Memorial Tributes

On my old blog I wrote these two tributes to my grandfathers who passed away exactly eight months apart. They were the only two posts from the blog that I really cared about keeping, so now they live right here.

Creative Cursing and Other Life Lessons
(Original post date: October 2, 2012)

As I mentioned on Facebook a few months ago, my Grandpa passed away this summer at the age of 89. It’s been a bad year for grandpas in my family, as my other grandfather passed away exactly eight months earlier. When I received this recent bout of sad news, I expected to go through the typical grief process. But I didn't. My brain skipped over all the steps of grieving and went right to acceptance. I later realized this was more of a testament to how Grandpa lived than an emotional flaw of my own. Grandpa lived and left this world exactly on his terms with no unfinished business, and his colorful, hilarious, and cantankerous personality is not one that simply disappears.

Grandpa’s feisty personality was present from the get-go. In grade school, Grandpa and his friends taught the school bully a lesson when they trapped him in an outhouse and threatened to tip it over. On a dare, he jumped off a tall bridge into the Niagara river, only to be greeted on the shore by the police, firemen, and his mom with her hair in curlers. Grandpa dropped out of school at 15 after he told off the principal. He respected authority–he was in the Army, after all–but he had no tolerance for rules without a purpose. “Because I said so,” was simply not a good enough for him. I’m certain this is why he ran his own business until he retired. He and my grandma ran one of the most popular blue collar bars in Niagara Falls. He worked long hours late into the night with few days off, but at least he was the one calling the shots.

One thing I loved about Grandpa was his honesty and directness. He was never afraid to call a spade a spade. If you asked him his honest opinion, well goddamnit, you were getting it. He was never mean, but he couldn’t be bothered with fake niceties either. You always knew where you stood with him, whether he liked you or not. And if he said he was proud of you or happy for you, you never questioned it.

The second thing I loved about him was his ability to hold a conversation with anyone. He always went to college football games with my Dad, but he rarely actually watched the game. He was far too busy chatting with a complete stranger next to him, but he would occasionally poke my father and ask, “Hey, what the hell just happened?” Many people lose their ability to communicate with the younger generation when they get older, but not Grandpa. Even at 89, he had that easy-to-talk-to bartender swagger. He kept up-to-date with world affairs and pop culture. He never touched a computer, but he knew who the head of Facebook was. He watched The Sopranos (which he openly denied, but he could tell you about the characters and the plot points, if questioned), and he remained open to the changing world around him. We recently had a long discussion on society’s changing family structure and gay marriage, and he said, “Jenny, at the end of the day — everyone’s life is their own business. No one tells me how to live mine, so no one should be telling anyone else how to live their life either.”

Grandpa is on the right.
I can’t possibly write about Grandpa without giving a nod to his colorful turn of phrase. He never used the F-bomb that I can recall. “Shit” was his spice of choice, peppered in with liberal amounts of “goddamn” and “sonofabitch.” Some mix of the three ended up in every conversation, often in the same sentence. Oldies like “you don’t know shit from Shinola” worked their way into rotation. When writing his eulogy, I asked my brother to share the most important advice Grandpa ever gave him. Seconds later, he texted back, “Never bullshit a bullshitter.” 
My favorite Grandpa phrase came out when he was backed into a corner with no rebuttal. He’d just wave his hand and yell “Go take a shit for yourself!” I still don’t know what this means–it seems like following this order would relieve me of discomfort, instead of causing me any – yet that phrase became a sign that Grandpa’s closing arguments were officially complete.

Grandpa may have had a rough exterior, but the size of his heart was never in question. He became the designated dog sitter for my parents’ dog Fluffy. When my parents stopped traveling as often, Grandpa would urge Dad to bring Fluffy over when Dad had errands to run, “just so the dog won’t get lonely.” The day before he died, Grandpa was so weak he could barely move in his hospital bed.  But before my father left for the night, Grandpa reached over to his bed side table and pulled out a piece of meat wrapped in a napkin. Grandpa had swiped it off his dinner tray just so Dad could take it home to his pal, Fluffy.

My mom called early in the morning to tell me Grandpa was in his final hours. It wasn’t shocking news;  he had been in hospice for a week. But everyone thought he had at least a month. He was physically failing, but his mind was still sharp as a tack. The night before he died, he held lengthy conversations with visitors, just like he was sitting in his barcalounger at home. I later learned that Grandpa had a heated talk with Dad that night, because Dad told him that he was too sick to leave the hospital room and go home.  The next morning Grandpa went into cardiac arrest. The story made me laugh, because it was just like Grandpa. He knew the truth, he didn’t like it, so he said, “This is shit for the birds. I’m out.”

I often have to remind myself that it has only been two months since he passed. The shitstorm of distressing updates during his final weeks now feels like a lifetime ago and yet it doesn’t really feel like he’s even gone. I felt my other grandfather’s absence immediately, even before he died. My other grandfather was such a quiet, calming presence for our family–a presence that is immediately felt when it’s extinguished. But Grandpa's loud and proud personality is instantly recalled in vibrant detail, like you just saw him yesterday. I’ve visited Grandma several times since the funeral. Even though I know Grandpa isn’t there, it still feels like he is in the back room yelling at the idiots on the evening news.

