Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Two Grandpas

My two grandpas were fascinating individuals and were very different from one another. Although one died when I was only eight years old, and the other died two months shy of my fiftieth birthday, both had a huge impact on my life.

My maternal grandpa, Ted, was Welsh and was a hard-working man, a quiet man, a gentle man, the very definition of a good man. He was a Bekins mover, and when he got home from a hard day's work, he loved to have Velveeta cheese and a beer, both with salt--I kid you not. Or maybe he just did that once to make me cry out, "Ugh, grandpa, salt on cheese and in beer--that's yucky!" Whereupon, he laughed. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is a very clear memory for me.

My grandpa Ted was my hero. When I was four or five, the whole extended family went to Knott's Berry Farm. We were in a store, and I was looking at something. When I looked up, no one was around. I went outside the store's door and looked around, but could see no member of my family in any direction. I went back into the store and waited. I was too scared to talk to the store clerk. I waited and waited, and finally I saw my grandpa come in the store and start looking up and down the aisles. I cried out, "Grandpa!" and ran to him. He got down on his knees and hugged me tightly, and he kept saying soothing words to me. Then, he took me outside to find the family, who had separated to look for me. This memory is very precious to me because I do not recall my grandpa Ted being very demonstrative, but that day I knew as clear as could be that my grandpa loved me.

Another proud memory of grandpa Ted is his "color" blindness. In the 1950's, the world was very color conscious in that the races did not mix a lot. My grandpa and grandma, however, stayed living in their Los Angeles home as their neighbors changed from white to black. My grandpa and grandma were friends with everyone, and everyone was friends with them. My grandparents showed me from the start of my life that there is no difference between the races except for skin color. I played with the neighbor kids from the time I could go outside. I was in and out of their homes, and they were in and out of my grandparent's home. Grandpa would sometimes take me to the corner store where he would get a beer and a cigar, and the nice black store owner would give me a popsicle or ice cream bar, while he would chat about this and that with my grandpa. I was so young that I did not realize what a special experience I was enjoying. 

However, this lovely experience with my grandparents and their neighbors showed me for the first time that my dad was a bad man. One day when I was five, he came to pick me up early from my grandparent's home and saw me playing with one of the neighbor girls. He ordered me into the house and said terrible things about my friend. He was mean to my grandma and said if she let us play with "niggers" again, he would not allow them (my mom's parents) to watch us anymore. On the drive home, I tried to figure out why my dad was so angry, but he just told me that I was a dumb kid who didn't understand how the world worked. Only I did understand. 

Kids can tell the difference between good and bad, and that day I realized that my grandpa and grandma were good, and my dad was bad. From that day on, I kept playing with the neighbor kids, but I kept a close eye out for my dad's car, which fortunately never showed up early again.

On Christmas Eve 1959, we got a phone call while it was still dark. My parents woke us kids up and hurried us into the car. My mom was weeping uncontrollably. My grandpa had died at only sixty-four years old and just a week after he had passed a physical, which he needed yearly for his job. 

My mom never recovered. She had been a daddy's girl, and when her dad died, she became lost. Perhaps it was because she was married to a brute of a man, who was as unlike her dad as a man could be. I remember on Christmas Eve one year later--my mom had just turned thirty--seeing my mom looking out the kitchen window with tears running down her cheeks. I tried to cheer her up by reminding her it was Christmas Eve, but she started weeping and sobbing. She told me, with heart-wrenching pain oozing from each word, that my grandpa, her dad, was the only man who had ever loved her, and now he was gone, she didn't know what to do anymore.

I've always thought, rightly or wrongly, that my aunt handled her dad's death better than my mom because she had married a prince of a man. My uncle Chuck is as kind a man as has ever been, and he comforted my aunt when she was sad. My uncle is such a lovely human being that I longed to be his daughter when I was young. My cousins are blessed.

One more thing I must share about my grandpa Ted. My grandma told me that she had a rule when she was dating that she would not kiss a gentleman until the third date (remember, this was the 1920's). However, grandma said when she went on her first date with my grandpa that she just knew he would not go out with her a second time if she didn't let him kiss her, so she broke her rule, and she never regretted it. In fact, until the day she died she always told me not to be too rigid because bending your rules sometimes resulted in the nicest surprises.

