The call came at 5:50 last Monday morning. When the phone rings at that time of day, you know it’s not good. I knew who it was and what he was going to say before I looked at the caller ID or picked up the receiver. It was my dad calling to tell my that my 87-year-old grandpa had passed away.
His health had been going downhill for a while. Last spring he was admitted to the hospital where they determined that the muscles and nerves in his throat weren’t working correctly anymore, and he was aspirating food into his lungs. He hadn’t been getting the nutrition he needed, so they inserted a feeding tube to help him get stronger. When he was released from the hospital, he went into the nursing home and he couldn’t have anything to eat or drink—everything went in through the tube. He had always loved to eat—that was probably nearly enough to kill him, but he hung on and stayed with us for five more months.
J.P. and I flew back to see him at the end of March, and he was so small lying in that bed. But he was in good spirits, and very happy to see us. I clipped his fingernails for him, and I’ll never forget how soft his hands were. He hated that his body was failing him, and he was really unhappy. But that’s not the grandpa I want to remember.
I want to remember the grandpa who took us ice skating every winter. At the beginning of the season he’d gather me, my sister, and our three cousins and take an inventory of our skates. “Does this pair fit anyone this year? Character Builder, maybe you can wear the pair that T wore last year. How about these?” If anyone was left without skates at the end of the process, he’d take us to the sporting goods store to trade in the castoffs for other used pairs.
And then, of course, he’d take us skating. He’d get us all bundled up and laced up (always two pair of socks!), and send us out to skate. While he waited for us in the warming house, he’d help any other kid who needed it.
In the summer, there was camping. He had an old Ford truck with a topper, and he’d load up the tent and take the five of us to the next town over. It was only 15 minutes away and we usually only stayed one night, but we always had a great time. In the morning he’d fry bacon and then cook eggs in the leftover grease. Mmmmmmm . . . .
And I can still smell the corn that he roasted on the grill on hot summer evenings. The Twins game was always on in the background. Even now, baseball on the AM radio still says “summer” to me.
He and Grandma loved to have us kids stay overnight at their house. They’d let us do crazy things that our parents never would. I remember doing the Pepsi Challenge. He let us “build” things in the basement, which was basically just pounding nails into random scraps of wood. When I was about ten, I really wanted to mow the lawn (what was I thinking?) so he let me push the Lawn Boy around the yard. Only I didn’t go in a nice, neat pattern—I zigged and zagged all over the place. He and Grandma took pictures and laughed, and they still talked about it as recently as a year ago.
Every year, my grandparents spent the winter in South Padre Island, Texas. If we were lucky, we’d get to visit them for a week. Their two-room cottage was identical to every other one in the row of cottages, with either an orange or a turquoise front door. We’d walk on the beach and the dunes, collecting shells and feeding the seagulls. We’d cross into Matamoros (Mexico) and shop at the markets. He always liked to tell the story of how he sneezed one day while on the street, and a Mexican school girl walking in front of him turned around and said, “Gesundheit.”
Oh, the food he used to eat! Tomatoes with sugar sprinkled on top. Watermelon with salt. Limburger cheese. Popcorn. Cheese curds. Cottage cheese (“Have you tried this Old Home cottage cheese? Oh, is it ever good!”). Oyster stew (on Christmas Eve). In Texas, he’d get fresh shrimp and boil it in special seasonings. Talk about a distinctive smell! At the time I thought it was disgusting, but I bet I’d love it today.
I don’t want to forget his voice. Every time he answered the phone he’d say, “Bud Lastname” in his deep voice. And there were other things that he said to us over and over:
- “How about a Hertz Donut?” (Hurts, don’t it?)
- “I eat my peas with honey; I’ve done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny, but it keeps them on my knife.”
- “Daraus mit nieder geschnitten Hund!” (Don’t ask me what that means—he couldn’t even tell us. I’m just guessing at the spelling and the words themselves based on my knowledge of German. It has something to do with cutting and a dog.)
- “Can I offer you a kanuper?” (I have no idea how to spell that one, but he was offering a drink.)
I always loved him as a grandpa, of course. But until we looked through old photo albums last week, I don’t think I really thought of him in his other roles—son, husband, father, friend. I wish I’d been old enough to appreciate him in those roles when he was younger and more alive, more himself.
I was so lucky to have him for 38 years. I wish it could’ve been more.