The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Searching For My Grandfather

“He’s dead. My master is dead.”
“A man died. He seemed to be a good man, but I did not know him.”
--Don Quixote

In October of 1981, an 83 year old man stood in the kitchen of his mobile home in rural Pennsylvania. He was holding a box of cornflakes, trying to decide if he wanted it for breakfast. Four seconds later, both the old man and the cornflakes were on the floor. The cornflakes were spilled, and the old man was dead. The autopsy proved that he had had an aneurism in his brain, and that he was literally dead before he hit the floor.

That man was my mother’s father, my Grandpa Roy. I had only met him four times in my entire life because my mother’s parents were divorced and Grandpa Roy moved far away.

Whenever I’m talking to someone about our families and the subject of grandfathers comes up, I vaguely remember that at one point I had a couple of these, but that I don’t anymore. And it bothers me. I feel cheated.

Let me tell you what I know.

My father’s father, my Grandpa Charlie, is shrouded in mystery. He died of a heart attack in 1958, years before I was born. I have only seen two pictures of him in my entire life (clearly, BeowulfDad isn’t very sentimental). He was a very good looking man and very natty.

Allegedly, Grandpa Charlie fought in World War One (France) and came back home a little, well, strange. He began drinking and joined the Moose lodge, to which my father would have to drive him every night (at least Grandpa Charlie was smart enough not to drive drunk). BeowulfDad didn’t mind this, since it allowed him to have the car for the evening and he could go around doing whatever the hell he did when he was young.

Grandpa Charlie then took a job as a machinist in a factory. I have no idea what the factory manufactured, or precisely what kind of “machine” Grandpa Charlie operated. Eventually, he was promoted to foreman.

Sadly, nothing else is known about Grandpa Charlie except for the quirky fact that he would do his gardening in a dress shirt and a tie.

Moving to the matrilineal line, I know a great deal about Grandpa Roy. He also fought in World War One (Germany), and there’s an impressive picture of him in his Army uniform in our living room. After returning from the war, he and a friend opened a dry-cleaning shop.

Unfortunately, the “friend” absconded with all the money one night, completely cleaning the place out, and leaving Grandpa Roy destitute. He told my grandmother that he was leaving for “the city” to look for work. Because the Depression was going on, he expected to be away for quite a while.

While Grandpa Roy was wandering around Pennsylvania, my grandmother met and fell in love with another man. When Grandpa Roy came home (he still hadn’t found work), he discovered that he was not only unemployed, he was now also homeless. My grandmother divorced him and married her boyfriend.

Not to be daunted, Grandpa Roy built and opened a hardware store, where he worked until his dying day.

I was first introduced to Grandpa Roy when I was 13. To this day I’m not sure why my family went to visit him—it was a nine hour drive. I was a little nervous about meeting him. Was he nice? Would he like me? Would I like him?

When we arrived at his house (the mobile home), I saw nothing but an elderly man sitting on his picnic bench. After greeting my parents, he looked at me and smiled. “Are you BeowulfGirl?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. He had a nice smile.

“Well,” he said happily, “I’m your grandpa!”

I was so confused. Why didn’t I feel anything for this man? Wasn’t I automatically supposed to love him? He was my grandfather. Everyone I knew loved their grandfather. What the hell was wrong with me?

The next time I saw Grandpa Roy was a few years later at my cousin’s wedding. I danced with him, and with his hunched-over shoulders, I was actually taller than he was.

And then, sadly, the cornflakes incident happened, and he was gone.

On the way up to the funeral, my mother was very concerned about the fact that this would be my first funeral, and my first time seeing a dead body. I sat in the back wondering why I wasn’t freaking out. My grandfather had died—shouldn’t I be crying or something?

We arrived at the funeral home, marched in, and went up to the casket. There was Grandpa Roy, in his suit, lying peacefully, flag draped over the coffin. My parents watched me carefully, apparently afraid I was going to snap and drag the body out of the casket.

I thought: This man is my grandfather. He’s my mom’s father. I was just getting to know him, and now he’s gone forever. But why can’t I feel anything?

In the back of the funeral parlor was a small group of very old men. They turned out to be World War One veterans who had served with Grandpa Roy. I approached them, told them who I was, and asked them if they could please tell me a little bit about my grandfather.

The veterans and I talked for well over an hour. They told me stories of funny pranks he had played on the other men in his outfit. They told me he was a brave soldier and a good man. They all agreed on that. My grandfather was a good man.

I approached the casket again and looked at my grandfather. He looked peaceful and at rest.

“Miss you, Grandpa,” I said, and touched his hand.

He was a good man.