Saturday morning, my grandfather-in-law did not wake up. He was 91 and a half years old. He’d be in hospice care for more than six months. Never a man to do things in half measures, he was there for both heart and lungs. In July I was lucky enough to see both my relatives of that generation. (My grandmother is still doing shockingly well in Merced – she just finally went into assisted living this summer.) I added a few hours to my schedule and detoured a couple miles on a business trip to go see John, knowing it might well be my last chance. I sat with him for an hour and held his hand. It’s always hard to know what questions to ask in those circumstances. You find yourself wondering what you’ll want to know, later, when you won’t be able to ask. For many of those questions, the right moment for asking has already passed.
I asked John about his time as a submariner in WWII. I have, not three feet from me now, a carved wooden chest from China. His boat had gone up the Yellow River (I believe) and he’d bought the three nesting chests and enough white silk to make a wedding dress for his girl back home. He solved the storage space problem for such large purchases by storing them in a spent torpedo tube. By this I know that his submarine had seen action. He was a short man – well proportioned to a submarine. But I don’t know much more about his service than that, and that he was proud to have served.
That white silk was for his girl back home; a pretty, dark-haired nurse with more than her fair share of pep. I asked him that afternoon how he’d met her. He talked about dancing, and how she could dance the dawn up. That wedding happened, and that marriage was blessed with two dark-haired, energy-rich daughters – one of whom became the mother of my husband. Their life in Long Island sounds like an idyll of satin bows, maiden aunts (I’ve never been clear who the unmarried sisters were affiliated with, but there’s a litany of maiden aunts), gardens and decent labor for decent pay. (He was an engineer with tools and telephony, and finished up his career at a hardware store.)
Adam tells a lot of stories of the important role his grandfather and grandmother played in his life. There were trips home from Saudi, when he stayed with his maternal grandparents. In ninth grade, Adam went to boarding school in Long Island. The Saudi expat education stopped at high school. He’d wake up at five oh something in the morning to catch the train to see his grandparents. John would be waiting at the other end. I can almost see him in the imagination’s eye – wearing a too big wool sweater and a jaunty tam. John was marvelously patient. I doubt – although my husband can confirm – that he complained about being dragged out of bed in the dark of the morning on a Saturday to pick up his homesick grandson. He and Adam would go get breakfast sandwiches (which Adam speaks of longingly). Then he’d buy Adam a whole stack of hamburgers to fill that adolescent-boy-belly and take Adam back to a loving home. There were silver dollar pancakes and quiet places to read, or play video games.
I first met great gramps on Thanksgiving, after Adam and I had been dating a whole year. I was nervous enough to spend my $5.45 an hour work-study wages on a new skirt and sweater for the occasion. I remember being greeted by turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and a stack of Sunday comics they’d been saving for Adam. I would have just turned 19, and they were as gracious and hospitable to me as they could possibly be. (Although I nearly had to break up with Adam over what constituted serving coffee after dinner – I still blanch at the very thought.)
Thanksgiving was an apropos time to meet John. One of my favorite stories is about the time he was invited to three different Thanksgiving dinners. (See also: many sisters.) He went to the first and did a manful duty by the plate. Then he said his farewells and headed to the next sister’s house. They were just sitting down to dinner, and it would be rude not to join them, right? So of course he couldn’t be rude. His efforts at table – for a small man – were nothing short of Herculean. And best of all, he made it home in time to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with his family. Five foot two, and he could eat three full Thanksgiving dinners to the satisfaction of an Irish/Italian set of sisters and wives!
When Grey was born, he brought great delight to both Millie and John. They LOVED to see him. More or less from the first trip I brought a baby with me, in all the pictures I have of John he’s playing with his great grandchildren. Although he was well north of 80, in many of the pictures I have of him with Grey, he’s on the floor playing! John had two daughters, two grandsons and three great-grandsons: a great wealth.
John loved dominoes. He was a canny and shrewd investor who delighted in figuring out the best strategies. He was a patient man, with soulful blue eyes and a fondness for meals made of meat, potatoes and a veggie. He wore hats with panache. He took his duties as a Catholic extremely seriously, and towards the end devoted his life to prayer. He never once turned his face away from a person in need.
He will be greatly missed.
I’ve gathered some of my pictures of our time with John here