16 June 2012


In a person's life there are a few relationships that will impact you forever.  For me, my formative years are largely centered around my relationships with my grandparents. I already spoke about my grandma and today, a day before Father's Day, I feel reflective.  And I want to talk about my Grandpas.  My grandfathers were very important influences in the person I eventually became.  Each in their own way. 

My Grandpa Earl was a character.  I remember his kind, loving spirit.  His patience with his difficult wife.  He was an ants-in-the-pants kind of guy.  Never sitting still for more than a minute or two.  I remember seeing him with his shirt off. His back a roadmap of shrapnel scars from WWII.  He almost didn't make it out of that war.  I'm grateful he did. He was a Purple Heart Veteran.  He won the bronze star.  He was awarded a posthumous award for bravery from the Philipines. He was my favorite grandparent, bar none.

Grandpa Earl was one of life's great equalizers.  His wife, my only surviving grandparent, blatantly picked favorites.  My uncle over my mother, my boy cousins over my sisters and me.  All of us over our step-siblings.  Grandpa, consciously or un, righted those wrongs by taking the cast out child under his wing.  I was frequently a cast off child, so when we were visiting them, I spent most of my time in his company.  He was a busy man.  Not in the 'I am far too busy for your shenanigans, child" sort of way, but in the 'let no moss grow under your feet" way. He was a gardener by hobby.  He grew a lovely garden that he spent a goodly amount of time in.   A lot of my early memories of him are outside.  They moved several times when I was a kid, but in particular, I remember they lived in this trailer across the street from my Great-Grandma Sylvia.  I don't know if they lived there the longest, or if I just especially enjoyed it there, but that's the house I think about when I think about my Grandpa. 

He had peach trees by the driveway.  He'd lift us up and we'd each get to pluck a fresh, ripe peach and eat it right there.  I don't know if I've ever had a peach that tasted as good to me as those fresh from the tree peaches grown with love by my grandpa.  He always grew four o'clocks by the front door.  I remember them as clear as day.

I remember sitting on their front step, helping him pick the seeds out of the four o'clocks so we could grow more the next year.   I think next year, I will plant a bunch of four o' clocks and keep my grandpa alive just a little longer in my heart.

As I look back on it, I think that he had been getting sick for the entirety of my life.  I don't remember him saying very many names.  He called everyone by an endearment, except my grandmother.  He called her "Dort"  at least that's how I remember him pronouncing it.  Everyone else had a nickname or was referred to as "old what's her name" or something similar.  I think he hid his failing memory with humor.   He kept himself busy to distract himself from the gaps in his awareness.  It's also possible he kept himself busy to stay away from his mean wife.

It wasn't really clear that there was a problem until he started having trouble at the brickyard where he worked.  He'd get up in the middle of the night and think it was time to go to work.   He'd leave his shift for his meal break and think it was time to be done for the day.  He failed rapidly after he had to stop working.  The coming years were terrible for him.  My grandmother wasn't patient with him, despite her training as a Med-aid and her work in a nursing home.  I hate her for that.  In time, he was sent to a nursing home.  Unfortunately, the facility wasn't particularly suited to caring for someone with Alzheimer's Disease.    He was over medicated with Haldol and mistreated.  He was moved from that nursing home to another.  Things weren't good there, either.  His final home was an Old Soldier's Home.  There, he was given the compassionate treatment he needed.  He was there for many many years.  I went to visit him only infrequently.  It was heartbreaking to do so.  He couldn't speak anymore.  Or feed himself.  Or talk.  He lost everything that made him himself.  Maybe it's just in my hearts fond wish, but I would like to think that when I saw him last, the reason he couldn't take his eyes off me is that he recognized me as someone he loved.  I know that he didn't know that was his granddaughter there.   But maybe he felt how much I loved him. Grandpa mercifully died on 1/1/1995.  He suffered far too long with Alzheimer's Disease.  I regret that I didn't have any way to help him and I hope he knew how much I loved him.

My dad's dad, Nels was a different sort of guy.  He was married to my grandmother and they were nearly always together up until the day she died. 
I remember him working for the county, always in the same work pants and a button down shirt. Usually with at least one button undone at the bellybutton.  When I picture Grandpa Nels, I see his crooked smile, his bald head, his blue eyes.  Grandpa didn't have a ton of patience for a kid like me.  I was noisy and busy.  I was squeamish about worms and he loved to fish. He was still patient with me, though, bringing me fishing in his little boat and baiting my hook for me.  My mom talks about a little me, about four years old, climbing up into his lap and looking him right into his crisp blue eyes and saying "Grandpa, why don't you love me like you love Jenny?"  Well, Grandpa's heart melted that day.  From that point on, he made a point of being nice, but for me, he had a nickname and it wasn't a very nice one.  He called me "Josephine Jinx"    I don't know why he called me this, but I remember it making me feel hurt. 

