Saturday, May 23, 2009

My grandfather, "the old dude"

My maternal grandfather passed away last week. Do I know how old he was? Er, not really, I know he served in WWII and he made a big deal about being raised in the depression, so I'm thinking 87? He called himself "the old dude," "dude" being one of his favorite terms for other men that he respected. You were a big dude, a mean dude, or some other kind of dude.

My grandfather was sort of a crazy dude. He suffered from dementia the last couple of years (I'd say since the mid-1960s but no one is asking me) which led him to belive that his house was located on top of a cave filled with crystals. He even got a drill to come out and drill into his back yard and sent the soil samples to a lab. No crystals, but he never gave up hope. My grandmother was convinced she'd go out for a walk and come home to find he'd hired a mining company to come in and dig up the driveway.

He could have done it, too. He was a self-made man who had done quite well for himself.

He was born in New York City, at some undetermined point to a delightful Irish woman who had been in the country for an undisclosed amount of time. She left my grandfather's father, leading some to wonder if she was or was not married to this Irish man and how did she get around that snafu when she married again years later? Anyway, being a "ballsy dame" (that would have been my paternal grandmother talking, only she passed away last year, but left me with some choice vocabulary when it came to the family of her son's wife), she took her son (my grandpa) and worked her way across the country, picking produce. Which is how he came to be in California and how they came to survive the depression. My grandfather always seemed to avoid fresh produce in his later years, was inordinately proud of technology like canned food, and ate ridiculous amounts of meat, giving him sky high cholesterol.

WWII was a blessing for my grandfather. He drove tanks. I'm not sure where he drove tanks, seeing how all the pictures show him in tanks at the base. This seems to be where he met my grandmother. Presumably this is also the period when he was a boxer. Although I could be wrong about that. He also served some time as a prison guard or maybe was an MP on some small island in the pacific, because he once, he proudly told us, arrested a "Jap" at gun point. Lord I hope that was during the war.

Notice all the "seems" and "presumablys" in this story? My grandfather wasn't big on his past, except when it was to shame us into working harder or when he started to lose it and we could never be sure if he was telling us the story of one event or five rolled into one.

After the war, my grandfather, now married to my grandmother, got to go to college on the GI bill. He got a degree in entomology, which directly contributed to my fear of spiders. Note to parents: do not let your slightly odd parents show their nasty spider collection to your children. It WILL scar them for life.

Anyway, he also bought an apartment building, which my grandmother ran (not that my grandfather would ever give her credit, but how else did he manage to run it and work for the state and get a masters and write a paper on the life span of a particularly icky bug ALL AT THE SAME TIME?). He'd then sell it and buy another one and possibly had two at one time for a while, got lucky with some real-estate purchases and was able to retire with a good wad of cash.

Which he liked to tell us about. A lot.

My grandfather became a Republican at some point. Although he always kept a bust of John F. Kennedy in his living room, which confused me for years until my dad pointed out that Kennedy was Irish. Grandpa also left the catholic church at some point; my mother was baptized Catholic, Baptist, and possibly something else before finally marrying my dad and becoming an Episcopalian. My grandfather and my grandmother joined an odd non-denominational church which fit my grandfather's view of the universe. Wonder what my grandfather's world view was? Watch The 700 Club.

My dad once accidently knocked my grandfather flat. He was trying to bond with this odd Irishman, who's daughter he wished to marry, and so took him out golfing. My grandfather stood too close to my dad and got whacked on the follow-through. Knocked him right out. My dad was sure that was it, but my mom married him anyway. She also clandestinely became a Democrat and politics and religion were things we were advised not to mention to Grandpa. He once worked himself into a state after Clinton was elected because, as you know, Clinton and "Hanoi" Jane Fonda were in a conspiracy to turn this country into a communist nation. My grandmother cries at the thought of all those poor homosexuals who will not get into heaven because of their sins. We bite our tongues and make mild comments about how we are sure that the country was not going to become Soviet Russia nor would Jesus let all the gay people burn in hell. And then QUICKLY CHANGE THE SUBJECT.

As you can imagine, family get-togethers could be fraught with tension. Especially since my dad's parents were big in the labor movement and had done a lot to unionize Los Angeles. The dirty pinkos.

After retirement my grandfather helped design the HUGE 70's style house they built in northern California and that my grandmother had to clean. The living room is the size of a soccer field and is never used and there is a jacuzzi in the upstairs bathroom directly over the living room because my grandfather could afford the fancy engineering needed for it. Cleaning such a huge house certainly kept my grandmother busy. But not busy enough; a few years ago my grandfather noticed she was getting a little fat "from too much sitting around." Not because she was in her late 70s and no amount of elastic in the world can keep everything in and up like it used to be. He bought her some fancy exercise equipment. Seeing as how she suffers from hyper tension and has had a quadruple bypass, these machines will either kill her or keep her fit. Meanwhile, he jogged every day and after he had a couple of nasty falls, finally slowed to a walk (at least when within sight of the house). He played on the Elks softball team as shortstop. He continued to slide, even after breaking ribs, wrists, and tearing ligaments and giving my grandmother a series of small heart attacks.

