Wednesday, February 8, 2012


My grandfather (my father's father) was one of those men women gravitated to.  A dangerous man, handsome in a sensual way even late into his sixties.  His shock of pure-white hair was thick and shining, styled in much the same way as Elvis's but long before the rocker was born.  It is that hair and his dark, knowing eyes that I remember most and that pierce anyone who sees a photo of him.

But the Grampie I remember is the one who came home from work in mid-afternoon, showered and changed into a white t-shirt and work pants, and immediately took a nap on the flat, brown, nubby couch my grandmother kept tucked in a corner of their living room.  It was such a ritual that everyone knew not to disturb him as he lay there, white-socked feet crossed neatly, arms wrapped around him like a blanket. 

When he was awake, he was my partner in crime.  We'd sit at the kitchen table eating breakfast when I stayed over during the summer, and he'd teach me how to create his favorites:  peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches; graham cracker and milk "soup"; soft-boiled eggs, butter and mayonnaise.  Now that I write this down, it's no wonder that everyone in my family has died of heart attacks.  We had the worst diet!  But it was delicious, because I was eating it with Grampie.

Grampie and my dad took turns teaching me how to swim when we visited my aunt's summer camp in New Hampshire.  Grampie, tanned and muscular in his swimsuit, would put his hand on my stomach, then show me how to cup my fingers and bend my elbows to do the Australian crawl, and when I least expected it, he would take his hand away and say, "See, you're floating, now just keep on going.  That's it.  Just keep moving your feet.  Dig your hands through the water."

During the week, Grampie worked for the City, repairing their vehicles and managing road crews.  At one point, he ran for mayor of the city, but something happened -- I'm not quite sure what -- and he decided he really didn't want to be a politician.  But politician or not, it was clear to me that everyone knew him.  He'd ride in one of the convertibles for our 4th of July parades, and I'd point him out to all my friends as we sat on the sidelines watching the marching bands and the troops of Army men filing by.  My Grampie would wave and laugh, as my father would in later years, and point at me as if I were someone special.

When I stayed at my grandparents' apartment on Baker Road during the summers, I'd roam through their five rooms, touching the momentoes from his years in the service, his medals, the photos of the two of them, their children and all of us grandchildren.  My favorite photo was the one of him in his dough boy uniform from World War I.  The sepia photo depicted him in the flat, wide-brimmed brown wool hat, his face at an angle to the camera, those hooded eyes of his challenging the photographer . . . and beyond, as if he knew all the women who would be affected by the photo.  He wears the high collared jacket and though we can't see him, I'm sure he has jodphurs on, as well.  If he had a moustache, he could be Clark Gable, that movie-star handsome -- and confident.

By the time I was in grammar school, Grampie was in his late sixties, and though none of us knew it until it was too late, he had lung cancer from smoking close to two packs of cigarettes a day.  No one realized how dangerous smoking was back then, or I'm sure Nana would have asked him to quit.  And every one of the guys in our family smoked.  It was part of being a man, part of growing up, and it was something even I would adopt before I hit my teens.  It was "cool."

Grampie died when he was 71 of complications due to lung cancer and heart problems.  I remember my father going back and forth to the hospital at the end and how hushed the house was when he came home with the news of his father's death.  Somehow, my father realized that my Grampie's death was the first I'd experienced, and I'm sure my parents talked about how to deal with it.  At 11, I knew what death was and knew that I would not see Grampie again, but I had no idea how to say goodbye.  Thankfully, Dad did.

He brought me to the funeral home where Grampie was prepared for viewing.  My Uncle Bill owned the home and greeted us at the front door, a little more somber than his usual boisterous self.  He hugged me, called me "Little Dawn," as everyone in my family did (my father was "Big Don"), then took us into the hallway of the home.  The cut-velvet wallpaper on the walls reminded me of the wallpaper in our own living room, except this wallpaper was darker and more elaborate.  The carpeted hallway led to a room lined with velvet curtains so that sounds became whispers.  And there, in an elaborate, mahogany coffin, lay my grandfather, his white hair perfectly groomed, wearing a suit and tie, looking distinguished, handsome and almost like he would turn his head at any moment and say, "What do you say, little girl?  Want a peanut butter and banana sandwich with your Grampie?"

We were the only ones in the room, my father and I.  He whispered to me that I could kneel on the red velvet bench in front of the coffin and say a little prayer.  I was terrified.  What if Grampie didn't like my prayer?  But I did, staring at my grandfather the whole time.  Dad let me stay there for a moment, and I was sure he stood behind me, ready to answer whatever questions I had.  But I didn't ask any.  I got it.  This was death.  Grampie was gone.  He wouldn't be there to hold his hand under me as I swam anymore.

Dad finally touched my shoulder and led me to the guest book, telling me I could be the first to sign it.  So in my awkward grammar school penmanship, I wrote my name and the date.  And as I followed my Dad out of the funeral home, I realized he had done this especially for me, and I knew, at that moment, that I had grown up.


  1. Just last night I was thinking of the phone call that came in the middle of the night when I was in fourth grade. My grandmother had died of complications of a broken hip. My first death too. I've been terrified of phone calls in the middle of the night ever since.

  2. Phone calls in the middle of the night are never good. I think sometimes we should just wait until morning to tell people bad news.

    Thanks for the comment, Barbara. It's nice to know people are reading this blog.