When I was very young, he had a heart attack. I remember: we still lived at our old house in town, and I was standing at the top of the steps coming up from the bottom level. Mom answered the phone in the kitchen and I stood there, watching her face contort into something I was too young to understand fully – except that it was wrong, faces weren’t supposed to look like that. After that I remember her crying, and talking to me, but nothing else is as vivid. My grandpa had double bypass surgery and he stopped working after that. It was wonderful – from then on, he had time for my sister and I. He did everything a grandparent is supposed to do.
My dad’s parents are young. They’ve always been young, as grandparents go. In their fifties and sixties my whole life. My grandma was thirteen when she started dating my grandpa. The other day, at the Hospice House, a woman – she must have been a nun? – came in to bless Grandpa, and she asked Grandma what it was that first attracted her to him.
“He looked like Fonzi,” my grandma replied, smiling.
Apparently, Grandpa was pretty hardcore in his day. He had a motorcycle. He took part in street races. He smoked. He grew up in Cleveland and he went to Catholic school until high school. He had great Catholic school stories, but even better Cleveland public high school stories.
One day, my grandpa and his gang of greasers (I’m assuming they looked like greasers) tied some kid to a stake outside of the high school and lit a fire underneath him. The principle got on the loudspeaker and said “If you look out the window, you’ll see why this school has such a bad reputation!” Grandpa always laughed and said the kid was fine, and they never actually set him on fire – just the area around him.
That is my favorite of his stories. The grandpa I knew had never hurt anyone or anything. He was one of the gentlest people I knew. I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t like him. He was funny – so funny – and happy and kind. He was simple, and liked simple things: there wasn’t anything fancy about him. When he and my grandma could, they moved their family out of the city to where we all live now, in the beautiful middle of nowhere. He and my grandma built a really great life for themselves – and I know it was hard. It was probably harder than I can imagine. They spent years fixing up the house they’ve always lived in, a small, two-story farmhouse built over half a century ago. They added gardens and a workshop and a garage. Grandpa built things – swings, birdhouses, benches. He landscaped and bought antiques with which to pepper the yard. There’s a big old tree and a massive rhododendron bush between the garage and the house. My sister and I used to have a swing tied to that tree, and when we were older we climbed it. When we got a little older still, we stopped climbing. I think we need to start again.
I’ve been lucky to grow up fifteen minutes from my grandparents. Really, fifteen minutes from all of my family, on both sides. On my dad’s side, my sister and I were the only grandkids until just three years ago, when Lucy was born. The two of us were so spoiled – still are. I’m the oldest, and Hannah is three years younger, and we both loved spending time with our grandparents. They were always active, always going someplace. When we were in elementary school, Grandpa would come get us every now and again and take us to McDonald’s – just me, Hannah, and him. The three of us would squeeze into the seat of his truck and we would sing songs all the way there. Some of them were real songs, and others were ones Grandpa had made up somewhere along the way. He was famous for making up words (he always said they were real words from a real Eastern European language – Polish, or Ukrainian, or Romanian. Maybe they were, in some way. All I know is that everyone knew what the words meant when Grandpa said them, even if we couldn’t explain how or why we knew). When we got to McDonald’s, we’d eat quickly because Grandpa always let us play in the play area. Our mom never let us do that, and even Grandma would’ve been hesitant – people catch colds from those things – but Grandpa always let us. He would sit and watch from the table as Hannah and I played. I’m sure he must’ve called us back to him at some point, so he could take us home, but I don’t remember it. In my memory, Grandpa let us play all night long, forever, and never stopped us.
My sister and I spent one full summer going to our grandparents’ house every day while our parents worked. Since Grandma worked too sometimes, often it was just Grandpa watching us. It was one of the best summers. Their house doesn’t have air conditioning, so in the afternoons, when Grandpa was outside or in the barn working, Hannah and I would collapse onto the couch in the cool darkness and watch ABC Family’s entire summer afternoon line-up. Family Matters, Full House, Mary-Kate and Ashley, Step by Step. We ate chewy Chips Ahoy and sometimes fell asleep. Grandpa didn’t say we were lazy or silly. Sometimes they took us to Pamida on senior citizen discount day (“old geezer day,” Grandpa called it), or we’d go to the drug store for ice cream sandwiches. You know the feeling of walking out of the hot, humid summer air into chilly air conditioning? That summer made it one of the best feelings in the world.
We found two kittens that summer, too. They just showed up at my grandparents’ house: a black and white one and a calico. They let us put out milk and cheese for them, so they never left. I chose the black and white one as my own and called it Friday. Hannah picked the calico. “They’re names are just Kitty Kitty,” Grandpa would say, pointing to each cat. “That’s Kitty, and that’s the other Kitty. I just call ‘Kitty Kitty!’ in the mornings and they come running.” After we went back to school, the cats stuck around for a few weeks, then they disappeared. Grandpa had bought food for them and everything. My sister and I were sad that they’d gone, but I think Grandpa was a little sadder. He liked them. I think it was easy for him to love anything.
Summer wasn’t the only time we spent with my grandparents. Since Grandpa was always free, he had us for snow days, too. Once, he plowed the snow into a little mound at the bottom of the big hill my grandparents lived on. Hannah and I would sled down that hill on saucers, and when we hit the pile of snow Grandpa had made us, we flew high into the air, crashing back to earth moments later. We had to bail before we got to the road. I don’t remember how long we sledded that day, but I do know that we kept demolishing our bump every few trips down the hill.
He kept rebuilding it. Every time. I don’t remember him telling us to come inside then, either.
I’ve been home on break from school for the past week. I’m blessed, because I could be here for the end. I’m blessed, because I got to be with my family, see them love each other with a fierce kind of love. I’m blessed, because I was here to hear stories and see tears and laugh with them all. I got to be with Grandpa. I got to tell him I loved him.
I know I had one of the best grandpas anyone could have. He picked me up from band camp every day for two years. He took me to doctor appointments while my parents were at work. He came to my shows and my concerts. He told me once that I was going to be a movie star – it didn’t matter that I was only talented enough for my little rural high school, because to him, I could make it anywhere in the world. When I acted pretentious, he listened like I was the most intelligent person he’d ever met. Even when I wasn’t pretentious about it, he listened. I didn’t doubt that he actually listened. He thought I was the most of everything. My sister and I – we were always the smartest, the funniest, the most talented, the most beautiful. And when Lucy came along, so was she. I never doubted his love. I never had a reason to doubt.
A few days ago, a woman – maybe a nun again? – came to my grandpa’s room to give him communion. He was able to take it then, and the lady held his hand and asked him to say The Lord’s Prayer with her. He said it faster than she did. I didn’t even know Grandpa knew The Lord’s Prayer, though it makes sense – I imagine Catholic school ingrains those types of things into a person. My Grandpa wasn’t really a church man. But last Saturday, I realized that he knew the Lord. I can’t tell you how I understood – I just did. I felt peace for him. I had always known whose hands he was in, but I had finally realized that Grandpa knew, too.
I wish you could’ve known him. I wish you could’ve been loved by him, too. I’ll miss him – I already do. I don’t know how a person can be fine, and then gone – in just a couple months. But can you believe this: I got to spend almost 21 years being the granddaughter of perhaps the funniest, kindest man in the world. I got to hear his ridiculous stories, sing with him on the way to McDonald’s, and love him back. I could tell you about him for hours and hours. I love him so much, and I’m so happy that I got to grow up with him in my life. I want to celebrate that.
Joe Raymond: August 20, 1945-December 19, 2013