I actually think it's going to be hard for me to write a post about my granddad. My heart is too full. Today is his birthday. He would have been 98. He died of pneumonia in 2004. The old man's friend. I still miss him a lot. Of the three grandparents who were part of my growing up, this man, my dad's dad, was the one I was closest to. When I was a little, little girl, I called him Banka. My grandmothers were amazing women (go here and here to see what I mean), and we were close, but my grandpa played with me and talked to me. That was pretty special.
We played a lot. My dad has the same sense of play that my grandpa had, and that makes for a great parent and grandparent. Once, some Thanksgiving or Christmas, Dad, Grandpa and I were all playing football in the backyard, and my dad threw a bomb to my Grandpa. I wasn't that young, maybe in junior high (remember before it was middle school?) or early high school, which meant that Grandpa wasn't that young either. He jumped up to catch the ball and came down flat on his back. Dad and I were so worried, we dashed to the other end of the field to find Grandpa still lying there. He was laughing so hard he couldn't get up, but he still had possession of the ball.
He had a great smile and a great laugh and the sweetest, gentlest spirit of any man you could ever know. He also had a hard life. He was the third eldest of nine children, but when Grandpa was very young, the eldest died within days of each other from diphtheria. His father was a brutal, abusive alcoholic who eventually abandoned his family, and my grandfather never spoke of him. When Grandpa's own mother finally died (at 96...I have longevity on my side, it would seem!) and my dad went to the funeral, she was buried next to my great-grandfather. Looking at the marker, my dad realized that because my grandfather never spoke of him, he had never learned his own grandfather's name.
When he was in high school (am I right about that time frame, Dad?) Grandpa was sent to live with a childless family to "work" for them. Let's not put too fine a point on this. My great-grandfather needed money, so he essentially sold his son to these people. Grandpa was still able to go to school, but his life was one of hard work and loneliness. He worried, as well, about the brothers and sisters left behind in that brutal household. He was, for a time, valedictorian of his high school class, but didn't want to give a speech at graduation so he let his grades slip a bit. The family he'd been sent to live with offered to send him to college, but only if he'd consent to being a teacher. Grandpa didn't want to be a teacher, so he didn't go. I wonder how his life would be different if he hadn't had such a strong spirit. This dog in the picture with him was named Mickey. My grandmother always said that after Mickey died they couldn't bear to get another dog, and I always wondered how much of that was her and not him.
He grew up Lutheran, but before marrying my grandmother joined her Methodist church. He didn't discuss this with her before hand, just went and did it and presented his decision as a fait accompli. They had a funny marriage that way. Not a lot of talking things over, but full of love. Grandpa ended up being the treasurer of their church, and he based his opinion of their minister on the length of the sermon. Too long and Grandpa was not too impressed. When they built a new sanctuary, Grandpa chose the stained glass windows. They're beautiful, unusual and modern. Not what you'd expect, and that was my granddad. Not what you'd expect.
Every Christmas he'd take me to the local floral shop to buy some poinsettias and order flowers to be delivered to my mother and grandmothers. This was a lovely tradition, one I wish we could get moving here. I guess Christmas is much on my mind because also at Christmas every year he'd get my Grandmother a gorgeous piece of jewelry. We'd all wait to see what was in the little box this year. Traditions were important to us...I'd give him Old Spice every Christmas.
Have you ever seen those signs on the side of the road, "Watch for Falling Rock"? Well Grandpa would tell me a wonderful story about an Indian Princess named Falling Rock. He let me play endlessly with his hair, making it "stribbly," and placed countless orders for food in my "restaurant." As I got older, he didn't just talk to me, he confided in me. Things about my dad and his growing up. Things about his own marriage. He loved golf and Redskins football, reading and his family. We we once at a diner for breakfast and made him laugh so hard that coffee and blueberry muffin came out of his nose. VO and 7Up always seemed like a classy drink because my Grandpa drank it, and every margarita he had was, "The best margarita I ever tasted."
On my birthday in 1992 Grandpa had a massive stroke that nearly killed him. Mentally and physically he never really recovered. He went in and out of one nursing home and then back in another in the twelve years he lived after that stroke. After the stroke he learned to walk again and even moved back home for awhile. That, to him, was a great triumph, living at home again. But he wasn't the same man really. Reading took a concentration he no longer had; he even lost the taste for coffee and iced tea. Where he'd once been proud and confident, he became crotchety and worried. While Neel was in graduate school we lived near my grandparents and took them out to eat nearly every Sunday. Invariably Grandpa would complain when we were minutes late. One of my favorite lines from this time, I may have blogged about it before, is one that appears in our family lexicon a lot. As we were driving back from an outing with my dad and both my grandparents, Grandpa worried that we'd be late for his dinner at the nursing home. My dad tried valiantly to reassure him, but Grandpa said, "You may tell me not to worry, but I am worried." We all still use that one.
When he died, I felt overwhelming sadness, but what surprised me was the relief. It was as if his death freed him for me. It freed my memories at least. It was as if seeing him as he was made it too hard to remember him as he had been. I got him back, in a way, when he died. Neel spoke at his funeral, under the stained glass windows Grandpa chose, in the sanctuary where he hadn't attended in so long, Neel made everyone really see what kind of man my Granddad had been. Neel talked about how it was a shame Grandpa had died before learning Joe Gibbs was coming back to coach his beloved Redskins (I like to think that Grandpa got to heaven and whispered a suggestion in God's ear), and my dad told a story about being a kid and watching a man ask his dad for money. Grandpa didn't give him money, but took the man into the restaurant they were passing and bought him a meal. That was the kind of man he was.
I love that last picture of him. He looks so handsome and debonair. That's how I like to remember him. Standing strong. Strong handshake. He kept that strong handshake even after his stroke. For a long time I wondered if it would have been better if he'd just died outright. Those nursing homes were hard on all of us. And then I realized that in those twelve years he saw me get married and met his great-grandson. So those memories aren't all bad. I have a great memory of a very young Callum, three maybe, sharing a bag of potato chips with Grandpa, and that is a very nice memory to have. At his funeral, little four-year old Callum was one of the pall bearers, and that makes me very proud. Happy Birthday Banka. Your Redskins are 5-7, and you have the Bears on Thursday night. You may tell me not to worry, but I am worried. I love you.