Other Grandpa

Other Grandpa

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

Other Grandpa

We cannot live only for ourselves; a thousand fibers connect us to those who are present and those throughout the generations.

Violet George

Like the dandelion seeds we used to blow into the wind when we were children, my family has scattered across the country and rooted in so many places that my children rarely see their many aunts and uncles, their cousins—even their grandparents. In fact, the remembrance of “Other Grandpa,” whom we can no longer call or write, flourishes in my oldest son’s heart through the cultivation of a single story.

Robbi met “Other Grandpa” only once, when he was four months old. I had flown to California to introduce my baby to some more of his family—to my parents, to two of my brothers and to a sister who came from Montana with her baby girl. But since his condition was so uncertain, I could make no advance plans to see my husband’s father. He had been in a nursing home for a year, cut off by his silence and confusion like a flower pulled from its roots.

When I called the nursing home to schedule a visit, I was not surprised to hear that I would probably not be recognized by Morris, whom I had met only once when Bernie and I were married. And certainly, I was told, I should expect no response from him. Hardening of the arteries and the hardening of life had left him limp and listless. Still, there was no question in my mind that Robbie and I would make the hour-long drive to see “Other Grandpa.” I did not even give much thought to why I was making this trip or for whom: for “Other Grandpa” who would not know us, for my infant son who wouldn’t remember it, for my husband who couldn’t leave his work, or for myself—to try to satisfy my need to bind this scattered family together.

We drove the busy and breezy California freeways to the place where my father-in-law had been transplanted for the last time. How he came to be in a nursing home three thousand miles away from his only child is one of those stories that I would like to undo, to rewrite with a different sort of ending. It is a complicated, horrific and lonely story which began in his native Poland and unfolded across a continent, an ocean and another continent, through a history of pogroms and racism and then struggle in a new country with a new language, a new life. He left most of his relatives behind in Hitler’s Europe— never to hear from them again. To escape from Poland, he was married by proxy to the daughter of a friend of his family, a New Yorker he had never met. They lived in Brooklyn until she died of cancer, and his burlap bag business failed, and then his son went off to college, leaving him to begin yet again. It was his second wife who wanted to move to her girlhood home in California. After that move, Morris walled himself up inside his old age, where it seemed nobody could reach him.

I pulled into the parking lot, nearly empty of cars, and parked in the meager shade of a palm tree. The home was a brick building, smaller than I’d expected, pleasant enough on the outside. Yet, as I pushed Robbie’s stroller through the front door, I could feel the unmistakable quality of the place that made it a home for the aged. It was sterile. Maybe there was easy-listening music being piped through speakers; maybe there were silk flowers on the reception desk and still-life prints on the walls. I do not remember these things. I remember only that there was no sound of children laughing.

Mumbling something about how the air conditioning would be repaired tomorrow, a nurse’s aide led us down a hall into a lounge. “He’s over there,” she said, pointing to one of three people in the room, to the one in the wheelchair near the center of that vast space, his back to us and his head bowed. Apparently asleep. Then, thinking better of it, she walked with us the remaining few steps to tell him, “Morris, there’s someone here to see you.”

Morris turned his head in slow motion to look up at her and then at me. I had made no plans for that moment. Spontaneously, I scooped up my son as I said, “I’m Bernie’s wife, and I’ve brought your grandson to meet you.” I handed Robbie to his grandfather without even thinking that this wilted old man, nearly eighty, might not have the strength to hold him. There was a brief instant when we were all on “pause/still”—and then Morris lifted Robbie up, struggling to raise him to his face, to kiss him again and again. He knew!

My first son was undoubtedly the most smiley, giggly baby in all of babydom, and he squealed with delight as he was lifted heavenward, flapping his arms joyfully as though he were being given his first flying lesson. I watched without taking a breath, helplessly captivated by Robbie’s gleeful shrieks and Morris’s hands—hands trembling with emotion and with the weight of my little boy, fully fifteen pounds by then. Yet, I couldn’t take Robbie from him. My heart stuck in my throat as I watched my son balanced in the air, and I prayed I could catch him if he should fall. I was caught myself, stretched taut between the sparkle in Robbie’s eyes and the glistening tears falling in great drops down my father-in-law’s hollow, unshaven cheeks.

I don’t know how long that moment lasted—one minute, five—but it will stay in my memory forever, and I pray I can graft it to Robbie’s as well. I will always regret that as I gathered up all the baby paraphernalia for that trip, I did not remember to pack a camera. Without benefit of photographs, I must illustrate this story for my son through the words I choose.

I describe to him that room, barren and white and tiled, with side doors open to let in whatever breeze might mercifully come our way. We sat at a stark white fiberglass table, Morris in his wheelchair, Robbie in his stroller and I between them in a yellow plastic contoured chair, in a room that must have been designed for parties, yet I could imagine no parties there. I talked to Morris about our life in New York, about how well Bernie was doing, about the house we were going to buy, about my work as a teacher. I talked to Robbie about his “Other Grandpa,” his daddy’s daddy, about how he had come in a ship across a great ocean from far away. As I babbled on, not expecting any reply from either of them, I was struck by how similar they were, grandfather and grandson, diapered and bibbed, strapped into strollers, neither of them able to use words to express the feelings they held inside. How I longed to hear all the stories my father-in-law could never tell me, stories of the “old country,” of this boyhood, of a mother-in-law I never knew, of my husband’s childhood . . .

The other two occupants in the room came toward us and soon others were coming through the doors of the patio, residents and staff, and then from other rooms, all to see “Morris’s grandson.” Robbie, who on other days would have been fast asleep by then, must have sensed the importance of his role. He showed no sign of tiring as he was passed from one set of arms to another. They cooed to him, and he cooed back. They told him stories, and he crinkled up his baby eyes to match their crinkled, wrinkled ones. My little son breathed—and life went back into them.

After nap time or game time finally called our company away, the three of us sat alone in the reception hall, feeling the California heat and listening to Robbie’s soft sucking noises as he nursed. I looked up at my father-in-law. He bore the same sculptured cheekbones and high, wide forehead of his son. He saw that I was studying him, and he leaned toward me as far as his harness would allow. I sensed that he wanted to say something even before his lips began to move. His mouth struggled with the formation of a word. Then—in a thick, cracking, parchment voice, one that had not been used for a very long time—he spoke. He looked at me and my nursing child and said, finally, simply, “Good.”

Katharine St. Vincent

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