Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Gramps

I was lucky enough to know seven grandparents and one great-grandmother growing up.  Because my parents split up when I was two and remarried quickly after, I got to know all of their parents, except for my stepmom's father.  I spent time periodically with each of my other three grandfathers.  All were as different as you could imagine.

My grandfather Gene--my mother's stepfather--is European.  He scared me when I was little.  His voice was often gruff, and he would tease in an off way, always trying to catch me being stupid or wrong.  He and my grandmother fought terribly--still do--and because she is more dynamic and gregaroius (crazier and more controlling, too), I ended up spending more time with her than with him.  She owned me, in a way, that meant that I couldn't also be with him, or with some of my other grandparents.  As a child, I preferred it that way because I saw him as impenetrable and mean and her as funny and bigger than life.  As I grew up, I began to resent not knowing him more.  Particular evidence:  my grandmother disinvited him to my wedding because she didn't want to travel with him.  I'm not sure if he would have come otherwise.  But I think he would have.

I learned later that he saw his own father blown to smithereens by a Nazi explosion when he was a young boy in Germany.  I know that he was a colonel in the army.  I know that he went to the same college I did.  I know that every once in a while relatives from Germany arrive at my grandparents' house, and that all of a sudden my grandfather becomes animated and happy.  Practically a different person.  I know that my grandfather has been unhappy for a long time.  He has severe diabetes and is on dialysis, and has softened, physically and in personality, over the years.  We have conversations when I go home now, until my grandmother takes over.  Which she still does.  I don't know much more about him, other than that he has a fondness for a certain sort of European leather sandal, and for wearing knee-length plaid shorts, and for wearing no shirt.  He loves ice cream and sweets, and I think sometimes he might hope that eating more of it than he should will kill him.  

My grandfather Homer, my father's father, was...oh, it's hard to express.  Having Homer as a grandfather was like spending your time with Bing Crosby.  He was handsome, charming, dapper, smart, and quick-witted.  He drank before-dinner cocktails in crystal tumblers.  His shirts were always tucked in to his pleated khaki pants.  He knew everyone and was universally well thought of, except perhaps by my grandmother.  They had a long and difficult history, I think, involving dalliances and disagreements.  She's pretty buttoned up, an old-fashioned blue-blood, and he was a bit racier.  Maybe they were ill-matched from the get.  I'll never be sure.  What I am sure of is that it would have been nearly impossible for a young kid to dislike that man.  He was one in a million.

Evidence:  I visited their home one afternoon.  It is on a lake in one of the most beautiful towns in the world, timber-covered mountains rising up out of green pastures, cold blue water, the smell of huckleberries and King's Pines everywhere.  We sat down for lunch and grandpa raised his water glass to me and said, "Enjoy this water, Jennifer!  It's fortified with the soul of your dear aunt!"  The dear aunt was grandma's sister, whose ashes had been spread over the lake.  Grandma, who has severe palsy, dropped her plate onto the table.  I don't think it was the palsy that did it.  Grandpa and I had a hard time stifling our giggles.

Grandpa Homer died three summers ago.  He was emaciated and thin when I last saw him, and cried often.  I found this incredibly unnerving and frightening.  He begged, to nobody, to everybody, "I just want to see my children...."  He had six kids, and I don't know how many grandkids, all of whom attended his funeral after he died of lung cancer (and no, he wasn't a smoker.  He had quit smoking at a young age). 

Grandpa Evans--Dub, as he was called--was my stepdad's father.  Most of my memories of him were when I was a child.  We lived with him and my grandma for a while when I was a kid.  He was the kind of guy who was always in a workshirt, pants, and workboots.  He had been a plumber his whole life.  He had the most incredible head of hair I've ever seen, right up until the last time I saw him a few months ago.  He was huge, with bones like branches, tall and strong.  He didn't say much, but when he did, it was usually funny or provocative, but plain-spoken at the same time.  He liked to shoot at squirrels with a slingshot from his front porch.  He liked to tickle me.  He was kind and unimposing.

He and my grandmother had an incredible garden.  I remember best the Snapdragons and berries.

We grow snapdragons in our garden now, and I pulled one for Addie yesterday, explaining to her how to squeeze it so that it's "mouth" opened and shut.  "My grandfather taught me that," I said, a brief shard of memory flickering.

All this, and I find I don't know much about my grandfather Dub, either.  He died peacefully in his sleep last night, with my grandmother, who has Alzheimer's, by his side.  I'm heading home tonight to hang out with my family, and to hear stories about Dub from when he was younger.  I'll see his body, and go with them to bury him.  I'll grieve with my dad, who bears the imprint of his father, physically and emotionally, and always will, and with my brother, who always found a home at my grandparents' house.

Take a rest,
Take a breath,
While the storm is not overhead.


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