If you’ve ever actually seen someone with that proverbial “twinkle in his eye” then maybe you knew Grandpa.
His smile was contagious, and if he laughed, you just felt good to be there to hear it. When I was very small, he played along with me. If I included him in a game of make-believe, he would become part of my world. He would cheerfully wear something silly or eat the pretend foods I offered. He would walk around with a Christmas bow on his head and a grin, as if he felt honored to be included.
There were a lot of things he didn’t seem to understand. He didn’t have much formal education, but he always encouraged me to keep up with mine. If it wasn’t a song they sang in church, he didn’t know it. I showed him my paintings and sketches a few times, but he would just scratch his head and say he didn’t get it. He was careful to tell me that it wasn’t that the art was bad. He just didn’t know about things like art, and it “never did make no sense” to him.
When he got mad, he got quiet, and shook his head. You could tell he was mad, but it was subtle. I don’t remember him every being mad at me. He got mad at my grandma for sneaking cigarettes when she was trying to quit. He got very angry if someone tickled him. I think that was because he was the youngest of ten kids. If he realized I was listening to his angry words, he would say, “I’m sorry, honey. Don’t you worry 'bout that.”
He worked in the steel mills, in Gary, when I was little. He would come home from work angry, talking about the “darkies” taking over. It was shocking to me, because I didn’t hear those things at home. I didn't even understand what he meant, at first. I know that a lot of what drove him to this anger was his appreciation of having a job. He had lived through times when there were none, and was always worried that he would have to again.
Grandpa laughed in a way that indicated camaraderie when he talked about “big Joe,” who he explained was the "biggest darkie” he’d ever seen. He didn't really seem to have malice for Joe, or anyone, but was just using the language he'd grown up with. I understood that he was from another time, and I forgave him his coarse language.
Honestly, I could forgive him almost anything.
Despite his apparent distrust of people who were different from him, he and my grandmother were completely accepting when my blue-eyed blond brother married a Chinese woman. Unlike her parents or mine, I never heard my grandparents say anything negative about my sister-in-law, even when she wasn't there to hear it, and Grandpa treated my nephews the same way he did all children - like treasured friends.
When I was eleven, my grandparents moved down to southern Illinois, to the town where they were both born. Think "Mayberry," and you'd be close. They bought a little two bedroom cottage that was only steps away from the house my grandmother had grown up in. It was always a strange sensation to walk by the old house and imagine my grandmother as a little girl., or to sit on the low wall that separated its property from the sidewalk and wonder, did Grandma sit here when she was just my age? When she trotted down those steps, where was she going?
I loved everything about the sleepy, farm town. The town square was a mile's journey I made often when I was staying with them. There were typical Midwest houses and quiet streets and a little wooded area tucked away, complete with a creek. As a destination, the square wasn't much, but people I passed would greet me and smile. I felt safe.
I used to be amazed at how well I slept when I stayed with my grandparents. I was a kid who just didn't seem to sleep, but not when I was "down home," as my grandparents liked to say. Sometimes, I would be relegated to the pull-out couch because the spare bedroom went to my mother, or an older sibling. Even on that rather uncomfortable bed, and even with my grandfather's loud snoring, I would quickly find sleep. But the best sleep of my life came on sultry summer nights in the spare bedroom. Snuggled under the handmade quilt, with the window open just a little, I would drift off to the pleasant hum of crickets and distant trains.
I never saw Grandpa drink alcohol. He told me once that he’d had a drinking problem when he was young. He said he’d given it up, “cold turkey” and had had emptied all the bottles down the sink and "never touched the stuff again."
I wasn't used to adults sharing things those kinds of things; private things; personal things. It felt good and real, and I felt privileged to know his secret. Knowing about his “checkered past” as my father put it, only made me love him more.
He told me other stories, too. He talked of living through The Great Depression, when he was a young man. He once told me, "During the depression you could buy a loaf of bread for a penny. ‘Course, nobody had a penny." His little exaggeration helped me understand the times better than anything I heard in school.
“Things got so bad,” he said, “that my folks couldn’t keep me.” He'd left home to find work in his early teens. He said, “I hopped trains from one place to another, taking odd jobs and living as best I could.” It sounded very exciting to me, traveling around like that, free, working for food, seeing the country. He told me, “Sure, it was exciting, if you had a full belly,” and punctuated this with his unique twinkle and laugh.
He talked about when he was in Africa during World War II. He spoke of malaria, and the awful medicine they took, and about times when they couldn't get the medicine and men would die all around him. He talked about the “flies as big as birds” and the “air so thick you could cut it with a knife.” I saw a picture of him in his uniform, unshaven, helmet cocked a little to one side. He looked young and rugged and handsome. The man in the picture was a far cry from the bald, pudgy man I knew, but the smile was the same.
