Friday, December 26, 2014

Requiem Part Three: Grandpa

It feels much too soon to write this, because Grandpa died the morning after Thanksgiving, and Jackie fell that same day (or the day before or after) and I don't feel like he's gone, most days. But I've started now, and it feels like I have to finish the series, because if I don't, it wouldn't be fair, and also, because I might never, if I don't now.

The first thing to say about my grandpa is that he was very very smart, and very very intellectually curious. Again, this is not necessarily the most important thing about him according to him, or according to anyone else, but one of the take-homes for me. He graduated from the University of Chicago when he was either in his late teens or just 20- he started when normal kids are still in high school. He got or almost got an advanced degree in some fancy science-y stuff. I always thought he just sold paint, or mixed paint. But when I talked to him about it a couple of months ago, it turns out he was actually like, involved in the science-y stuff, the chemistry, behind fancy paint that coats things like airplanes. His company got bought out and bought out and bought out and is now part of some giant industrial paint manufacturer- he showed me a few months ago, and of course I've forgotten (and I will not insert an Alzheimer's joke here- see Requiem Part 2). A few years ago, one of my relatives found a scientific paper that he co-authored- I couldn't even understand the abstract. While I was growing up, he participated in a group called Plato (embarrassingly, I was sure this was Play-dough for way too long) at UCLA- a group of adults (maybe older adults?) who would pick topics for themselves each month and research and write papers and teach each other about them. For fun. I have a vague memory of going into the stacks at UCLA with him. I also remember our last trip to the Santa Monica Library when he checked out some books and told me he didn't pay his fines till they got to $20.

The story goes that when my mom and her brother and sister were growing up, if they had a question at the dinner table, Grandpa would tell them to go look it up. Whether this succeeded in teaching intellectual curiosity or not (or if it was just annoying) is a question for them. What I can say is that one of my favorite books growing up was "Why are there more questions than answers, Grandad?" which was translated into our family language to "It's in the book, Grandpa," as in, go look it up, kid. (Thanks, Dad, for figuring this out- proto-librarian spent WAY TOO LONG looking!) I am pretty sure that the dusty old encyclopedia set Grandpa's kids used is sitting in my outhouse right now, waiting to be brought inside. The intellectual curiosity of his is sitting in my head right now, among other heads, I'm sure.

Of all the grandparents, who were all smart, Grandpa is the one I most associate with being intellectual. They all read (though now I'm having trouble remembering what Grandma and Bert liked to read), but Grandpa read the most. He and my dad used to swap big boxes of books, back in the days before they both switched to Kindles. Yes, my grandfather started reading on a Kindle in his 80s. He also loved email. He was very into our educations- again, they all were- but one of the ways I like to explain Grandpa's personality is through a story about education. When we'd get A's, he'd ask us why we didn't get A pluses. He meant well, he was proud of our A's, but he wanted us to REALLY do well. I almost went to University of Chicago- partly because I really wanted to be like my grandpa in that way. I graduated college in four years because I knew it was really important to him- he had promised me he would come to my graduation if I did. This seems so silly now- I graduated college in 2003, when he was 85, of COURSE he and his partner, M, flew across the country to Connecticut to come to my graduation! What was I thinking? I should have taken 6 years! I swore I would never go to graduate school, but he never let go of the hope. When I was in high school, and even in early college, I had discussed rabbinical school, or just divinity school. He would bring it up frequently. When I would discuss being burnt out of animal welfare, he would bring up grad school. When I finally succumbed and went back to grad school, every single time I thought about dropping out of #onlineschool, I stayed in because of Grandpa. Before he died, when it still looked like he might live forever, I secretly thought that I could get him up to San Jose for the graduation this coming June. I mean, the man had designs on his great-grandson's Bar Mitzvah, still 4 years away. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, I made secret plans to come down to LA and watch the ridiculous "virtual" graduation they're holding online for us with him. Now that that's not going to happen, I don't even care anymore about this degree. It's too soon: my mom told me that somewhere Grandpa is smiling that I've finally finished. Just the thought of that, the truth of that, makes my entire body hurt.

Grandpa was not one to show his emotions, but in a million little ways, he made the grandchildren feel special, all the way till his death. It has hit me really hard, I think, because I feel like I got to know him as an adult. All over again, I'm reminded how lucky I am. When we were kids, after we'd crawl in bed with Grandma and Grandpa, after he'd absentmindedly stroke our heads or backs, he'd get up and squeeze orange juice for us. Light pulp for me, always. I never liked oranges, but I always liked that orange juice. He'd make sure to buy oranges before we came. He loved to play cribbage with us, or Rummy-Cube. Grandma and Grandpa had a pool, even though Grandma never learned how to swim. Grandpa would throw us in the air, when we were little and just hang out with us later. He always washed the dishes. (Did other men of that era do that or was it special?) He had a special chair in the den, and I loved to sit in there with him, and we'd do crossword puzzles, or watch the news. Or read. Always read. You did not get to talk on the phone with Grandpa, however. When you called while Grandma was still alive, he would say oh, hello, here's your grandmother. After that, you were lucky to get a full 60 seconds. Even when he could still hear. Maybe I can blame my dislike of the phone on him. He took to email like a screenager- the man loved his computer, and the second to last time I saw him (maybe the last, I can't remember), I set the mouse to contrast more with the screen so that he could play solitaire more easily. He loved to play solitaire with real cards pre-computer, and switched right over to the computer after that. (Grandma told us to bang our heads against a wall if we were bored, Grandpa told us to go twiddle our thumbs. Maybe that says something about the two of them. Maybe it just says something about what Yiddish phrases they knew and could translate into English). Even when he emailed, though, the emails were almost as long as his phone calls- 2 sentences was a good one. All capitals, so he could see, always. The one time that I wrote back in all capitals, though, he asked me why I did that. No accommodation for Grandpa.

