When I was little, the one thing that frustrated me about my Pappy was his name: it was impossible to find a card to wish him a happy birthday, or any other holiday. There was every permutation of “grandfather” except for the one I happened to use. It’s one of the many things that made him unique. Nobody else I knew had a Pappy.
And now, no longer do I.
Before I go on, I want to say that he was 91 years old, and he had an amazing life. After a trying childhood, he made the best of life, and life rewarded him for it. He was married to my grandmother until the day he died, he had two daughters and four grandchildren he loved tremendously, and he never wanted for anything. He was also mentally sharp and full of stories until the very end. His heart just finally gave out. I was close to him, and I’m sad, but I’m happy to say it is possible to live a wonderful life and go relatively peacefully.
He and my grandmother had just moved into an assisted living facility a few months ago after he’d had a heart attack; we thought it was just too much for them to keep living on their own. When I saw him at Thanksgiving, he seemed himself. When I saw him at Christmas, he seemed much more delicate—he was paler and seemed to be fading, despite his ability to socialize and tell stories—and I wondered if his time might be near. Before I left, he suggested I could buy him a book of poetry again for his birthday that I’d bought for him years ago, which had gotten lost in the move to the new place.
I sent it as soon as I could.
He died around 3:00AM EST Monday morning. My mother had called me Sunday night to tell me he’d had another heart attack and was in the hospital, but he was alert and seemed to be doing fine. He had another shortly thereafter and Mom was concerned he might not make it, and then finally one early in the morning…
That night, I played an old album to hear its coda, a song called “Hello, Hello (Turn Your Radio On)”, that I’d discovered unexpectedly stuck in my head.
Pappy was born and raised in San Francisco, California by my widowed and peripatetic great-grandmother Norene—’Rene to her family. His father caught tuberculosis and died when he was young, and life with my great-grandmother sounds like it was a trying adventure at times.
After graduating from Cal in Berkeley, he eventually made his way down to southern California—Long Beach to be exact—and began a career with the city after marrying “the girl from Grande Island”. He spent his entire career working for the city, eventually working all the way up to Assistant City Manager, and after a scandal, Acting City Manager, and retired after realizing the Mayor would never have him as City Manager due to his long affiliation with the previous one. My grandfather was never bitter, though. He’d had a great time, great experiences and he was ready to move on to the next phase in his life.
My grandfather loved us. I was his #1 grandson, and of course, politically astute as he was, I became his “first” grandson after the other two came along. He never failed to share his pride in me. As little kids, we spent lots of time riding horses to Banbury Cross on his knee.
I’d like to think my sense of optimism comes from him; when I was disappointed in something, he’d start singing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive“, and as cheesy as it sounds, it demonstrated to me that I had a choice in my disappointment. I could carry it around (and sometimes I do—on purpose) or I could choose to move past it. Most of the time, moving past it pays off in the long run.
My grandfather was incredibly generous, and besides sharing his sense of style and his wardrobe, one story stands out for me. When I was a young teen, I was really into personal computers. I’d helped build the one we had at home with my father. In the late 80s, PCs were still kind of crusty: you might have a hard drive, you might have color graphics, but you usually didn’t have any sound but a tinny beeping speaker. I was envious of my friends who had souped-up Atari 800s and Amiga 500s. When was the music ever going to show up at my house? Why were PCs so retrograde after the Commodore 64?
Enter the AdLib Synthesizer, a card you plugged into the back of your PC that gave you up to 9 channels of FM synthesized sound, a drastic improvement over that tinny speaker. It cost around $100, well out of my reach. I’d only learned about it by reading the included literature in one of the many games I’d bought. I didn’t think my parents could (or would want to) afford it, so I decided to write to my grandparents to see if they could help me get one. I was very enterprising, pointing out all the things I could do with it, and how it would add a new dimension to the thing I spent most of my time doing.
I didn’t expect them to go along with the idea: it was a green card that went into a computer to give it sound. It didn’t sound interesting, and it seemed like it would be a boring thing to consider for anyone else.
Instead, I got a letter in which Pappy wrote: “ask, and ye shall receive”. It blew my mind. It also made me realize how special it was that he could do that, and how fortunate I was to be his grandson. And, that I should never abuse it, but respect it, and find my own way to pay it forward when I had the ability to do so.
That letter, and many like it, were a lifeline to a family back home in the US. When we moved to Japan, it took time for me to make friends, and Pappy helped fill that void by writing me letters. I think he also knew how disappointed I was that my friends back in the States weren’t particularly inclined to write me back, and so he decided to fill in the gap. Those letters would come 3-4 pages in a stack, usually front and back, often with a small note from my grandmother as well. He loved to write, and I loved to read. And as long as I wrote him back, he’d write in return.
I have boxes of letters from our time in Japan and beyond. Once we started the habit, we kept it going until they moved back east to be closer to the family, well into my 20s. His letters stressed to me the importance of keeping up your end of the conversation, regardless of the medium.
They also demonstrated how much he loved me.
As I flew to Atlanta today, I looked out into the blue sky and thought about him dwelling in rays of light, and how he’d be happy I was traveling as he liked to so much.