Twenty one years ago today, my grandfather gained his wings after a nearly six year battle with various illnesses which followed several short battles that spanned his lifetime. When I reflect on his life, I find myself always looking at him as two different people. The first person was Healthy Grandpa, and the second person was Unhealthy Grandpa. As I write that, I realize that synopsis either sounds callous if you cannot relate or sounds extremely true it you can relate. Either way, both versions of Grandpa led to lasting memories.
Healthy Grandpa was eccentric. He could be intimidating, but he would give the shirt off his back to a stranger were the stranger in need. He came from a strict background – like was raised in Catholic schools and the nuns beat the “devil” aka the left-handed out of him – that was highly regimented. The later led to a successful military career, a desire to be a servant leader, and a desire to live a highly scheduled life. He believed in God, the American Legion, the VFW, the Knights of Columbus, and that his biggest calling was to provide for his wife and kids. He was very old fashioned in this respect, and I feel like this was because he wanted a stable “normal” home after how atypical for the 1930s his childhood was. He was very much the man of the house, and my grandmother always seemed okay with allowing him to assume that dominant role. He liked his breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a certain time on his plate. It was a white plate with an off center picture of pink flowers on a vine. Each day of the week had a specific menu item which is why to this day I wrinkle my nose when thinking about “Fish stick Friday.” (Side note: I’m convinced fish sticks are the hot dog of the ocean.) Each night after dinner, he either wanted to sit and watch TV or tinker around in the garage.
Not everything Healthy Grandpa did had to fit into a perfectly planned little box. He loved his Kansas City sports which was definitely not a perfect plan given they weren’t good at winning way back when. We were always visiting him during baseball season, and you knew that if a game was on and Grandpa had an ice tea in hand, then he was not to be disturbed. You were welcome to sit with him to watch the game and talk to him during commercials. You were not welcome to the ice tea because it sometimes had whiskey in it that was kept in a special amber colored decanter that he didn’t hide as well as he thought he did under the table next to his blue chair. You were also not welcome to sit in his blue chair, but we did when he wasn’t there because we thought it was funny. I like to think because us grandkids were adorable that he secretly found it cute.
Healthy Grandpa taught me a lot of things in the thirteen years I got to spend with him. I’ll never forget that he taught me what false teeth were when one night me and my cousin were playing outside in the yard, and I looked over at him sitting on the patio listening to a ball game with his teeth in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. I distinctly remember wanting to stare because I couldn’t decide if this was intriguing or gross. He also taught me and my cousin how to light fireworks with a blowtorch. I can still picture him sitting in the lawn chair with the blue glow of the blow torch reflecting on his face holding the blow torch in one hand and a sparkler in the other. He was also adamant that only adults could do this. I never tried it, but I kind of hope my cousin has tried lighting a sparkler with a blowtorch as an adult. I think that would make Healthy Grandpa proud. Healthy Grandpa also taught me that a bunch of old soldiers could walk the like three miles across town between the two cemeteries to do 21 gun salutes on the 4th of July without having a heart attack. This also taught me what “shooting blanks” meant. Along with this, he taught me the proper way to dispose of an old flag: burn it in a barrel in the middle of the city park while wearing a Legion uniform and saying some top secret Legion words. To little me this was a really cool ritual! Lastly, there is the most important thing he taught me: how to be a cat lover. He always had cats. My favorites were always the big fluffy white ones that he loved so much. They looked like the cat in the Fancy Feast commercial! He’d be proud to know that since I was 12, I’ve had cats!
While not the most important thing Healthy Grandpa taught me, this one does warrant a whole section. He indirectly taught me about Bingo (which may have been why I felt so drawn to take LilKsby and Mr Kisby to family bingo today). Twice a week, the Legion would sponsor Bingo, and like the dutiful family of a Legion member that also enjoyed the chance to win money, we went to Bingo. He was responsible for selling the Bingo cards and distributing the cash prizes. I remember that his selling office was essentially a closet with a concession stand style window. There was brown paneling and the counter top was off white. There was room for his stool and the grocery cart full of brown bingo cards that had the little window you slid closed whenever your number was called. He preferred the players who were okay with any card, yet he still obliged the players like me and my cousin because we wanted specific numbers. My cousin always wanted a card with a 4. I was a little more specific and needed a 16, 21, 47, and 55. I remember that we would always sit at the corner table by the door that exited to the street. The table was also catty corner to the calling booth which was cool because I liked watching the little balls get sucked up the tube. Occasionally, he’d come around with the shopping cart in case anyone wanted to switch cards. I think he purposefully ignored us because he knew I’d have a lot of requirements. From the days at Bingo, I also learned how to be a gracious loser because I never won. This worked out because my grandpa didn’t seem to like giving the prize money to his own family very much. My mom has always said he was steamed the night he had to write her a big fat check for the jackpot! Those times at the bingo hall were some of my best memories associated with him especially when I learned that you could get good food from the bar in the back!
Obviously, Healthy Grandpa taught me a lot; however, the six years with Unhealthy Grandpa taught me a lot too. The first thing I learned from Unhealthy Grandpa was that laws for helping those with mental illness are in great need of reform. At twelve years old even I knew that it was complete bogus that a person couldn’t be made to get help until they were a threat to themselves or someone else. It’s seriously tragic that this is the tipping point since sometimes that point is too late. Secondly, Unhealthy Grandpa taught me that even in unlikely situations social connections are still important. No matter where a person is, they benefit from social interactions and having a sense of belonging. In his nursing home this was achieved by trading things like Hershey bars for cigarettes. The last thing Unhealthy Grandpa showed me was the importance of music. He had a tendency to randomly start singing. Sometimes it would be familiar things like Christmas carols and hymns. Other times it would be things I had never heard of but could assume had been popular songs in his younger days. It was in these musical moments that he would seem most like Healthy Grandpa. It was like music and the action of singing somehow connected a broken link in his brain. As an adult looking back, I remember that seeing Unhealthy Grandpa was really hard given he was weak and predominantly wheel chair dependent (not sure if it was out of necessity, a desire to fit in with other nursing home residents, or both) instead of tall (one time he came to visit us and he was the person I ever encountered who was tall enough to walk into a ceiling fan accidentally) and able bodied. It was also awkward because you didn’t always know how to respond to some of the things he said or what to do when a crying episode began. These were also complete 180 behaviors from Healthy Grandpa. Despite not knowing how to process it at the time, this situation taught be patience and to be more understanding of everyone. I’m very thankful that while I don’t like to think about the unhealthy version of my grandpa, I can at least understand that even then he was teaching me life lessons.
Both versions of Grandpa loved his family more than life even if he did sometimes have a weird way of showing it. He’s the only grandpa I was ever able to get to know, and I’m glad that I got the time with him that I did! I’m thankful that I got to make the trip to see him and my grandmother at least once a year growing up. Thanks for going down memory lane with me!
The Great Kaysby