Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Memories of Grandpa

For some reason I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately, taking long walks down Memory Lane, reliving childhood memories. Inevitably, most (if not all) of my favorite and happiest childhood memories involve my Grandpa.

My Grandpa was awesome. My mom was a teenage mother, so when I was born, the story goes, the family (“family” meaning my mom and my grandpa) got their collective shit together and decided to “settle down” to make a nice little home for the bundle of joy my mom was going to be bringing home. Settling down meant my Grandpa purchased a trailer in Harrison Township on a nice little residential street that ended at Lake St. Clair. And before you make any cracks about me living in a trailer park – oh contraire….it was not a trailer park. It was a street that had houses on it and there were also some trailers too. One side of the streets were woods, and like I said, it ended at the Lake. No trailer park – but a trailer was all Grandpa could afford.

The trailer was a traditional one like you’d picture – it was white with dark brown trim, with windows you had to open by turning a crank. It was above the ground, so to get up into it, you had to use steps. We had a little step porch-thing – I really wouldn’t describe it as a true porch, since really only one person could stand at the top at a time, but I can’t think of a better word. It had 3 bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom/laundry room. There was a backdoor on the thing, but there were no steps to that door, so as a kid I used to love to open the door and freak myself out a bit. The drop was probably less than 5 feet, but when you’re a kid – 5 feet is quite a drop. It didn’t have a skirt around it, probably because those things are expensive. So weeds and whatever grew under my trailer, and sometimes, when I was lazy, it was a nice little shelter for my bike.

I can’t imagine how long it was – because, as a kid, like I said, everything seems large. But it wasn’t even a double-wide. It was a single-wide, standard-sized trailer. And it was home. I had my own bedroom, and I even had my own TV. It was a little 13-inch black and white TV, but hey, it was all mine (it was a gift from Grandpa). I remember coming home from school to watch “The Monkees” or “Scooby-Doo” on it. Eventually, when I moved in with my parents the TV came with me – because I can also remember watching “Happy Days” and “Battle of the Network Stars” on it in my bedroom at our first house.

Grandpa was a lenient disciplinarian. I can only remember him spanking me once, and I was so outraged, I threatened to run away from home. Grandpa replied by showing me the door, so I packed some food (which consisted of one red delicious apple…kids sure don’t plan ahead) and I walked out the door in my anger. Once I got outside, reality hit me. Where would I go? I probably only sat out there a few minutes before I came back inside the house, only slightly less indignant – I was not a “tail-between-the-legs” type. Grandpa never teased me over it, and it was never spoken of again.

Grandpa was the type of guy that would let you come and sleep with him when you had a bad dream. I can remember only doing it a couple of times, but I can remember getting up in the middle of the night and going into his room and asking if I could sleep with him. He wore pajamas like you see in old movies – with a button down shirt and pants. The type of pajama no one wears anymore.

Grandpa had a southern drawl too, and wouldn’t call me by my name – he would call me “youngin” or “suge” (like in Suge Knight…or short for “sugar”). He was born in 1909 in Mississippi and also lived in Louisiana. He was a World War II veteran and didn’t finish high school. He was hardworking and spent the years I knew him working in a tool and die shop. He always wore those dark blue work pants and dark blue work shirts with his name on the patch. He got up early for work so there was a time when the high school girl down the street would babysit me in the morning after he left. My mom would deny it, but there was a time period where she left me with him and she didn’t live with us. Maybe she was serving time or something (just kidding). But I can remember one morning when Grandpa was at work, and the high school girl had left me so she could go to school, and I was left alone in the trailer. I was watching Captain Kangaroo and I knew what time I was supposed to leave for the bus stop in order to get to school. Apparently, this particular episode of Captain Kangaroo was fascinating (maybe Mr. Green Jeans was doing something interesting???) and I missed my bus. I was probably about 6 years old, and as you can imagine, the panic ensued. I didn’t know what to do except call Grandpa at work and tell him I missed the bus. He told me that I better go ask one of the neighbors for a ride because he couldn’t leave work. I ended up asking one of our neighbors and she gave me a ride to school, but this memory always amazes me. Could you imagine any of this happening in our world today? Simpler times, I guess.

Grandpa and I spent a lot of Sundays at the local VFW hall. I would get a hamburger and a Shirley Temple cocktail to drink (complete with the maraschino cherry, orange wedge, and little plastic sword). There usually weren’t a lot of children there to play with, but they had a kickass playground, and in the summer I would play outside, while Grandpa shot the shit with his WWII buddies. In the winter, I’d burn through quarters on their pinball machine. I was a damn good pinball player even then. I still love pinball to this day, and whenever I am in an arcade, I lose my shit if I see a pinball machine. On our way home from the VFW hall, we’d stop at Dairy Queen where my grandpa would get me a small vanilla cone dipped in chocolate. This is the same exact thing I order at DQ to this day. And it puts a smile on my face every time.

