Sometime during the night Tuesday or early Wednesday, my grandfather passed away, in his sleep, at his nursing home. He was 90 years old and had become increasingly frail over the past year. He also had been suffering from dementia for the past several years.
I’m sad: he was my last living grandparent, and I’ll miss him, but the truth is that I feel like I said my good-byes quite a while ago, probably around the time he stopped recognizing me and just about everybody except for my dad (his son).
When I was very young, my grandfather was a mysterious presence. He came over on Sunday mornings in his gigantic gray car (a Lincoln?) with a dozen donuts from Dunkin Donuts. We never saw where he lived. One time, he babysat us at night, when my parents went out, and it was such an odd occurrence that I remember letting my imagination run away with me and pretending the ice cream he dished out for us was poisoned.
He was a mischevious guy, always flashing devilish smiles. He would elbow me and whisper, “Ask your dad if I can come over on Christmas this year.” (He was divorced from my grandmother and was most definitely not allowed.) One time we were sitting around and somehow the topic of earthquakes came up. “Man, one time I was in San Francisco making love to a girl on the couch and–”
Later on, after he retired from the supermarket, where he had been a butcher for years and years, and my mother went back to work, he became a regular babysitter for my sister, my brother and me. I use that term loosely, because he was more interested in cleaning up the house and cooking dinner than in watching us per se, which was fine by us. He had been in the Navy in World War II, on a PT boat in the Pacific, and he liked for things to be shipshape. He would bring his wash over to do, and he would enlist one of to help him fold his sheets nice and neat. When he felt everything was taken care of, he would sit at the dining room table and play endless rounds of solitaire.
He rarely called anybody by their true name; guys were “Rock” or “Cuz;” when he wanted my sister or me, he called, “Julie I mean Susie I mean Deb I mean Lisa.” We thought this was hilarious. (It worked out nicely during the dementia days, too.)
He believed in physical fitness and looking your best. “How do I look?” he would ask, smoothing down his shirt. For many years, a long walk around Cooper River was part of his routine. (Kind of ironic that in the end, his body outlasted his mind by several years.) But he wasn’t so vain that he wouldn’t pop his toupee off and leave it on a lounge chair so he could go swimming with us at the town pool.
My sister posted something on Facebook about how he had always said that after he was gone, if we saw a butterfly, we would know it was him. I don’t remember him saying that, but he definitely had a sentimental streak. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t talk much about the war. But I remember being at his apartment one evening with my dad when he suddenly got choked up and teary. “I just was thinking about all the guys who didn’t make it back–” He also would wax poetic about his “ladyfriend,” Bernadette, the love of his life.
On the other hand, he used to dole out practical advice like, “If you’re going to get married, make sure you shack up with him first.” (Done and done!)
He could be irritating at times (“Yo Deb, looks like you’re putting on weight” was not something my sister and I cared to hear) but there was never any doubt that he just wanted us to be happy. He always, always inquired after how we were doing, whether everything was OK. He never seemed to give up on his other son, my dad’s brother, who had some issues, let’s just say, and took care of him in the last months of his life, up until he died of lung cancer.
I can’t speak to his early life, or exactly what kind of dad or husband he was. But he was a wonderful grandfather: caring, fun-loving, and funny. I’m glad he got to spend time with his four great-grandchildren, and that my oldest, at least, will remember him.
My grandfather spent a lot of time at the casinos of Atlantic City and played the lottery every day — not just in New Jersey, but wherever else he could. I’m pretty sure at one point he held Australian lottery tickets. One of his favorite expressions was “When my ship comes in…” When he hit it big he was going to take care of all of us. This was a distinct possibility to him. We spent one Easter dinner getting in a heated argument over whether it was better to take the annuity option or the lump sum, when he won.
So now I like to think that his ship has come in, that he is sailing away on a luxury ocean liner, not a sailor this time but all dressed up in a snazzy suit, his hairpiece firmly attached (heck, maybe even real hair), sipping a fancy drink and playing the slots.
I’ll miss you Pop.
P.S. This is an article that my dad wrote back in 1988 about those Sunday morning visits, that was published in the New York Times. I forgot how good it was. It gives another perspective on my grandfather. Hey, Dad, he did live another 20 years and then some. 🙂