So here’s to you, Grandpa. You lived life on your terms up until the very end and left a slew of hilarious stories, memories, and creative cursing behind. I hope to love life as much as you did, and live it with as few regrets. And when it’s my time to go, I hope I’ll be able to follow your lead, look the ol’ Reaper in the eye and say, “This is shit for the birds. I’m out.”

Thanks for Everything, Including the Wookie House
(Original post date: November 22, 2011)

Grandpa watching me. I'm watching the Sabres game.

One month ago, my grandfather passed away at the ripe old age of 91. Over these last few weeks, a lot of people have told me, “the world lost a great man.”  And they are right.  In the schoolyard kickball game of Great Men, Grandpa would have been picked first for the team.  But being a “shot glass half full” type of gal, I don’t find pining over what we have lost to be particularly constructive. So, I’m going to talk about how my world was better simply because he was here.

I attribute part of my sense of humor to Grandpa, because he taught me comic timing. Most of these teachings were completely unintentional, mind you. A relative at the funeral brunch told me that he could talk my grandfather into doing anything. This was true. As long as Grandpa was spending time with us, he’d do whatever crazy thing we were into at the time, no matter how ridiculous he looked doing it.  My brother developed a passion for golf when he was a teenager.  Despite the fact that the only golf course Grandpa had ever played involved putting a ball around a miniature windmill, he took my brother out for nine holes.  They made it through the course, which was no small feat since Grandpa did all his putting with a nine iron.

Grandpa had a comedy style I could never replicate — unassuming, never mean-spirited, yet bitingly funny.  A few years ago, someone had gifted us with a tiny bottle of ice wine for New Year’s Eve.  If you are not familiar with ice wine, it is a dessert wine made from frozen grapes.  On this half of the globe, it’s made mostly in Ontario and has the defining characteristics of being:

1)      very, very, sweet
2)      very, very tasty
3)      very, very, expensive per ounce, and therefore,
4)      sold in very, very, little bottles.

Mom rationed the ice wine among us like Moses with the last pouch of manna in the desert. After an hour or so of revelry, Mom reached for the bottle to pour everyone another round only to discover that the bottle, which was supposed to be half full, was empty.

It didn’t take long to solve The Case of the Missing Ice Wine.  Nancy Drew would have figured it out by Chapter Three just by the rumblings of contentment from Grandpa’s end of the table.

“Grandpa!” Mom exclaimed, “Do you know how much that bottle cost?!”

“And honey,” Grandpa said as he set down his glass, “it was worth every penny.”

Even at his funeral, Grandpa’s whimsical humor was front and center.  My parents made the executive decision to rent a car for the funeral, because their dog Fluffy (she lives up to her name) is a frequent passenger in their cars, and our all-black attire did not need the additional fashion accessory of yellow dog hair.  The only car available to rent was a compact Chevrolet. A compact fluorescent green Chevrolet. So this radioactive Snot Mobile led Grandpa’s funeral procession. I don’t think Grandpa would want it any other way.

Grandpa was the one who encouraged me to pursue my creative endeavors. He was a creative force himself, a remarkable craftsman who could build or fix anything.  He assembled a massive doll house for me for Christmas one year.  I’m sure he expected I’d be a normal little girl and put dolls in the house. But I knew something that most little girls did not — dolls are damn creepy. Action figures, however, were AWESOME.  So, the residents of this quaint, three-story residence included Chewbacca, She-ra, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Spiderman and Papa Smurf were invited over for Christmas (which happened once a week in this house). When my brother was put down for his afternoon nap, Voltron and the Transformers would pop over for afternoon tea. I think this was when I realized that a creative discipline was the only type of discipline I would ever co-exist with.

The dollhouse before Chewbacca closed on it.
I doubt I’d still be a writer if it wasn’t for Grandpa. Every instance of writer’s block, every period of frustration, each unfinished manuscript, he was the one who always told me to keep going.  He taught me more about writing than anyone. I spent many hours of my childhood “writing books” with him.  He’d fold a sheet of paper in half and draw a cover for our “book”. Then I would open it up and write a story on the inside that matched the cover he drew.  His only rule was my entire story had to fit on the inside of the “book” with no spilling onto the back cover.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this highly frivolous space limitation taught me the most invaluable lesson a writer could learn — make every word count.

I was reminded of this lesson when I visited Grandpa on Columbus Day weekend just days before he died. I went with my family to visit him every day I was in town. On my last day, I drove to the hospital, alone. The entire way there, I scrolled through my brain trying to find the right words to say to him.  When I entered his room, he was sleeping.  Not wanting to wake him, I simply gave him a kiss and said, “Thanks, Grandpa.”  When I exited, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace.  Our last moment was brief, simple, and to the point. Given his lifelong lesson of editing, it was the best way I could have said goodbye.

Several Christmases ago, Grandpa gave me a bottle of Polish liquor.  I opened it the night I wrote his eulogy, hoping one shot would give me the clarity I needed to craft it. (Note: Nothing that is 100 proof gives you clarity. Burning throat and frequent typos, yes.  Not clarity.)  I cracked it open again tonight to write this blog post.  This time, I’m not looking for clarity. I’m just pointing my glass at the sky to give a brief, simple, and to-the-point toast to one helluva great man.

Thanks for everything, Grandpa.