Yesterday was my grandfather’s 94th birthday. Ok, it was Sunday…but guess who left this post in draft status?
Pretty impressive feat.
Personally, I chuckle at his accomplishment and amuse myself with the idea that his persistent survival is perhaps a result of Heaven not wanting him and Hell literally being afraid he really might take over.
I started life with only three grandparents. My maternal grandmother had divorced her husband before I was born, so my dad’s parents represented the full set of grandparents in my life. Dysfunctional as their divorced selves were with one another.
During my childhood grandma L supported herself as a realtor. My parents ended up buying a house from her in a new development in the Milwaukie/Oregon City suburb of Portland. She later bought a house for herself in that same aluminum-sided development, moving out of the house she had lived in with my grandfather when they were married. He bought it from her and still lives there today.
Yeah, none of that is weird at all.
With grandma L living in the same development as my family, holidays were…interesting. Grandpa was always the early guest on holidays, being a career construction worker, he was always up early – always. This was particularly handy on Christmas, since we kids were up at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day, chomping at the bit to open gifts. Forgetting we weren’t really that well behaved throughout the year, but we hadn’t killed each other like animals, so there’s that.
He’d come early and bring my uncle with him for the first round of awesome Christmas gift-a-palooza. Mom’s mom, grandma F was always the overnight guest, so we had a grandma and grandpa both present for the early testament to American capitalism.
A couple of hours in, grandma L would start circling the neighborhood in her big green land yacht. We would see her drive by in the window from the living room. As an innocent kid, I wasn’t sure what dynamic was at work here. My parents did a good job of shielding the kids from the drama of our grandparent’s relationship. I always figured it was grandma L being either excited to see us for the holiday or her being a bit of a thorn in my grandfather’s side. As much as mom and dad wanted to shelter us, there was no mistaking grandma L’s animosity toward grandpa.
Grandpa, being classically grandpa…he didn’t give a fuck how she felt or how long she circled outside in the cul-de-sac. As a matter of fact, from my adult perspective I would say that knowing she was circling made grandpa sink just a little deeper and more comfortably into the sofa.
Knowing that their divorce was a product of grandpa catching grandma L cheating on him, well…I don’t really blame him for twisting the knife a little.
Case in point, in my opinion, most everyone tends to suck at cheating. I have known exactly one person in my life that has managed it “successfully” – if we ignore the moral side of infidelity. Largely, I suspect her situation was more of an open secret versus an affair.
So, that’s a snapshot of my grandparent-y weirdness.
But back to grandpa, since his birthday is what got me all nostalgic for these important people in my development.
That’s a lifetime.
My earlier comment about Heaven and Hell not wanting him contributing to his long life? Yeah, I actually wouldn’t be surprised to learn that idiom was made specifically in response to grandpa.
He’s a tough mo-fo.
Last week, when the weather was so nice here in Portland, he was outside mowing the grass.
Last Fall, my dad drove up to his house and caught him on the roof, sweeping it clear of pine needles. Yeah, he still lives alone.
Seriously, who thinks, “Hey, I think I’ll break out the ladder and go sweep the roof”? I sure as hell don’t. As a matter of fact, last week while he was out mowing his lawn, I was inside writing a blog bitching about the slow decay of my own body as I age.
He’s definitely one of the most inspirational, stubborn bastards I have ever known.
For his birthday, we went to the Old Spaghetti Factory. It’s kind of traditional for a family dinner in the ‘burbs, no? Still, I remember when it was the height of eating out back when I was a kid. It was a big deal for us to be able to go out and eat at all as a family, so even though my materialistic present day self wants to have a shuddering reaction to being dragged out to Clackamas to this restaurant to celebrate the birthday of my grandfather, I couldn’t. Looking around at the families there for Sunday dinner made me feel all warm and gushy inside.
Enjoying the company of my own family was nice, too…my nephew had avoided a nowhere-near-death experience at his high school ball game the night before and was getting lots of attention for it as he retold the story.
On my side of the table sat four generations of my family.
It was touching.
And the reason we don’t get together more?
All living in the city and not driving like I do. I’m such a trouble maker. The rest of my family lives northwest of the city within a few miles – if not blocks – of each other, so they get to see each other a lot more. But for me, these dinners are more special than I typically let on. Sssshhh!
In that environment, it’s hard to imagine that I don’t really speak to my grandfather anymore. Just his birthday (if I show) and Thanksgiving (if he shows).
Or if he somehow gets tricked into the hospital, and I choose to believe that this might be “it” and visit him there. On those occasions he’s still usually the toughest bastard in the room. How he ends up there is usually the result of a mixed success of his version of self care, essentially rubbing dirt in it or taking an aspirin.
Seriously, that’s his answer to pretty much any ailment: aspirin.
Or Tums. Or is it Rolaids? I forget which he prefers.
Or denial. His ability to deny or ignore what he doesn’t want to deal with is pretty amazing.
