It’s my grandfather ‘s birthday today. He would have been, like, a hundred, but he died a long time ago. Our birthdays were one week apart. We didn’t celebrate them together. I grew up an hour and a half away–enough distance to require a visit. Visits meant packing up the trunk and staying for a whole long weekend.
I now know it’s not that far–I’ve worked a two-hour twenty-minute commute one way. In those days, distance divided a family like busy lives do today. If I’d been old enough, I would’ve gone down for lunch more.
Today, I would have Skyped them, but in those days Skype didn’t exist, so they called us on Sundays and I said something like, “Hi, school’s fine,” and “I love you.”
That was about it because long-distance phone calls were billed by the minute and always showed up on the bill, even though Grandma got a deal because she retired from the phone company. I don’t think I’d have gotten in trouble for calling my grandparents, like when I wanted to call the Hartford radio stations to request music (iTunes hadn’t been invented yet either) but calling long-distance was something kids just didn’t do. If you had to dial the “1” or the area code before the number, it was off-limits.
I try to explain phones to students who can’t conceptualize things like heating up food without microwaves and phones wired in walls. I tell them Mom would tell me to get off the phone, and everyone could listen to my conversations. How I had to be polite and talk to my friends’ moms when they answered the phone just to get to my friends. Seems like a horrid existence to kids who simply text under the table or go to the bathroom to call. They don’t understand long-distance fees. They only understand if their mom blocks data during the school day. I explain it like that.
My grandfather danced on Vaudeville. He didn’t talk about it much. Because iPhones hadn’t been invented, I haven’t seen a YouTube video of him dancing. I only know he got mad at the “God damned talkies,” because they put him out of a job. When sound movies were invented, people stopped going to Vaudeville shows.
He didn’t start to tell stories until near the end, when he advised the world was going to hell. I never knew I was going to grow up to be a pseudo-historian, so I suppose I didn’t ask.
Eventually, after my grandmother died, Grandpa slowed down. His brain slowed too. He forgot things. I took care of him for a while after college–I didn’t have a job yet, and the family wanted to keep him home. He stayed with us for a while, but I found I wasn’t equipped to care for him forever. Being a caretaker is a 24-hour job. You have to know how to tell older people what to do and help them in the shower. I couldn’t do those things. I always saw him as the man that he was, not someone in need of care.
The nurses knew what to do about old people who leave stoves on and forget how to use “the God damned remote control.” They know seniors talk about things from fifty years ago. I didn’t know what to tell Grandpa when he wanted me to drive him home to see my grandmother. “She’ll have dinner ready.” The first time he asked, I reminded him she was gone. It broke my heart. The second and third and every time thereafter, I learned to lie, “Sure, Grandpa, after this show.”
I don’t know what it would be like to be told someone I loved passed every single day, and have to relive it, even if I’d forget in a little while.
It got harder to take him out, because he didn’t like my driving. “You’re going too God damned fast!” You can’t go forty on the highway. Eventually, we sat at home, and later, I’d go the hour and a half–it’s not that far–to the nursing home, where he’d call me by my oldest cousin’s name. After some time, I took the liberty of becoming her. And some days, he knew me and I got to be me.
On those days, he’d try to get one of the doctors or nurses to cure my vegetarianism. He’d tell me about the ice house fire, working when he was a kid, and when his friends came back from the war. Now that I’m old and study such things, I suspect he felt conflicted he didn’t fight alongside them, but the government never sent him–his job was vital on the homefront. We needed people back here, too.
I remember snips and pieces of the few stories he told me–ethnic rivalries in the city, historical events, and things that put an entire century of history in context. I wished I’d been a historian back then.
I think old people should spend more time telling their stories. I remember being amazed that a big candy bar cost a nickel and you couldn’t buy sugar at the store without a coupon. That’s probably why my grandmother always said, “Have some tea with your sugar.” They did without. We never do without in this generation. Even if we don’t have the cash in our pocket, there’s no shortage on the shelves in the store. We have life pretty easy. I don’t think the world went to hell in a handbasket after all.
When I heard those stories, I probably had the same look on my face as my students when I tell them, “In my day, video games weren’t invented and if we wanted to text we had to write it all out on paper , put a stamp on it and the other person got it three days later.” I add in, “And we only had one pair of shoes.” They think the entire generation was poor. I might as well have said “one pair of underwear.”
I just forgot to turn off the stove when I took out the bread. I hope it’s not going to be my turn to forget how to use the God damned remote control soon. When it is, I’m glad I’ve had this chance to tell my stories. I hope when my son’s old enough to appreciate them, and his children after, they will.
Oh yeah. Happy hundred and something birthday, Grandpa. And thank you.