris was horrible about looking at the camera when photos were taken so she's always looking the wrong direction.  I don't remember grandpa smoking but everyone did back then.

I'm sure the picture doesn't do it justice but trust me, that little patch of green was immaculate and the flowers were tended to daily.  Gardening was a passion of Nick's.  
This picture was taken at Daytona Beach 2/20/1948.  In these older pictures he's often without a hat but when I knew him he usually had a hat on (because he was without hair!). 

I'm told that Nick softened up a bit when it came to his grandchildren and as he aged.  He and Doris were blessed with 10 grandchildren and they all thought so highly of him.

This was taken Christmas of 1961 - his youngest son Darrell wasn't married yet so it's only 8 of their 10 grandchildren.  In my eyes they look like the prototypical grandparents and he certainly looks happy in the role!

On his 75th birthday I came along.  He'd already had a granddaughter born on his 64th birthday and a grandson born a day before his 50th birthday so we had several birthday parties celebrating them all at once.

The left picture is one of my favorite pictures.  He's there with his Hills Bros coffee and Copenhagen snuff (that he used until his death).  In the right picture he's a proud great grandfather again (I was his 3rd out of the 13 he met). 

I mentioned gardening was a passion of his.  He had the most immaculately kept lawn.  He was always outside watering and mowing and tending to his flowers.  On the side of his garage he had the biggest tomato plants I've ever seen and he always had bags of fresh tomatoes.

As he got older he started developing quite the shake in his hands.  I remember his coffee spilling as he drank it but otherwise I can't think of any (unexpected) age related maladies he had.  He never had heart issues (in spite of his eating lard sandwiches and dipping his toast in his bacon and sausage grease every morning).  I think he had surgery for a prostate issue and that's literally all he had.  He loved playing cards but loved garage sales even more.  This man knew how to dicker with someone on price.  He had a year round garage sale at his house that was the result of his purchases at other sales.  He'd talk someone down to $6 on the bike they were selling for $10 and then bring it home and put it in his sale for $10.  I remember once someone made him an offer on his car and he sold it to him, in the garage sale.  I often wonder how my great grandmother didn't get sold!

Their 50th wedding anniversary photo.
Christmas 1986 - this is how I remember him.  He was always seated and just observing.  His age shouldn't fool you though.  He's 85 in this picture and the year before I remember him coming over and discovering there was a garage sale on the street behind us.  Instead of driving over there he walked up to our chain link fence, grabbed the top and flung his legs over the fence (literally used his arms to throw himself over the fence).  I'm not sure I could do that and he did it 47 years older than I am now!
For his 90th birthday my grandma got this sign made and people did drive by and honk.  He enjoyed the day outside with some neighbors, drinking his Faygo Red Pop (that and Little Debbies were his vices).  He was slower now but he still drove daily and had his garage sales.  When I'd drive up to visit in my 1983 Chevy Cavalier (that had been his car) I'd always ask how he was doing and he'd say "Bub, I'm doing pretty good for an old fart"

I knew something was wrong on Thanksgiving 1994.  We arrived to my grandparent's house as normal and great grandma and grandpa weren't there.  My parents took plates of food over to them and when they got back they were both crying.  His arthritis had gotten so painful that he was just sitting in a corner crying.  He stopped eating because of the pain and ended up over at the Home of Hope Hospice with kidney failure.  At my age I just couldn't wrap my head around why they weren't doing dialysis.  I remember my grandpa saying "sometimes people live too long" and in this case he was right (and I'm old enough to see it now).  What had once been a vibrant man, so full of energy and life had been reduced to a shell of himself.  Thankfully, the regression was only a matter of months and his quality of life was excellent almost til the end.  I feel when someone lives that long they should be able to just go in their sleep, not be dragged into a nursing facility but obviously we don't have control over that.  Nick's cousin Bernie Boomgaard had a heart attack and died while eating with him at Fat Boy Burgers - was sitting there talking and just bam, face first into the table dead.  My dad says his grandpa said "way to go Bernie" (as in if you're going to go that's the way to do it, quick). 

While in hospice he often visited other rooms and sat and talked with the other residents.  I don't think these were "welcome" visits so to speak but it drove him nuts to be there.  My dad was recovering from a knee surgery and was always visiting with him and Nick always begged him to just take him home.  A moment of levity came when he asked my grandmother if she saw the butterflies flying around in his room (his meds had him loopy) - she went along with it and said yes.  Later her brother Duane came in and he asked him and he told him there weren't any butterflies and he said "that's funny, Devonne saw them!" 

He was a tough old man with a soft spot for children.  My mom didn't know either of her grandfathers so Nick filled that role for her.  He was so good to her.  He confided in her that it was scary being the last sibling left after the death of his brother Peter.  It's probably the only fear he ever verbalized.  Nick passed away 12/18/1994 and was laid to rest at Fairplains Cemetery in Grand Rapids.  His widow Doris was 91 and would live another 7 years without him.  I remember at his funeral when they walked her in - I couldn't fathom spending that much time with someone and to then face your remaining days alone.  In her case dementia had set in and I'm not even sure she knew why she was in the church that day. 

I wish he could have met my children but no one can live forever.  I know he sees them and I will make sure that when they grow up they get a glimpse into his life and who he was.  We even gave our youngest son the middle name Nicholas, as an homage to both of my dad's grandparents but since I didn't know the other one it's more for this Nicholas.  I'm glad I got to know him as well as I did and I am proud to have been called "Bub".
 He gave me this crocodile bank when I was little.  He was always giving me his pennies and gave me this to put them in.  I also have a small brass lock box he gave me at one of his garage sales but I've got it put away somewhere where I can't find it at the moment.  Because he was so Dutch and thrifty and because he sold things all the time there wasn't anything real old or meaningful left of his so I treasure this bank as my little remaining piece of him. 

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