Sunday, June 16, 2013
Happy Father's Day, Grandpa!
It occurs to me today, Father’s Day, I have not written much publicly about my Grandpa. That’s interesting to me because he is such a central figure in my life. That fact is interesting, too, since he has been gone from me for much, much longer than I had him here. Today he is chief in my thoughts.
First, you must understand that when I say “My Grandpa” I am not talking about anyone who was a parent or step-parent to either of my parents. He is no blood kin to me. He was retired after a long career and ready to enjoy his golden years when I came along.
“Came along” is the phrase I often heard from him. As though I were dropped out of the sky by a passing cloud or rode up on my bike one day and didn’t leave.
“Krist, before you came along we thought about moving back home,” he would shake his head as though trying to figure out how it happened that I captured his heart and changed his plans. I never heard regret in those words, only a sense of wonderment that make me feel infinitely loved. It seemed to me he thought he had gotten the better end of this deal, as though moving back to the place where his story began was a bad thing compared to having me.
I had more value than a sunset back home.
I have my own sense of wonder at the way I came along to Grandpa. My mom had a friend who lived with her grandparents. The friend agreed to babysit for my brother and me when my parents worked. Simple, normal, common, average. Lots of working parents have babysitters and lots of teens babysit.
But this teen lived with her grandparents. And the first time she babysat it was only me. And when she brought me home to her grandparents, the first thing they did was take out the camera (an expensive proposition in 1967) and start taking pictures.
I’m still in time sitting on top of the stump – skinny blonde hair in the breeze, big blue eyes, curious stare. It was as though they were commemorating a “first” not an “only” day.
For all of my childhood I heard it, “this is the first day you were here, Krist.”
After a difficult slice of life for all the parties involved, the babysitting turned into Temporary Foster Care which lasted until I was 18. Through holidays and sick days, sunshine days and catching butterfly days, I stayed.
My Grandpa had three step-children, which were as much his own as not. He had several grandchildren and great-grandchildren – some of whom knew him better than others, some who never met him. But I was the child of his sunset years. I was 18 months in that first picture snapped in 1967, he was 65.
Memories of time spent with him are set against many backdrops. To control his diabetes, Grandpa took long walks every day at Jackson Park. Sometimes I walked beside him struggling to match his long stride. He taught me to fish there, too. Not sure we could have ever gotten anything with my ADD energy. Many times we would “run to the store for Grandma” which somehow would include Goober Grape Jelly and “Kristy Kritter” cereal.
Hovering over all the warm fuzzies are the memories of learning my favorite thing from my Grandpa. He taught me to read. He read the Milwaukee Journal from front to back every day while Grandma fixed supper. I can see myself sitting behind the wall of paper, doing my best to be still on his lap and listening to his deep, gentle voice read aloud to me. As the letters became words and the words ideas, I learned the importance of understanding the world on a grand scale.
I’m not sure what Grandpa enjoyed more – a good political discussion or professional wrestling. I suppose both gave him entertainment for their ridiculous staging. The first engaged his mental wrestling as he pushed and pulled the other side until they conceded with him. The second allowed the same, but only by observation.
He was tall, my Grandpa, and strong well into his 70s. He had the clearest, kindest, most honest blue eyes I have ever seen. He was smart. He was loving. He was so, so patient. He was a good friend to many. Honored, admired, respected, loved.
At some point near the end of the story, I remember going to a wedding with my Grandma and Grandpa. I remember watching them dance. I see the graceful strength as he all-but picked my tiny Grandma up as they floated around the dance floor. The music seemed to be a part of them as they knew when it would switch from this to that and matched its motion.
Grandpa liked to play cards, too, and sit outside. I can see us sitting in the backyard on a summer day. Picnic table between us covered with cards as he watched me play Solitaire. He had been wrapped up in the struggle for his life for sometime at that point. A stroke, a heart attack, various complications from those events ate at his abilities. Words taunted him, casual tasks teased him until in frustration he would sigh and shake his head.
That day in the sun, that last day, however, I heard the same clear voice which still speaks to my heart. “Krist, you gotta take care of Grandma, ok? She’s gonna need you to help her.”
My young life had already known too much sadness. I had already stepped out of the lines of expectations in all the wrong ways. I was selfish, not trustworthy. If I had to be placed in a different foster home at that point, I would have been labeled, “troubled, difficult, angry.”
He knew, but seemed to have forgotten that as we sat there.
He did his best in the years before that day to give me value. To remind me that whatever life held, I was smart and capable and could stand up to the challenge.
Storms followed the sunshine. In March 1979 I saw him last. Because I wasn’t technically family I wasn’t allowed to see him in the hospital. When they realized he wouldn’t come home again, someone told the nurses I was a granddaughter visiting from Colorado and they let me in.
Funny that I had to lie to see him when lying is something he taught me was never to be done.
The hallway outside of the ICU of St. Francis Hospital has nothing on the walls, save the two holes burned by the determination in my eyes as I forced the tears to hide. I hear the “swoosh” as the double doors open, “Okay, Krissy, come on. You can see him now.”
I’m standing beside his bed, this stranger who owns my Grandpa’s eyes, holding a thin hand with a young man’s grip and spouting stupid words. “I’m doing good in school Grandpa. I’m ok. I’m helping Grandma.”
All the while he is trying to say something, but the tube in this throat stifles his voice and only his eyes can speak.
I have long wondered what he was trying to say. “Krist, Grandpa loves you.” “Krist, Grandpa is proud of you.” “Krist, remember your promise to take care of Grandma.”
Countless times since then I have imagined my Grandpa beside me through a difficult or proud moment. My son is named for him. When I graduated from college, I hoped he could see me. When I share my time and affection with all the many kids who have crossed my path, I am reminded of the value my Grandpa saw in me.
I remember him on his birthday and in the spring. I think of him when I watch anything political or see a sunset.
I know why I so seldom write about my Grandpa. It’s hard to write when you can’t see through the tears. After all of these years, after all the seasons my life has brought, I still miss my Grandpa. I still hear his voice. I still speak of him as though he is going to pull up any time in his New Yorker.
I was babysitting for my grandchildren last night when my granddaughter asked, “Tell us again the story of your Grandma and Grandpa,”
Telling them the story of compassion, sacrifice, grace I was impressed with the gift I had been given.
And so I finish with the phrases I never said enough.
Thanks, Grandpa. Happy Father’s Day, Grandpa. I love you.
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