Lance Brett Hall

Stories Make Meaning. How Do We Make Stories?

Eulogy for my Grandfather


My grandfather, Norman W. Hall, passed away at the age of 89 last week. For his funeral on Sunday, October 16, I was asked to read some memories and thoughts by my father and my sister, and add some thoughts of my own. This is what we shared:

From my father, Brett Layne Hall:

“Dad never wanted to dwell on the war. He felt his country needed him. So, he left High School in the middle of his senior year, lied about his age, and enlisted in the Navy. He was afraid the war would end before he could get into the fight.

“He ate Thanksgiving dinner in Mendota with his parents and aunt, walked to the train station, and hopped aboard to the Great Lakes Naval Training Base. He joined 3,447 other sailors as the maiden crew aboard an aircraft carrier — The USS Boxer — on her maiden voyage. They were in Sai Pan, Guam, Panama, Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Corregidor, Bataan, several ports of call in China, and Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered. The carriers had to be close enough to the fighting, so planes could reach it and return to ship. The Imperial Army didn’t care too much for Allied ships lurking off their shores. We occupied Tokyo, and Dad and his comrades were the first Westerners in the Imperial Palace in hundreds of years. He didn’t think he did much in the war. He just wanted to get home and start his life.

“With the rest of the Greatest Generation, he came home and went to work. One night, he worked up the nerve at Mason’s Y Soda Shop to ask a certain special girl if he could take her home. She said she “wasn’t going home”, but Dad persisted and, in time, a romance blossomed. Two children were born into the marriage that followed.

“Dad farmed for the next five decades. From the beginning, he was not an environmental activist, but an active environmentalist. Every piece of land he farmed was better ground when he left than when he started. He had a deep respect for nature, and for the previous inhabitants — in this case the Sac and Fox Nations. A few days before he passed away, I took him all over the farm. he pointed out deficiencies in my care of the timber and creek. He asked me to pass along a few suggestions to the tenants but when pressed, he admitted we had a pretty good farmer renting our ground. To the very end, he expected a high standard of land stewardship.

“He took great joy in his grandkids from birth. You can see it in pictures: his expression of pure joy hugging them at their graduations. He wanted to participate in moving Liana a week ago. He wanted to see her new house as soon as she had possession. He approved of Lance and Megan’s apartment in Bucktown. He remembered it as “very respectable” when he lived in Chicago. He lived a little north of there as a youth in the 1930s, going through Bucktown on electric trolleys up and down Route 64. You could ride as long as you wanted on a penny.

“I never intentionally crossed Dad. I’d push Mom a little, but there was a healthy fear born of respect and a little voice deep down that said, “You don’t want punishment from this guy.” Everyone would describe him as a real sweetheart. Quick with a pun, ready to smile, but he was unbelievably strong. He had hands like iron from milking cows (before machines) for decades. Right up until the end, if I would take his hand to steady him, his grip felt like my bones may break.

“He did what no parent should have to do: he buried a child. The gentle giant of a man was broken. My sister died in 1984. He never got over it. We have a family cemetery plot on the farm. He told me a number of times to make sure to spread his ashes exactly where I spread Liana’s. I’ll do it. I don’t want to do it, but I’ve never wanted to cross him.”

From my sister, Liana Hall:

“A grandfather is one of a little girl’s first friends. Sitting on the floor of the farmhouse, playing with tractors, and listening to classical records are some of my earliest and fondest memories (although as a kid, I didn’t understand why he liked music with no words). I also thought his homemade mac and cheese was too fancy and didn’t taste good because it was white, but he never took offense. He took great pride in his cooking and chili will forever be a reminder of countless birthdays consisting of the same meal: clam chowder and chili.

“Grandpa had a special, gentle kindness that was apparent to everyone he met. He loved the ladies at Sullivan’s Groceries, constantly bragged of the amazing craftsmanship of the cane his son made him, and sat quietly in the back of churches during weddings of those he cared about, never needing to be seen or wanting attention, but always desiring to be present.

“As a farmer his work ethic was unparalleled and was evident during even his last days by helping and working out at the farm. His farm will forever stand as a reminder of the legacy this amazing man has left.”

My own thoughts on my grandfather:

“More than any other one person, my grandfather taught me that I could be my own man, that no one interest or career or aspect of my life had to pigeonhole me.

“Like Dad said, Grandpa farmed for over half a century. When he bought our land it wasn’t great. Grandpa worked hard at it and it today, the land is better than he found it. For example, Grandpa was one of the first people to experiment with what we now call contour farming. Instead of the usual straight rows, Grandpa would plant crops perpendicular to the slope of the hill to prevent topsoil from washing away. The idea was so new when he did it, that neighbors came out to check on him, they thought he must be drunk.

