No Ordinary Grandfather

This Article appeared in The Sand Paper on September 3, 2014

 

Sept. 7 is National Grandparents Day so I wanted to tell you a little about my grandpop. Some folks had quiet grandfathers, the kind who read, played checkers and napped. Not me; mine could have stolen newspaper headlines: “Road Alert: Pop McCart has just turned the key in his ’47 Ford. Pop was last spotted driving erratically down Haddon Avenue, shaking his fist out the window.”

Besides being a terrible driver, Grandpop also made elderberry wine in the basement. He thought it was great, but no one else ever swallowed that vile concoction; they just sat around with their cheeks puffed up and smiled.

Driving wasn’t Grandpop’s only idiosyncrasy, nor was wine making his No. 1 hobby. That status went to how many flies he could swat sitting on the front porch glider on any given August day.

From Monday to Friday, swarms of commuters buzzed passed our three-story home to catch the High Speed Line into Philadelphia. At the end of the working day those same commuters moseyed by and ritually and enthusiastically called out to Grandpop as if fly-swatting were a national sport as popular as baseball and old Pop McCart was the new “Sultan of Swat.”

“Hey, Pop, how many flies did you swat today?” By then Grandpop was going for the world record.

“Got 120 this morning and shooting for 150 by the day’s end.” Everyone chuckled and said, “Good eye, Pop, you’re as amazing as Babe Ruth!”

Sometimes old fellows don’t give a hoot about what they wear. Not my Grandpop; he was a natty dresser: gray wool cardigan, maroon-colored suspenders and a seasonal fedora that he charmingly tipped for the ladies. I admired Grandpop’s suave sense of style and his easygoing manner. Even as a kid I realized those physical characteristics distinguished him as a gentleman. Of course, that was outside, for strangers.

Inside, at home, this same gentleman predictably fought my mother about wearing clothes with holes where ashes had fallen from his dropped cigarettes. “Pop, you’re going to burn down the house with all of us in it!”  (These telltale holes were the result of Grandpop’s Parkinson disease that caused his elegant and ancient hands to shake like a nervous gambler’s about to place a bet.) Seriously, sometimes smoke would curl and rise right up from his lap. And when you’re 10 years old, that’s a real conversation stopper.

Grandpop had other cool hobbies. He raised flowers and won many blue ribbons for his dahlias at the New Jersey State Fair. Incredibly, Grandpop also raised parakeets and could breed any color bird he wanted. Naturally, mom and dad birds were involved in Grandpop’s procreation plan. Back in 1957, Grandpop McCart would have been an early version of parakeetmatch.com.

One day Grandpop offered me my own bird in a color of my choice. “Buttercup yellow!” I responded. And that was that. I loved rubbing my bird’s soft feathers against my cheek, how he perched and bobbed his head up and down on my finger. Grandpop told me my bird was a “him” though I kept looking and trying to figure out what made him a “him.” My mother wasn’t particularly thrilled about my inspection for his sexual identity.

Grandpop could be funny.  For example, when he advised me (in a lowered voice for my ears only), “Never pair ’em up if you want them to talk, Mary Jane.” Then he’d smile. “Hey, Grandpop,” my own smile ever widening, “are you talking about birds or people?” See, that’s that parakeetmatch.com I was talking about earlier.

Grandpop also had a grandchild-watching hobby, which meant he kept an especially watchful eye on me when my hobbies turned to boys. Then his growing hobby turned to watching out for my hobby. Once, when I was an eighth-grader, he found me outside playing spin-the-bottle behind our neighbor’s garage. He never reprimanded me; he just said it was time to help Grandmom dust the dining room. Given it was 9 p.m. and dark, I just nodded my head and walked back inside, knowing I could trust Grandpop to not tell my mother. I loved him for having my back.

Some people thought Grandpop wasn’t particularly emotional. Well, maybe he saved it up for important occasions like when Grandmom died. Just days afterward, he packed a small suitcase and got into that ’47 Ford and drove himself straight to Miami. Reflecting back now, I think associating those events – death and travel – made me connect moving and leaving something sad behind, something I’ve personally practiced all my life.

When Grandpop returned two weeks later, he handed me a paper bag with an alligator purse inside. Wow, it still had the head and tail attached. I still carry that bag on special occasions when I really want to impress someone.

Ten years after Grandmom’s death Grandpop died suddenly. I was devastated. He was buried in May under the biggest oak tree in the cemetery. He probably would have preferred to be laid to rest in his ’47 Ford, holding onto his rosary beads like he held onto the good Lord himself.

I often think of Grandpop when I pass by a house with a wrap-around front porch. Sometimes I talk to him (as we do with those who have gone before us) and thank him for loving me because that’s what I do when I miss someone; that’s what I do when I begin to put it all together. Yes, that’s what I do when I feel grateful for the impact a beloved grandparent had on my life, whether it’s on National Grandparents Day or Monday or any day on the calendar of my heart.

 

Published in The Sandpaper September 3, 2014