My paternal grandpa, Bill, was very different from my maternal grandpa. My paternal grandpa was Austrian and stowed away on a ship to get to America when he was in his twenties. He was a gregarious, passionate, demonstrative man, who pretty much wore his heart on his sleeve. He could be a snob, be judgmental, be unyielding and be sexist. He was funny and was one of the most curious, intelligent individuals I've ever known. We loved each other deeply, and when I was grown up and lived four hundred miles apart, we talked to each other every week and sometimes more. We talked about the books we read and politics and whatever was current in the news.

My grandpa Bill was a maitre d' at three of the nicest restaurants in Los Angeles, retiring from Chasen's when he was seventy years old. When I spent a week with my grandparents in the summer, some of my fondest memories are eating at 1:00 A.M. whatever treat grandpa brought home from the restaurant. My favorite was sharing half a roast duck. Afterwards, we would sit in the living room, and my grandparent's parakeet would fly about the room, landing on our shoulders to give us kisses, and grandpa would regale us with his stories, often of the rich and famous, who frequently behaved less than stellarly.

My grandpa could be very wise, but his blind spot was his only child, my dad. He knew that my dad did not treat my mom nor me well, but he did nothing to try to change his son's behavior. When I was a child, a part of me was disappointed in my grandpa because I desperately wanted a white knight to ride in and save my mom and me from my dad, but another part of me had an inkling of understanding. The last time I saw my grandpa in person, we talked about this. He told me that he was ashamed of his son's behavior, but he also loved him. He said, "Katinka, he's my only son. What could I have done? I couldn't risk losing him. I love him. What he did to you and your mom was wrong. I wanted to talk to him, but I just couldn't. Can you understand?" And because I had four children whom I loved more than life itself, I finally did understand.

My grandpa loved food, and he passed that love onto me. We would eat anything and everything. He was a gourmet cook, and I was not, but we both were gourmet eaters. When he came to visit us in 1996, my four children were ages six to thirteen years old. My husband and I decided to take grandpa along with our children to one of our favorite French restaurants. Seeing grandpa's pride in all of us as he watched his great-grandchildren behave beautifully for two hours, eating escargot and pate and everything else we ordered, while chatting quietly together and with the adults, made my heart sing. The "icing on the cake" was when the maitre d'/owner came to compliment us on our children, saying he had never before seen children so young behave so well. My grandpa beamed with joy, and he proudly told the man that the children were his great-grandchildren.

During this same ten day visit, something happened that made me very proud of my grandpa. He played chess with the boys everyday. Grant was six and Hugh was eight, and both played well, but grandpa would beat them, which they expected. Gavin was eleven, and he beat my grandpa as often as grandpa beat him because Gavin played daringly. The day before my grandpa was to return home, Amy told me that her feelings were hurt because grandpa never asked her to play chess with him. I had been so busy trying to make my grandpa's visit fun that I hadn't noticed. Immediately, I went to ask grandpa about why he hadn't played with Amy. He said that girls don't play chess (remember I said he could be sexist). I laughed so hard and flopped on the bed. Grandpa looked puzzled. I asked him whom he thought had taught the children to play chess, and he replied, "Gordon, of course." By then, I was laughing so hard I was almost choking. I said, "No, grandpa, I taught them. I always played chess, but you would never play with me because I was a girl, remember?"

My ninety-one year old grandpa looked so startled and a bit ashamed. In that moment, he saw something he didn't like in himself, and saw how much he had missed in his life by his assumptions. He went to Amy and apologized, and then he offered to play chess with her. She didn't beat him, but she got close, and he told her how impressed he was with her abilities. He even managed not to add "for a girl." I loved my grandpa so much in that moment because it takes a real man to admit he was wrong, and especially to admit that to a child. At ninety-one years old, my grandpa was a real man.

He lived five more years, and when his second wife died, he was planning to come live with us because he wanted to spend as much time with his great-grandchildren as he could, but sadly he caught pneumonia and died before we could make that happen. When he died in 2001, I wept. I still miss him dearly.

One last note about my paternal grandpa, Bill. When grandpa first visited us in 1989, Gordon said to my grandpa that he had met the rest of my family and could not fathom how I turned out the way I did. He said that he had thought I had spontaneously generated because I was so different, so unlike anyone else in my family. And then he said, "But, now I know you, Bill, I can see that Katinka got a lot of who she is from you." Gordon could not have given my grandpa a better compliment. For the rest of his days, grandpa loved to remind me of that.

My two grandpas, deeply loved, so different from one another, helped make me the person I am today. I give thanks for them always.

Take care,

Kate

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