Friday, January 18, 2008

Edmund Kenneth Downing (1908-1984)

The following are just one man's memories of his beloved grandfather - I do not seek to deify the man, for there is truly no need, and it would have made him uncomfortable to do so. My experience was possibly (and probably) different than that of my older relations who were raised in his presence. The photographs of Ken, my father and myself were each taken about age 18.

I would like to thank my aunt Kendra for the reminder: today would have been my grandfather Ken's 100th birthday. I daresay it's worthy of note. I had a great rapport with that man, and he was taken far too young (72). He taught me a lot about the history of California, told me of growing up in the days before cars were commonplace, of learning to ride a horse before he could walk. I painted a picture of his horse, Pawnee, which he'd described to me as a child. I framed it and gave it to him one Christmas when I was about 6. Through his eyes I saw San Jose, Los Gatos and the Almaden Valley before it became Silicon Valley. When there were still open cow pastures and orchards, before concrete, condos and strip malls covered the alluvial soil of the South Bay.

In those bygone days of agrarian California, Ken parlayed ranching knowhow into a successful poultry operation in San Jose, and helped develop not only coin operated egg vending machines but refrigerated dairy cases for Safeway. He "retired" to run the family real estate business, operating rental properties and trailer parks.

Never let it be said that he was intractable when it came to changing times. He fell in step with 1970s fashion, donning polyester suits and a perm in his sixties. His house had solar panels for heating and water. He traveled around the world, bringing back tribal art from Africa and Java and Australia. He exposed us to different cultures and traditions. Whether his behavior was different in his younger years I do not know, but by the time I came along, he was a gentle, jovial man, and I never heard a racial slur from his mouth, despite their common use among his generation. What's more, while my grandmother was rather free with corporal punishment, Ken never raised his hand to me (or my siblings or cousins, so far as I know). He was quick with a hug and a story, or a trip to the ice cream parlor.

Some in my family have hidden less-than-pious behaviors behind a facade of piety, but Ken was one of the most honestly devout people I've ever known. He never played holier-than-thou, never cast aspersions on others, never tried to convert someone from existing beliefs. We had many conversations on the nature of God and the Universe, and I found he was non-judgmental and even shared many of my own beliefs and concepts. Despite a somewhat simple exterior, he had a sharp, progressive mind - although he never could tell a joke worth a damn; he'd always mess up the punchline.

After triple bypass surgery in the early '80s, he seemed to be going strong, but his ticker finally gave out. In a sea of family chaos and rampant dysfunction, Ken was one of the buoys I clung to for stability. Interesting that no sooner did he die than I moved to Palo Alto and met this girl in theater class that fall. Another buoy? Perhaps. At any rate, had Edmund Kenneth Downing and his eldest son, Edmund Maben Downing, not existed, Todd Edmund Downing would not be writing this salute. Fair winds and following seas, you sailors and explorers of eternity. My love and gratitude go with you.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

Thanks for sharing this, Todd.

I never had this experience. I do remember him fondly... but he died when I was so young. I don't have a lot of clear memories of him.