I remember how surprised I was when I found out he wasn't really my grandfather. I can’t even remember how it was that I heard. I didn't meet my mother’s real father until I was an adult.
After I found out, it took a while to get up the nerve up to ask my mother how he could be married to grandma and not be my grandfather. She explained about her father leaving, when she was sixteen, and told me that Grandma had married Grandpa several years later. She said he’d had been married before, too.
Grandpa rarely talked about his first wife, who'd died. When he did, a shadow passed over his smile. I heard bits and pieces from cousins and aunts. They hadn't been able to have children. Still, I couldn't imagine him with anyone but Grandma.
After hearing that he’d had no children with his first wife, I asked him why he and Grandma didn't have a baby. I was a child, and didn't know any better than to ask. He smiled and told me they were too old. He said, it just “ wasn't in the cards” for him to have children of his own. Then he told me he was glad to get to be a grandpa, through marriage and I hugged him. I was glad he was my grandpa, too. Somehow, the fact that he wasn't my real grandfather made the time he spent with me even more remarkable. He didn't have to. He wanted to.
I think what I am most grateful for, are the times I had when it was just the two of us. Grandpa seemed to genuinely want to be with me. The weekend he took me to Camel Rock State Park is one of the best memories of my life. We hiked around the park together, and then he took me to a Shawnee – a nearby town. There was a little shack of a restaurant in Shawnee, with rough benches and picnic tables inside. He ordered catfish for the two of us. The man who took our order nodded his head, and then left the building. I watched him go, and Grandpa explained, “He’s gonna’ go catch ‘em, now. These are gonna’ be the freshest fish you’ll ever eat.”
When they brought the plates, I got a shock. My catfish was staring back at me. Grandpa laughed and told me to turn around. He fixed my plate, trimming the head and tail off the fish, and making it look the way I thought dinner ought to look. It was delicious.
The last time I saw him, he was over eighty. He had driven up north to visit his brother, and, at my request, came by my house to see me for a night.
I was married, and had three young children. Watching him with my children brought back so many memories of how he had been with me. I thought how sad it was that this man who loved children so much, and was so good with them, never got to have any of his own.
I hugged him and kissed his cheek, when it was time for him to leave. He told me to come down and see him. I said I would.
I never did. He lived three hundred miles away. I had little children and a lot of excuses. My older brother lived closest to him, and would go to visit him from time to time. Over the next few years, my brother told me I ought to go down and see him, more than once.
Grandpa went down hill pretty quickly, at the end. I heard from my brother and my uncle that he had Alzheimer’s. There was talk about what to do. First a housekeeper was hired because my brother said the house was no longer livable the way it was. A few months later, Grandpa was put in a home of some kind.
I remember feeling guilty but, yes, a little relieved when I heard that he was at the point where he wouldn't recognize anyone anymore. Up until then, it was always in the back of my mind that I should go and see him. By that time I had four kids, and it was just too hard to imagine how I would get down to see him. And, selfishly, I was terribly afraid of losing the picture I had of him from when I was little. It's a sorry excuse, one I wasn't really conscious of at the time, but there it is.
When he died, my brother called to tell me. By this time my kids were ages three and eleven. We were already packed for a camping trip and heading out the door. I was supposed to drive up with the kids and get the tent set up, and my husband was going to meet us a couple of days later, because he couldn't get all the days off work.
I thought about canceling the trip and driving down to go to the funeral , but I didn't have anyone to watch the kids, and I could not bring myself to take them with me. In reality, I know that was an excuse. It was something to tell people, but in all honesty if I hadn't had that excuse, I likely would have come up with another. By then I was aware of how much I didn't want to see him the way my brother had described him; skinny, drawn, pale… dead. I still can’t think of him that way. In my mind he will always be about fifty – the age I am right now.
I went on the camping trip with my kids. My older daughter and I set up the tent and watched the baby while and my sons set up the campfire. The boys were only seven and nine at the time and were thrilled with the (much supervised) responsibility.
After we had eaten, and everyone was ready for bed, we sat outside around the campfire. The kids toasted marshmallows and then, gradually, got quiet. When my three-year-old daughter fell asleep in my lap, I carried her into the tent and laid her in her sleeping bag. I went outside a little longer, to sit by the fire with the older kids.
It was then that I felt his presence. My grandfather seemed to be sitting right beside me, and I cried softly to myself as I listened to the pleasant hum of crickets and distant trains.