“The land and his work are an important part of his legacy, even though it certainly isn’t his only legacy. My wife and I celebrated our wedding reception on our farmland. Guests would turn off the country road, drive down a mowed-grass lane beside Big Bureau Creek, make a 90° turn into a cornfield, and drive through it to get to our tent, which we had pitched between an ancient grove of trees and that corn, which was in full tassel for our reception. A California friend of ours said, ‘This is the most Midwestern thing I have ever done.’ I was extremely proud of that. That legacy is because of Grandpa.

“I love looking at photos of our reception — among many other reasons — because some photos show the timber, some photos show the corn, and it’s a reminder for me that this is where I’m from. There is dirt in my veins because of Grandpa’s hard work and that makes me proud.

“And that is exactly the thing about Grandpa. I’m positive friends of mine that had that Midwestern experience have a certain image in their head of what my grandfather, the farmer was like. I’m positive that picture doesn’t come close to the depth of the man we knew.

“I’m certain they didn’t picture a man who loves music. Like my sister, Liana, said: yes, even music without words. Without Grandpa, jazz would just be a historical fact. Because of Grandpa, I know that people love jazz. Because of grandpa, I know that I love jazz. Through my High School and college years, sometimes I would see Grandpa and he would hand me a CD of Stan Getz or Charlie ‘The Bird’ Parker or Mozart or Benny Goodman. ‘Here,’ he’d say, ‘I accidentally ordered two of these and I thought you might like to have it.’ My answer was always, ‘Yes I would. Please keep ordering too many of them.’

“I’m certain they didn’t picture a man who was known his entire life as a snappy dresser. Part of what always fascinated me about life in LaMoille, Illinois is that every man earned a nickname. For example, some of my relatives were Speedy and Happy. Speedy was an extremely corpulent man and Happy had a permanent frown etched into his face. ‘Your Grandpa,’ people have always told me, ‘Your Grandpa was Dude. Snappy dresser, your Grandpa.’

“Seeing his valuables the past few days, Grandpa appreciated fine and well-made things. He had beautiful jewelry and fine watches. He was not at all an ostentatious man but I could always expect Grandpa to come to Christmas dressed in the warmth of a fine cashmere sweater. From my Dad, I learned that a man should have good pairs of shoes for work and for dress, and should know how to care for them and shine them. I haven’t done any rigorous fact-checking on this, but I assume that knowledge came down from Grandpa.

“Knowing he spent his life farming, I’m certain no one would imagine that his faithful canine companion was a little golden Pekapoo — a little golden Pekapoo named Stubby Hermann.

“I’m certain people wouldn’t expect that he knew his way around the kitchen. Like Liana said, she most remembers Grandpa for his homemade mac & cheese. I remember him most for pancakes. Since we’ve gotten married, my wife has been a little befuddled sometimes. ‘You don’t want a quick bowl of oatmeal?’ she’ll ask me, ‘Or some eggs?’ ‘No,’ I’ll answer, ‘It is Saturday morning, and it is time for pancakes.’

“Grandpa is responsible for my first taste of alcohol. Little Lance was staying at Grandpa and Grandma’s and little Lance had a bad head cold. Grandpa had a home remedy for me. If you’d like to take the recipe home with you, get a pen out, here it is:

  • One part honey
  • One part lemon juice
  • One part Irish whiskey

Mix in a glass, and microwave until warm.

“Little Lance took one sniff of the toddy and told Grandpa, ‘All of a sudden, I’m feeling much better, thank you.’

“Dad mentioned how funny and quick-witted he was. I don’t know how we got onto the subject, but when I was little, Grandpa once confidently remarked that women have one more rib than men. I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Of course! God it took a rib from Adam to make Eve, didn’t he?’ He might have gotten away with it, but Grandpa had a telltale smirk. It came right after the twinkle in his eye, and you can see it in so many photos of him.

“He could also be very poetic. When we golfed together, after my drive off the first tee he always commented on my swing. He never said it was ‘smooth’ or ‘fluid’ or ‘clear’ he always said, ‘You still have that buttery swing, Lance.’ To this day I don’t know where he got the word ‘buttery’. It still made me feel ten feet tall.

“I’ve always felt connected to Grandpa in big and in small ways. Most of them were because he just wanted to be present. When I moved into my first Chicago apartment, Grandpa asked my parents what he could do. Then, he just showed up… with a microwave. It’s the same microwave my wife and I use today, although, I admit, I haven’t made any of Grandpa’s cold remedy in it. Just weeks ago my sister moved and Grandpa just wanted to be there, to do something.

“Grandpa was not what you expect, and more than any one person he taught me that I can be my own man. Dad mentioned grandpa’s incredible strength and what I remember most about him where his bear hugs. I don’t remember a single time I saw him that he didn’t give me an enormous bear hug. His strength was crushing, and I loved it. The past few days, looking at his rings, I’ve been reminded of how big his hands were. I admit, looking back on all he did how hard he worked and how strong he was, it’s easy to feel a little inferior. Most of my labor has been done from my neck up. Grandpa really did want us all to be who we were, and if he were here, I think he’d find that a little silly.