My parents' marriage was a bad one and they left us with Grandma and Grandpa a lot.  As a result, I have a lot of memories with them.  We probably spent 2 or 3 nights a week with my Grandparents on average.  More in the summer.  Grandpa was a very distinctive looking man.  He had white hair, but had marked male pattern baldness, so he really didn't have much hair at all.  I've mentioned the crisp blue eyes.  For much of my life he had an extreme pot belly.  Rather than get pants that fit, he just belted and wore suspenders.  Mostly, I think the suspenders would be over one arm and the one meant to go on the other side hung off his back.   He'd had some severe rheumatoid arthritis when my dad was young and his hands were gnarled as a result. He never let this slow him down.  He just did what he needed to do.  He raised three kids with those bent hands and very little money.  Somehow, he ended up with a good fortune for the small town he lived in.  He'd been in the German Theater and in Normandy for WWII.  He never talked about this, but over time, I learned that he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.  He died with a German bullet in his elbow.  It was embedded in his nerve and removing it would have destroyed the function in his hand.  He was also on Omaha Beach, days after the famous D-Day invasion.  I can't imagine the horrors he saw there. 

When I was a junior in high school, Grandpa's health deteriorated rapidly.  Right before finals, they determined he needed surgery.  It was scheduled for the last day of finals.  I spoke to my teachers and took my finals early.  Grandpa wasn't expected to make it and he wasn't dying at the hospital without Jinx.   He made it through surgery and the recovery period was long.  For that summer, I decided that I would take charge of caring for his lawn, one of his favorite things.  I remember the first day I went down.  I got there, ate some watermelon (my favorite) and set to work.  I mowed the front and the sides and was called to come have a glass of tea.  I went in, had a glass and visited with my grandparents for a while.  I set about getting back to it and finished up the backyard while Grandpa went to look at the work I'd already done.  My grandpa wasn't one to suffer shoddy workmanship.  He inspected my work and pronounced it better than the guy he paid to do it last year.  I got my purse to go and noticed a $5 bill in there.  I thanked him, gave it back and said that I wasn't down there to make money.  Grandpa got a tear in his eye and said "I reckon if I can't mow my own lawn, I can pay someone to do it."  I didn't argue.  Instead, I sat down with him, had another glass of tea and talked about Pinochle.  In addition to my $5, he made sure there was watermelon every week.

If my grandparents left any legacy with my sisters and me, it was Pinochle.  We all play.  As children, we sat and watched countless hours of Pinochle between my grandparents and parents.  After Mom and Dad got divorced, my sister would sit in at Mom's spot.  (that was the danger spot, playing across the table as Grandma's partner.  It's safe to say she didn't care much for losing.)  As we grew, we started sitting in hands when someone went to go to the bathroom or went to the kitchen.    Eventually, we'd go down and sit with them and play, just Grandparents and Grandkids.  Grandma was the shark, but Grandpa wasn't far behind.  Take a trick and Grandpa would have a witticism.  Typically "jumped on that like a biting sow!" or "VULTURE!" playing two aces in a row would always get you a derisive "why didn't you meld your hundred aces?"  My sisters and I taught my husband to play so that we could sit together.  We've spent many hours playing Pinochle and drinking beer.

After Grandma died, it became clear that she'd been covering for him for years.  His failing memory was painful to see.  He was soon just a shadow of the man we remembered.  He had a dog he loved but couldn't care for properly. The poor dog had insulin dependent diabetes just like Grandpa.  Once a week, someone would come down and draw the dog's insulin in one set of syringes and his insulin in another set.  He'd get confused and give himself the dogs insulin and vice versa.  He'd forget to give himself insulin and double the dosage later.
His independence waned and he became more and more dependent on my Dad for help.  I moved in to care for Grandpa for a while, but he really needed professional care and I needed to work.  He went off to an assisted living and ultimately ended up in the nursing home. On one visit, I caught him at a lucid moment.  He and I talked about his heritage (he was a full blooded Dane) and about his time in the war (a subject he rarely visited)  He also talked about how he regretted giving me a hard time as a kid. He said "of all my grandchildren, you've helped the most.  I'm proud of you"  a moment later, his lucidity was gone and he was back to talking about Grandma coming to visit.  Grandma who preceeded him in death.  He lingered at the care center for a while and we lost him in 1999. 

Now, the house I remember him living in is gone.  First sold, then abandoned to foreclosure, then demolished.  I wish I'd taken a mortgage and saved that house.  After all, I grew up there.

Happy Father's Day Grandpas.  The loss of you both pains me.  I wish you'd both gotten a chance to see our children, our families.   We'd make you proud.  I love you both.

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