It didn’t used to be the case, us not relating. We used to golf together weekly – at least – followed by sandwiches and a piece of pie at Shari’s, another culinary hate crime the suburbs is guilty of. No matter what he ordered for lunch, he always had coffee with it. Always. He was around the house on a regular basis when I was a kid.
But then a couple of things happened that changed my perspective of him and my ability to roll with his “It’s not his fault, he’s from another time” behaviors.
A) My family moved to Kansas. There’s nothing like living in a town with a street called Division – that is still casually accepted as still appropriate – where the Whites live on one side and the Blacks on the other. As the city expanded and grew, the White population just built around the racial divide like an amoeba.
Grandpa was – is – a pretty unapologetic racist. Well, bigot. Everyone always clucked their tongues at his comments, but no one told him to shut up because “He was just raised in a different time”. Plus, he was seriously a tough mother…he would probably kick your ass. And so stubborn. We also all knew he wasn’t going to change.
But, in a classic refrain sung by racists everywhere, he did make a black friend or two over the course of his life. A surprising co-worker, who I think was pretty much always referred to as Old Black Joe. But I could be muddling that memory. Whenever grandpa talked about him, it was with a sense of largess that suggested he was surprised he hadn’t gotten an award yet. Hehehe.
B) When I moved in with my ex- you know the one – he casually accepted it by saying that he bet the guy made me gay and it wasn’t my fault.
First off, I was his first boyfriend, not vice-versa.
But still…I imagined this statement stretched my grandfather’s morally bigoted flexibility to the max – out of love for me.
But I wasn’t satisfied.
After that, I guess I ended up giving him a dose of my own brand of stubbornness and basically EOGed him out of my life.
Funny how the stubbornness gene seems to have skipped a generation. My dad is so easy-breezy-come-what-may going that I’m surprised he could be skimmed out of the same gene pool as my grandfather and me. Matter of fact, all of his sons tend to be a slight variation of this brand of stubborn, each in our own way.
While dad is affably damned by the surprise of something out of the ordinary, his dad – and I bet youngest son – would stand at the edge of the occurrence and silently show their surprise at the situation, but keep silent. Myself – and the Second Son – would each likely voice our objections and offer you welcome advice on how to not repeat the behaviors leading up to the situation at hand. Or unwelcome advice, but neither of us would let that stop us.
So, there we are, my grandfather and I, not or rarely speaking to each other since about 1998.
Almost two decades.
And it makes me sad, because prior to then he was one of the people who formed a lot of the foundation for the man I am. He was in construction and I amuse myself by thinking of myself as one of the things he helped build in his life.
He set a great example for me with his work ethic. Get up early, go to work, support what is important to you. He was in construction, which meant he was subject to working according to the union rules and timetable. When he wasn’t working, he was ready to work and actively looking.
He stood by what he believed and wasn’t sorry for his opinions. That’s important to me, even though I think a lot of his beliefs and opinions were inherited. I learned to stick to my guns by watching him. I learned to be able to articulate and defend my beliefs and opinions through critical thinking from my parents, school and being different. None of which he probably had the benefit of experiencing.
I didn’t learn about cars from him, but he sure tried. I can change a tire, although I may situationally choose not to. I cannot change the oil in a car…nor do I even care to. Who says resistance is futile?
I learned to live a simple life from him. Enjoy what you have versus pursuing what other people tell you is better. I’m not entirely successful in this but still appreciate his example of not being distracted by the noise of life. Again, I also learned to remain open to things that change in life over time so as not to miss out. While thinking of my grandfather sweeping his roof or cutting his grass makes me appreciate his brand of awesomeness, the persistent mental image I have of him is sitting alone at home, watching the news or golf, occasionally staring out the window into his secluded back yard…a condition of his self-imposed exile from the world because he couldn’t be open to what changed as time went by.
So, yeah…I learned that from him. I sure haven’t perfected that skill, but I’m trying to keep on trying.
I can be stubborn.
Which brings us to the last thing I learned from him: stubbornness.
I’d like to dress that up and call it sticking to my guns.
But it isn’t.
But with the knowledge of what holding too tightly to my own opinions and behaviors can cost; I do try to leverage his example of how not to be steamrolled by someone louder or stronger with the behaviors I learned from the generation between: patience and understanding and acceptance and tolerance.
Gifts that he likely never received, or didn’t know how to use when finally presented with them, so he just put them in a figurative closet…not even thinking to re-gift them.
Because he is from a different time.
I really intended to introduce all three of my grandparents here, but my relationship with my grandpa – indeed, the man himself – is so complex that I kind of drifted into just talking about him.
See, I’m flexible.
Or undisciplined. Who knows which.
Both of my grandmothers have died. They both definitely provided examples and life lessons to me, but maybe a Mothers Day post for them would serve their memory better than trying to coattail their contributions to making me better than telling my story of them in the shadow of a presence like my grandfather.