A few years ago he suffered from a series of small strokes, which contributed to the dementia and made it difficult for him to remember directions or sign his name. My grandmother had to learn how to write checks and had to always accompany him when they went out in the car. There were a few times he got lost and had to ask someone to call his wife to come and fetch him. Stubborn and independent, but not so stupid as to miss meals while wandering around looking for his home.

The week before he died, my grandfather played the last game of the season with the Elks. The day before he died, he did his usual walk. He came home and collapsed in the entry way. The end came fast.

While part of me is glad it was sudden, the long slow illness of my paternal grandmother was painful for everyone, I know my maternal grandmother was not ready to be alone. We were all pretty sure grandpa was going to out live us all, he was just that stubborn and I'd have though he'd be around forever to tell us who was in the will and who wasn't for YEARS to come. We were all sure that he'd have given my grandmother one final heart attack, seeing how he kept climbing up on the roof to clean out the gutters (he got stuck twice, having forgotten where he'd put the ladder against the house and once just not being able to clamber back down, and once he fell off the roof, catching himself at the last minute, tearing a rotator cuff and hanging there for some time yelling at my grandmother until she could fetch the neighbor... and that was just last year).

It's hard to think that this small mad force of nature will no longer be calling the house and demanding to know what brand of ceiling fan we use, because he saw on TV that some were falling from the ceiling and killing people and we have to check RIGHT NOW or we could ALL DIE! He won't get to see me graduate, which is a shame, he was really pleased to know that I was going to be educated (because educated women marry better than uneducated women) and excited because he knew I was doing biblical archaeology (I'm not, but having finally gotten him to understand I was not digging up dinosaurs, I went with it, and it made him profoundly proud to know that I was going to find Jesus). It's almost impossible to not imagine calling home and hearing the latest story from my dad and what grandpa did.

In spite of all the headaches and frustration he's caused, the bitten tongues and the choked off retorts, I'll miss him. He was quite a character, that old dude.


  1. Anonymous6:12 PM

    "In spite of all the headaches and frustration he's caused, the bitten tongues and the choked off retorts, I'll miss him. He was quite a character, that old dude."

    That sentence could just as well been about my dad. A good post, Arch!

  2. This is a wonderful post, capturing the full character of a unique man. I love the bit about baseball and his refusal to stop sliding into base. The "old dude" obviously lived with gusto.

  3. Ach, love, I'm sorry. I too will miss hearing those fantastic stories. I never had the...erm...pleasure?...of meeting a man sure to believe that I was an unhealthy influence on his granddaughter, but through the stories told about him, I felt I knew him all the same.

    How many organs are left to distribute amongst your family? And did any of you ever learn to play the darn things?

  4. This is a great tribute! I hated losing my grandparents before I was married - but I loved the time that I had with them!

  5. @ Laura: not everyone might have heard that story yet, though I think I've told it to a few others. And if you don't know the story, you wonder how many lungs he had and why oh why would he be leaving them to us all. Heck, I know the story and I was wondering what you knew about my grandfather's wishes regarding his corporeal remains...

    My grandfather acquired a total of 3 organs - as in the church/lounge act kind. Upon asking my grandfather what he planned on doing with these organs, my grandfather said that they were for us, part of our inheritance. One for my mother, one for my aunt and one for their church. When it was pointed out to him that none of us could play the organ, my grandfather shouted, "you'll learn!"

    I think my aunt might have an idea of how to play, she played the piano quite a lot years ago. The rest of us just know how to turn it on and make it play the cha-cha. Oh, and hold down the keys until someone comes and tells you to turn down the damn noise.

  6. Isn't it strange how so many Fathers and Grandpa's who were young during WWII, won't talk much about it. have the same with my Dad, 84 now. I think I'm going to fly over to Paris where he lives to interview him. I just don't want him to think it's because I think he might die soon. Could relate to your post.

  7. It must be painful to be away from home, especially when there is death in the family. You grandfather sure sounds unique.
    You digging for treasures and crystals perhaps come from him?

    In my post on making new friends in DK- I forgot to mention expat bloggers I have been interacting with for the past 2 months and who I hope to meet. I did a self deprecating humour check on you and you passed with flying colours! You got me at archaeologist and Kibbutz. OMG! imagine the questions I will ask you.... Imagine how important and learned it will make you feel! ;)

  8. Sorry, love...It didn't even occur to me that organs=internal body parts as well as musical intruments. It just has long been a favorite story of mine...

  9. Great post! WE all need crazy dudes in our lives to keep us on our toes... ;-)

  10. great post and I agree with Lady Fi...the crazy old guys give us lots of stories to tell!!

  11. Such a wonderful tribute to your grandpa! Makes me miss the grandparents I have lost over the years...


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