A Standup Grandpa

To meet my grandpa’s approval, you could be thin, good looking, rich, a fellow Christian, or none of those things.  Only a sense of humor was required.  Often opinionated and gruff,  humor bridged his connection to others.

Visitors to his home were greeted with “Sit down and make yourself homely” and dismissed with “Well, I’d better get to bed and let you good people go home”.

We children collected jokes, gifting him with endless “knock, knock” variations, just to earn his smile.  He rewarded our weakest efforts, giving a joke in return. 

Whatever the holiday, our family feasts ended the same way.  While we were still at the tables, Grandpa would stand up at the head and do about twenty minutes of material.  Many were long, involved stories, meandering to the punch line.  Family members comprised most of the audience, so many of the jokes were familiar old favorites to them.

The adults laughed in anticipation as each joke began, getting more hysterical as he moved from story to story.  Observing from the kids’ table, the laughter-to-tears of aunts and uncles entertained us as much as the jokes, but I still strained to listen for the one joke I never heard him finish.

  As grandpa wrapped up one long story (about how the farmer finally figured out he could tell his two horses apart because the white one had longer ears than the brown one..) it happened again.  Grandpa said something about two men in a boat while all the adults howled with laughter.  Then he grinned and sat down.  Foiled again, I wondered why they never let him finish this last joke…

Years after Grandpa’s death I had the chance to visit with a cousin who spent many childhood years living with or near my grandparents. A great story-teller and comedian in his own gentle way, he told me a few of his favorites from Grandpa’s collection.  His retelling of the old jokes prompted my memory, and I asked him if he’d ever heard the end of the boat joke, expressing my frustration at never hearing the whole thing.

He gave me an odd look, and asked what I remembered of it.

“Something about two men in a boat, and one of them was the Captain.”

He grinned Grandpa’s grin.  “There were two men in a boat, and one of them was the Captain.  No…no…the OTHER man was the Captain…”.  In chagrin I realized I’d heard the whole thing all along.

I think of this joke every time I hear someone needlessly correcting the details of a story, and I smile, remembering Grandpa.

 

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My Mother’s Hands

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My daughter’s hands are slim and smooth. They move with confidence as she quickly finds a recipe online and begins prepping the food. Twice lately they have reminded me so much of my own hands, moving in familiar gestures.

First, while chatting, she reached over to adjust my sink faucet to its “sweet spot” to stop the drip. She did this deftly and automatically, as I do several times a day, though she has not lived in this home for over ten years. A bit later I saw her gently touch the back of a friend’s shoulder with the little waving motion I also use to say a silent hello. Her hands, so like mine looked twenty years ago, moving like mine. But there are differences in our hands beyond those of age. Hers have talents mine have never possessed. Beautiful handwriting, a gift for calligraphy, speed in typing: in these ways her hands are more like my mother’s talented hands.

I tell them both this talent must skip a generation, offering my cramped handwriting and more hesitant typing skills as evidence. No one argues the point.

Mom used to try to teach me the push/pulls and ovals that she had loved to do in learning penmanship as a child. Mine never matched her samples. Writing by hand gave her joy, and giving others beautifully written notes was one of her few areas of pride. She still received compliments on her beautiful handwriting as she entered her eighties. Now she tells me “It won’t matter, you sign it for me” as we prepare cards for her to send friends or family. Another little pleasure diminished by Alzheimer’s.

Mom was an extraordinary caregiver when we were children, and as she cared for my step-dad through his fifteen years as a quadriplegic. Her hands were strong and confident, gentle and comforting, capable of any task. Her hands are hesitant now, fumbling as she buttons her shirt, brushes her hair, places flowers in a vase.

A secretary much of her adult life, mom typed with a speed and accuracy that I never mastered. In her day, mistakes on a typewriter were not easily corrected. Her skill was valued. We type so easily now,  deleting with a simple stroke of a key, the aid of spell check catching typos for us.

For Christmas, I found a typewriter picture frame, the picture appearing as paper coming out the top of the typewriter. I filled it with a black & white photo of mom at her desk on her first secretarial job after college. She is younger in that picture than my children are now. She keeps it facing her beside her bed. Good memories make the best gifts.

Unopened Presents

I thought of them again this Christmas, these two children who would be near fifty now.

More than forty years ago their family of five was returning home from Christmas shopping when they were struck by a drunk driver.  Of the five, only their mother and older sister survived, with great physical and emotional trauma. After years of recovery, healing, moving, building a new life states away, their broken family met ours.  My first child was born the same month that my father remarried, and I gained a step-mother and adult step-sister along with a daughter.  Strong women, all.

My daughter was followed the next year by our son, the first two grandchildren on my side of the family.  My step-mom’s story unfolded slowly as she talked about raising her three children as mine went through similar ages and stages.

Then she brought out the unopened presents.

We were spending our vacation visiting them, my children 4 and 5 years old playing with the few toys they had brought on the 800 mile trip.  The first box was a doll, the second a car.  Toys purchased for the son and daughter she had lost on that last shopping trip before a Christmas they never celebrated.  Boxes kept unopened all those years

Six more grandchildren followed my two, and all enjoyed the same toys when visiting Grandma and Grandpa.  A loving tribute to the children who never got to open them.

I still can’t tell the story of her opening those boxes without crying.  The lives lost at Sandy Hook so near the holidays reawakened this memory. But this is not a story of a personal loss to me, and I hesitated to write it.  Two things happened this week to change my mind.

First, the news has been full of the …celebration? as the children returned to school in Sandy Hook.  They are declaring a return to normalcy, only a few weeks after tragedy.  Tying a bow on the neatly wrapped package of news covering this awful event. That it is a necessary step, I agree.  But I don’t believe we return to normal after any tragedy.  We may create a new normal or come to accept that change is normal life.  And grieving is a long, long process.  We call such events life changing for a reason.

The second event was learning my nephew lost a friend in a car accident the morning of New Year’s eve.  They had a long distance relationship, and the news was delayed in reaching him.  He was wrapping a present to mail to her when he received the news.

These unopened presents, lives ended too soon.  Grief lives on for some throughout their lives.  We can honor their loss by remembering with them, allowing the grief and not putting such importance on returning to normal.

Most of us have never been there, anyway.