My Grandpop was a legend in my small hometown mostly because of his many “unusual hobbies” – like counting how many flies he could swat on a front porch glider on any given August day. As scores of commuters rushed by our house, they regularly shouted, “Hello, Pop, how many flies today?” Grandpop, pushing 90 by then, responded with enormous numbers.
He was never without his gray wool cardigan, a felt hat that he tipped for the ladies and a smile for those friendly passersby. Of course, that was outside, for strangers.
Inside, he predictably fought my mother about taking a bath and wearing clothes without holes from his dropped cigarettes. You see, when Grandpop wasn’t looking, Mom stole his trousers – still smoking around the holes – where his ashes had landed. Mom used to holler, “Pop, you’re going to burn down the house with all of us in it!” These telltale holes were the result of his Parkinson Disease that made his elegant and ancient hands shake like a gambler about to place a bet.
When Grandpop was younger he raised pedigreed parakeets and bred them for color. Do you want a bird with cerulean blue wings? How about a green bird with a necklace of black and white feathers? Naturally, mom and dad birds were involved in Grandpop’s plan as he tempted these parents into his handcrafted nesting boxes during mating season. That was when Grandpop would hoist me up to peak into the small, precisely drilled hole on the opposite side of the box from where the parent birds entered – a memory etched deep in my mind with an attached feeling of secret belonging that I’ve never forgotten.
One day, Grandpop offered me my own bird in a color of my choice. “Buttercup yellow,” I responded. And that was that. I loved my bird and bathed him ritually once a week after which I blew him dry like he was a candle on a movie star’s birthday cake. Grandpop told me it was a ‘him’ though I kept looking and trying to figure out what made him a ‘him.’
My mother wasn’t particularly thrilled about the sink routine, my inspection for my bird’s sexual identity and teaching him to talk. I think that was because my bird’s initial vocabulary was not filled with words that I taught him. “Dirty bird” was what he liked saying the most – that was because he heard my mother telling him what she thought of him – a behavior I’ve been accused of doing with people that sometimes gets me into trouble.
I named my parakeet ‘Nippy’ because the little sociopath always bit me. Maybe my bird and I were similar because, hey, if someone put his finger in my face, I would probably bite it too. Grandpop frequently said, “Never pair ‘em up if you want them to talk.” “Hey Grandpop,” I would ask, “Are you talking about birds or people?”
Grandpop kept a watchful eye on me when my hobby turned to boys and his hobby turned to watching out for my hobby. Once, when I was an 8th grader, he found me outside and smooching behind our neighbor’s garage. I was wearing ‘Ambush’ cologne, ‘Kiss me pink’ lipstick and smoking one of his Chesterfields. Goodbye prepubescent behavior; hello hormones.
Grandpop could be grouchy, but never to me. Sometimes he would just hand me a dollar bill for no reason at all. I loved Grandpop and he knew it. He loved me and I knew it. When Grandmom died he drove himself to Florida and returned with alligator wallets for all his grandsons and alligator purses for all of his granddaughters. He had 47 in total.
My bag was different,.“Mary Jane, this one is for you.” It was unique all right: the head and tail were still attached. Awesome. I still carry that bag but not frequently, only on those occasions when I really want to impress someone.
I suppose when we think about those people from our childhood who were important to us, we remember those who spent time with us – Grandpop spent time with me. When he died suddenly, I was devastated. He was buried on his 90th birthday.
Now Grandpop’s up there with Grandmom and ten of his eleven children. I pray for him often and thank him for loving me because that’s what we do when we miss someone; that’s what we do when we begin to put it all together. Yes, that’s what we do when we feel grateful for the impact a beloved grandparent had on our lives.
Mary Jane Hurley Brant 2011Tags: signs and connections