Grandpa used to play with me outside too. For an old guy, he was pretty active, and I am thankful for that. He would take me out to the lake in the winter to go ice skating, and swimming in the summer. We would sit out in his yard on summer days and have watermelon seed spitting contests, and he bought me my first bicycle. Later, when I graduated from high school, Grandpa also bought me my first typewriter to write my college papers on. He was so proud of me on graduation day. I wish he had lived long enough to see me graduate from college, and then again from law school. I’m sure he would have been beaming with pride.

We would watch football games and he would pop popcorn for us to eat during the game. I can remember him trying to keep me interested in the game by having me watch for when all the players would “jump into a pile”. That was funny to a little kid.

My grandparents were divorced long before I came along and my grandpa was a bit of a Casanova. He liked to ballroom dance (I’m sure he’d enjoy “Dancing with the Stars”) and he had one particular lady friend who he would take out dancing frequently. Her name was “Vi” – short for “Violet” – and I can remember him getting ready for their dates. He was color blind so he would always ask me if his clothes matched. It was the 70s, so he had a vast array of colored leisure suits – one that sticks out in my memory was his sage green one. He would always have me stand on the couch and make sure his collar was down.

Grandpa moved to Florida when I was 13 and it about broke my heart. By that time, my parents had gotten married, my brother was around and I didn’t live with Grandpa anymore. He had retired from his job and the winters became especially hard on him. In the summer, he would drive from Florida and come visit us, spending a few weeks here in Michigan, making sure he saw everyone. His family still lived in Louisiana, and he would go see them too. I used to write him letters and I still have the letters he wrote back to me.

Grandpa died when I was 19, after losing a battle with lung cancer. He never smoked when I knew him, but he was a heavy smoker as a younger man. He died in Florida, but he wasn’t alone. One of my aunts lived in Florida at the time, and my mom was there visiting too. I was kind of pissed at my mom after he died, because I was going to come to Florida one last time. We all knew he was sick and that he was probably going to die. My mom told me not to come and then within a few days, he passed away. I was in the middle of my final exams at college and actually had to take one of the finals the day he died because I couldn’t get in contact with the professor ahead of time to postpone my exam. I don’t remember the exact date of his passing, probably because I don’t want to remember the date, but I think it was December 12.

Grandpa’s funeral was here in Michigan, and he’s buried at Mt. Olivet. His funeral was very nice, and there was even a 21 gun salute at the graveside. My mom and her sisters decided to bury him in his tuxedo, so he made a pretty dapper dead guy. The last time I saw his body, I was standing at the casket with my mom. I kissed him goodbye on the forehead. Grandpa was the only dead person I’ve ever touched, and it was kind of a shock. His forehead felt like cool cement. I will never forget that feeling.

I’ve only been to the cemetery once to visit his gravesite. It was on the one year anniversary of his death. Part of me feels guilty for not visiting him more often, but I don’t think he minds. I think about him all the time and he visits me in dreams sometimes. The last dream I had with him in it – I’m convinced I visited him in heaven. Or at least his version of heaven. He lived in a beautiful oceanside mansion that was a sparkling white. Actually, everything was white – his clothes, furniture, everything. He was with Vi, so I am guessing she has since passed away (I lost touch with her after he died). He looked amazing – healthy, happy, tan….and vibrant. Of the conversation we had, he was telling me how well he was doing, and in the middle of it, my dad interrupted and was yelling to me from the downstairs that I had to leave. I remember feeling like I did not want to leave for anything, but Grandpa told me I had to go. I woke up with an overwhelmingly serene, yet sad feeling. I was so happy to see him again, but so sad out time was cut short.

I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t have a brief memory or thought of Grandpa. Whether it be red delicious apples, vanilla cones dipped in chocolate at DQ, or football games. I also remember Grandpa whenever Husband's dad does things with Daughter. They spent last summer together and are looking forward to spending another summer together. They go swimming, play golf and baseball, and go get lemon ices at Husband’s aunt’s bakery. They ride bikes and go shopping. I get to relive my memories of Grandpa through Daughter and her Papa now. It make me happy that she is going to have an active Papa in her life that will be proud of her on graduation day and will buy her her first laptop to write her college papers on. My only hope is that she gets more years with him than I did.

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