He loved Grandma fiercely, even when the two of them fought like they didn't care who knew that they hated each other in that moment. I don't even remember what they fought about, anymore. Everything, maybe. Every time I saw them fight, you could just tell it was because they loved each other. She could be annoying and crazy and a martyr, and he could be annoying and probably smothering and emotionally vacant. Grandpa always wanted "whatever's left on the plate" and that thing about showing his love by telling you you could have done better has a particular abrasive quality, if you can't step back from it. Also, sometimes you don't WANT to look it up, you just want the answer. I could see how this could get annoying over the course of 60 years of marriage and a very long illness.

After grandma died, grandpa started dating a woman that he and grandma had known for 40 something years. The two couples had been friends, and M's husband had died 10+ years before. The two eventually moved in together and spent the next almost 15 years together. When they first got together, Grandpa got 10 years younger, right before our eyes. It was amazing. They couldn't get married, because she'd lose her pension, and they couldn't just live together because she'd lose the rent control on their apartment three blocks from the water in Santa Monica, or maybe the other way around, so they became domestic partners. They started traveling together, and they wore rings like a married couple- it was only proper. One time, in college, they took me and my then-boyfriend on a trip to see the fall leaves in Vermont or some such place that has seasons. The two of them were like Grandma and Grandpa before all of the fighting. M and Grandma had taken art classes together- I couldn't even tell the difference in the art on the wall. They told the same stories, went to the same places. He cared so much about her- on some of my last visits, all he worried about was M, and what must be happening to her. She has declined greatly since he has gotten sick- she, too, was in amazing shape for 92 and now 93. M has always been gracious and loving to me in a difficult position- being not-the-grandmother. I owe her 10 extra years with my grandpa, I think.

When Grandpa turned 95, he took his whole extended family, which now includes six great grandchildren, on our version of a family reunion, though I've never heard us call it that. He was still walking and talking and, basically, acting like a man of 80. He lost sight in one of his eyes years ago, and hearing aids weren't doing much for him anymore, but until about two months ago, his brain was as sharp as mine, and his memory probably sharper (no bad Alzheimer's joke here). His knee had been bad for decades so his walking was deteriorating, but I don't think he had a cane until his late 80s, and the walker only came in the last couple of years. As dad pointed out the other day, he was in good enough shape to go over the bill line by line. My cousin had bravely interviewed him about his past, and we all watched it together, though Grandpa couldn't hear it. The part I remember most is the part about him saying he was most proud of his family, proud of his wife and kids and how he had provided for them. There was no emotion in his voice. He just did it and just said it.

But when I'd go down, especially the last year or two, he always said "thank you," with so much emotion, it was like that serious, emotionless man was someone else entirely. I knew he loved me, I knew that unconditional love was there at all times, whether I was with him or not.

There's not much remarkable about Grandpa's death except that it happened. Somehow I thought he would live forever. I mean, at 95, he was still in great health, and not just for a 95 year old. I've seen 60 year olds look worse than he did. He fell one day and after that, he couldn't swallow. They never figured out why he couldn't swallow- at first the doctors didn't even believe him. He spent the last couple of months eating through a tube in his stomach. I saw him the week before he died, and he was so cheerful that day- I was lucky. He was sitting up in a chair waiting for me when I got there, lucid and happy, and bossy about when we'd eat dinner (without him)- just like usual. Eventually he died from pneumonia, or some other complication from aspirating fluid, as he couldn't swallow correctly. He was sick for only a couple months, mercifully. It felt like decades, and I was only going every 3-5 weeks. You learn something about yourself when your people are suffering. You learn about the strength of your love and your ability to man up. I can apparently man up for the hours I'm there, and then it takes something like 3 days for me to recover per hour spent. (More on my parents' amazing ability to man up later.) (Nothing on the use of sexist language, ever.)


mamagotcha said...

I love this series, and I'm so glad you've decided to share your grandparents with us this way. Thank you!

Luisa said...

Yes, thanks for these posts. This: "You learn something about yourself when your people are suffering. You learn about the strength of your love and your ability to man up." Do you ever. Take care -- you and your grandparents are in my thoughts --