“He was proud of us, he loved us, and he liked who we all became. He told us, too, and I’ll end with this. At our wedding reception, it was important to Megan and me that we have a nice dance number to start the evening. It was a big hit, and everyone applauded. Over the crowd, we all heard Grandpa — as plain as day — saying, ‘Everybody used to dance! Everybody used to dance!'”

Portland Weird


Megan’s 30th birthday was last week, and we took a trip to celebrate. Both of us have heard about Portland. I’ve had acquaintances who’ve moved there. We’ve also gotten curious about having marionberry pancakes for brunch. (If you don’t know what marionberries are, for goodness’ sake, go watch Portlandia.)

We had an amazing time.

I’m a born and bread Midwesterner who went to school on the East Coast. So, maybe it was just the big contrast in laid back, West Coast culture. Maybe I’m just generalizing, and I’d feel differently if I lived and worked there. Still, I couldn’t shake the fact that maybe, just maybe, The City of Roses was on to something.

People in Portland are having a great time.

Again, I’m scared of generalizing based on what I saw as a visitor, but people are happy. Drivers would stop for us before we entered crosswalks. The TSA at PDX is friendly (no, really!). The guy in the burger joint was laughing and joking with his coworkers. Think of a noun, then put the word “craft”, “artisan”, or “vintage” in front of it, and there’s a decent chance you’ll pass a random store selling it. (There’s a place I tried bone marrow and smoked cherry ice cream.)

The past couple years, I’ve become very aware of my own perfectionism. Specifically, that my mind is often either a few steps ahead of me or somewhere else entirely. When I’m working, I imagine what else I could be doing. When I’m relaxing, I imagine what I could be working on. When I’m focused on something, I’m really focused on its consequences: Who would ever read this? Am I using the right word? Is this going to bring me closer to my career goals? I haven’t watched these X-Files episodes out of order, have I?

I’m reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s classic Flow, and he describes enjoyment and satisfaction coming from the ability to completely absorb oneself and one’s energy in a task, which he calls flow.

As Megan and I walked around Portland, I couldn’t help but feel like people didn’t really worry. Are people going to think this store which sells fairy- and fantasy-related items silly? They apparently didn’t care. Are people going to find Cocoa Puffs on a doughnut ridiculous? Don’t know until we try. Are people going to like drinking vinegars? Let’s sell them at the farmer’s market anyway.

Portland is weird, not worried.

This isn’t just related to business, either. One of the most charming and memorable moments of the trip was walking around the neighborhood we stayed in. We passed a house which looked like a perfectly normal, non-weird home. In front, the owners had fixed a series of hand-cranked music box players to a board. While walking down the street, you could turn the little handle and hear a little ditty to brighten your day. The owners had apparently been at it for a while, because there were a few recent additions with the word “NEW!” over them.

Someone living in Portland decided to put their energy and dedication into little music box innards in their front lawn. Someone thought it would be fun to share a little tinny tune with random passersby. They could have worried a dozen things about doing it, but they didn’t. They clearly put effort into it (the board was neatly, colorfully painted, and the music boxes were firmly mounted).

So here we are, back in Chicago. I’m sitting here, writing, and trying not to worry. I’m remembering all the weird stuff that we saw, and taking it to heart. Whatever it is, I’m just going to take a deep breath, concentrate, and let it be weird.

Paper Memories


This past weekend, my wife Megan’s family laid her maternal grandmother, Betty Minck, to rest.

My wife has an incredible memory for personal detail, and it’s no surprise that she took it on herself to curate some photographs to display for the memorial.

I escort Betty to her seat at our wedding. Her husband, my grandfather-in-law, is behind us. (Yes, we have a hard copy of this now.)
I escort Betty to her seat at our wedding. Her husband, my grandfather-in-law, is behind us. (Yes, we have a hard copy of this now.)
I learned a lot about my wife and her family and history just helping her rummage through photographs. We combed through everything from my mother-in-law’s high school days up until my wife in junior high.

Then, something curious happened.

The photos stopped.

The day before we left for the funeral, we realized that we didn’t have a physical photograph of Megan’s grandma at our wedding. From our home in Chicago, we ordered 4″ x 6″ prints of three pictures. We had them printed at a Walgreen’s in LaSalle, Illinois, the same town where my mother-in-law lives.

As others shared their photos of Betty’s life at the memorial, we realized that there really weren’t many photos taken after 2000. More pictures certainly exist of her (somewhere), but they didn’t exist in the real world. They were all digital, and they just weren’t available when people needed them.

A paper photo certainly isn’t more durable than a digital image. I can store endless and perfect copies of our wedding photos on indefinitely successive machines. A paper photo isn’t easier to work with. I had hard copies made 100 miles away from my home for $0.40 each.

The thing about a paper photo is that it’s real. Betty Minck and my great-grandfather Swanson and my 13-year-old self at Disney World aren’t here any more, but their photos are. I can touch them. Because I can touch them and rifle through them, there’s a better chance for serendipity. Isn’t that a lot of what memories are made of?