January 17, 2005

My Grandfather

My grandfather died early yesterday morning. I'm going home for the funeral tomorrow.

I'm glad to be going; it's been tough talking to everyone on the phone and not being there to help if I can.

I've been thinking about him a lot, of course, the past few days. Remembering. He's been sick the past few years, although his final illness was rather sudden. I'm the oldest of the grandkids --- there's thirteen of us. The youngest is four and a half. Mostly I've been thinking about that; I wish they could have had an chance to know him the way me and my siblings got to know him.

When I was about ten or eleven and my brother was about eight or nine, we often spent the afternoon at my grandparent's house after school. My grandmother worked at a high school herself, and she got off work a half-hour or so after we were let out of school. Oftentimes, my grandfather would come pick us up, and then we'd all go collect my grandmother.

My grandfather had gone to the same primary school as me and my brother, and the act of driving back through its grounds always seemed to call up for him memories of his own school days, some fifty-odd years before. Sitting in the back of his baby blue Oldsmobile sedan as we waited for my grandmother, he'd tell us all these stories, about the desks with their set in-inkpots, and the dull-nibbed fountain pens they set you to write with, about how the worst chore the nuns could assign you was to have to collect all those inkpots and clean them out with a wire brush. The best was clapping erasers. He remembered how once a week they'd have a movie night in the old school auditorium, and you could buy candy from a little store set up in the lobby, licorice whips and bull's eyes and sour balls; he seemed to remember every type of candy they had and how much they sold it for. As he told you a story his hands would spread wide --- this long, those licorice whips --- and he had a repetoire of sound effects to punctuate his every description, pocks and squeeches and clicks, squelch of the wire brush in the soapy water, plosh of spilled ink. These memories were so vivid to him; he didn't want to just tell you about it, he wanted you to see them, to hear them, to share in his pleasure in them. He was a man who wanted to share all his pleasures; he never saw a spot of white on your dinner plate without encouraging you to take another slice, lifting his arm to ladle on another spoonful, a man who never dug into a pint of Brigham's without offering you a scoop. Enthusiasm guided him in all things.

But it was tempered by a meticulousness. The licorice whip was this long, not that; his hands as he talked shaped the air, but they did it precisely, not sketching an outline but drafting it, smoothly tracing remembered dimensions. He loved to figure out how things worked; also to figure out new ways to make them work; after all, he was an engineer who helped design subs and missiles for Raytheon. He seemed to me happiest assembling something, down in his basement workshop or out in the back yard (the Irish music station blasting from the transistor in either case). He could take a thousand small parts and making a whole: a picnic table, a dollhouse, a model plane, a radio. When my grandmother and he moved into it, their house only had one storey. As his family grew he literally built the roof up over them.

It also saddens to think my cousins will miss out on an infamous touring double act doing one of their best routines: Pilot and Navigator.

My grandmother doesn't drive; my grandfather tried to teach her once. Once. (He was apt to be a little impatient with beginner's mistakes; my grandmother was apt to be a little intolerant of being yelled at. You can sense the impasse to which they arrived.) What she does do very well is remember: routes, restaurants, jaunts, junctions, trips, stops. She can tell you three ways to get anywhere she's ever been, why she went there in the first place, who she was with and what they were wearing at the time. So when the two of them drove somewhere, it was she who generally knew the best way to go, and if there was disagreement it was she who could generally offer up unimpeachable evidence for her side. Disagreements were still fairly frequent, of course; my grandmother just won a lot. This freed my grandfather up to concentrate on two things: steering that big blue boat of an Oldsmobile down the highway and the glaring ineptitude of other drivers, the latter of which produced in him a ferocious irritation completely unlike his normal affability. (I've realized just now that this is exactly where my father gets it from.) His commentary on the surrounding drivers and my grandmother's muttered rejoinder has resulted in my learning the only bit of Gaelic I know besides "Erin go bragh." Phonetically, it sounds like "Doom the vail inish" and I derived its meaning from context: "Quit swearing!" Now that I think about it, it might be pig latin, not Gaelic. But the sense is clear.

She kept the logs, he steered the boat, they both enjoyed the arguments; it was a pretty good system. I only saw it break down once, on a trip to Maine, when a tense five-minute round of "Our Exit: Before or After the Toll?" was won in overtime by my grandmother; my grandfather's late concession necessitated an abrupt rightward turn and a brief but eventful passage over a hundred yards of grassy median. The backseat critics --- me and my brother --- thought it about the coolest manouever ever executed outside of Bullit, but our review was censored.

Perhaps it saddens me most of all to think that my young cousins will miss out on my grandfather's sense of humor, for it was made for eight-year-old. I think he knew more elephant jokes than anyone else I've ever met. Many's the time, at the end of dinner, that he'd look across the table at me with a wink and recite,
       "One day I looked up in the sky,
       A little bird was flying by
       It did a twitty in my eye
       Boy, am I glad elephants don't fly."

Great poetry should be preserved. I guess I'll have to remember it myself.

Posted by Diablevert at January 17, 2005 08:02 PM | TrackBack

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