After my heart was broken, I lived with my grandparents for a while and really got to know them. I had quit making a lot of money to get a masters degree in education and become a teacher (giving credence to my grandfather’s notion that all his second generation spawn were crazy). I thought I’d become the cool teacher, you know Howard Hessman in Head of the Class, but with much more of Dr. Johnny Fever tossed in for flavor. When I realized teaching math would bore me to tears, and the school made it clear that they couldn’t have me falling asleep in the library every day, I escaped back to my life of stress and money.
My grandfather was lucky enough to play golf almost every day for like twenty years. When he got too old and cranky to play golf, he limited his activity to crossword puzzles, getting the mail, and television. I’ve never seen a man enjoy paying his bills more than my grandfather. If you ever for a moment tried to complain about taxes, he’d tell you to stop moping; because at least that meant that you were making some money. He had thirty-year-old letters up on his office wall from the IRS, informing him that they had inspected his taxes and found nothing wrong.
I was grown up when I lived with him. I had some money of my own, but damn if I wasn’t still every bit as scared of him as when I was a kid. I MC’ed my sisters’ Bat Mitzvah and my grandfather heckled me! My dad worked for him, and they argued ferociously about business at essentially every family get together I can remember. Spending time in the same room with him as a kid was roughly as inviting as a night in a small cage with a grizzly bear. By the time I was over 25, though . . . OK, I was still scared to death of him.
I was an options trader for quite a few years, and I would have killed to have had my grandfather’s voice and size. He was like Paul Bunyan or something. He hated profanity, but he had a thundering voice. I can’t think of anything scarier than the sonic boom that hit the air when he said, “Crap!” Nobody has ever said crap with the intensity my grandfather did. Nobody came close. I could be ready for it and it would still scare the shit out of me.
The last movie my grandfather attended was “Bugsy”, which he walked out of because he couldn’t stand how much profanity was in it. His TV habits were short and simple. He watched sporting events and “The Rockford Files”. “I like it. You have a mystery, and a few jokes and then they have a car chase at the end, so you can have a little action.”
One morning, I was goofing around on his computer and listening to Howard Stern on his stereo. After awhile my grandfather came downstairs to walk on his treadmill. Eventually, I got up to go work out myself. I looked over at my grandfather, who was listening to the radio on a walkman, turned the stereo off and went to the club I belonged to. When I got home, he was furious with me. “What the hell kind of show were you listening to? I’ve never heard such language in my life!” Trying desperately to figure out what had happened, I realized that he had probably turned the stereo back on after I left and sampled a little Howard. Now, I have no doubt that any fifteen minutes of the Howard Stern show would have infuriated my grandfather, but I soon realized that he had most likely sampled the fifteen minutes Howard Stern had spent that morning discussing his plans to “bitch-slap” “Rockford” star James Garner for slurring his name on “The Tonight Show”. Who else in the world could possibly have timing like me?
My grandfather went from sleeping on my grandmother’s porch after his widowed mom abandoned him, to building up a few million dollars that he guarded like Fort Knox. He wasn’t so much cheap as he was really appreciative of a way to save money. One day he decided that he felt like eating lobster that night, but when he heard how much it would cost him, he was so revolted that he refused to pay it. This was an eighty-year-old millionaire skimping on a twelve-dollar purchase. Who was he saving that two dollars for? This man beamed for hours after only spending a quarter on coffee at McDonald’s with his senior card. I doubt that he was aware of the Starbucks phenomenon, but I have little doubt that he would have had a coronary thinking about how much money people were spending on different kinds of coffee. “I don’t want a goddamn mocha latte; I want a goddamn cup of coffee!” That was his profane vocabulary – “crap” and “goddamn”. If he said both in the same sentence you knew your life was in grave danger because he was pissed! I don’t think the Great Depression made him that way; I think he was just born way too ornery to ever risk being made a fool. He was a really good Gin player and he used to play by himself on the computer. I asked him to play with me about 500 times, but he would always say something to the effect of, “Nahh, you might actually beat me,” and I’m pretty sure he meant it. He would never for a second dare risk being shown up by his progeny.
I think that I was probably the closest of his grandchildren, even before I lived with him for a while, and my guess is that the longest we had ever spoken to each other was about thirty seconds. I would say, “Hi, Papa Bob” and he would grumble something scary back.
In the first twenty years of my life he had said something nice to me exactly once. He had taken me golfing with another guy and his grandson. I lost my half of the foursome, but on the way home my grandfather assured me that as far as he was concerned I had most likely won. “You beat that kid. They were cheating the entire time.”
He was very proud to have grandchildren; he just had no interest in talking to any of us. He was usually good for a thirty-second inquiry into your life, which would eventually utterly convince him that you were completely out of your mind. “He wants to get a tattoo? Aww, he’s crazy.”
He was real handy. I wasn’t. If he could use an old coffee pot as the fourth leg of a broken chair, he would spend the rest of the day in nirvana. They never charged me rent to live with them, but being around meant I was often called on to “Help.” Of course, I was never very much help. “Why am I missing all my favorite TV shows to save four dollars on a new Dixie cup rack?”
Once he was fixing a sprinkler head and he asked me to dig a hole. He watched me for like thirty seconds, after which he erupted. “Who in the world ever taught you to dig a goddamn hole?”
“Hey please don’t kill me. I was the kid in the glasses who got the good grades, remember?”
He was an electrician. Every once in a while he would rewire the lights. He could barely see and his hands shook. Every thirty seconds or so he would shock himself, which meant sparks and one of his patented loud “Crap”s. I was scared to death just watching him. My dad and uncle were electricians too, so the fact that I barely knew enough to use a three prong adapter probably couldn’t have done much to help him tolerate my household usefulness. “Not that screwdriver – the Phillips head goddamn it.”
I drove his car for a while. One day at about noon. I backed his side view mirror into the side of his garage. I’m guessing I did about two hundred dollars of very noticeable damage. Hey, I can afford two hundred dollars. Why should he care if I pay for it? Nonsense, I was scared to death. I went to an auto body shop and told them that I would gladly pay them anything if they could somehow fix the thing before I had to go home and face his wrath. When that desperate plea went unanswered, I had to fess up and face the music. Eventually, I had to listen to him berate me for about two hours as I “helped” him prop the wounded mirror back into shape. After that he never mentioned it again. Sure he was pissed about the accident, but eventually we had succeeded in avoiding paying to have it fixed, which had to warm his heart.
I used to eat dinner with him and my grandmother. He would flat out scream at her if there wasn’t salt on the table. I used to flinch at the way he would thunder at her, which amused her because she barely paid him the slightest bit of attention. That’s just the way he was, she would say.
Once he fixed a bathroom scale and left it on the kitchen counter. She nagged him for like three days about moving the damn thing. “I don’t want this scale up on my counter!” “Why, can’t you weigh yourself up there?” He would bark back.
Another time I was upstairs asleep when I heard him growling my name. “Let me know if Brad comes down here,” he bellowed. Figuring that I had done something wrong, I decided to get up, go downstairs, find out what I had done this time, and get the berating over with. Only this time, as it turned out, he was replacing a light bulb naked and had merely asked my grandmother to stand guard and keep me out of the kitchen.
My grandmother was huge into family gossip. She knew everything about everybody. It looked pretty apparent that my grandfather barely knew anybody’s name, let alone their life stories, but after being around him I realized that he knew everything about everybody. I’m still not sure if he was really interested or whether he had no choice but to listen as my grandmother filled him in every night.
They never stopped sharing the same bed together, but they did each have their own bedroom television sets, which they would watch simultaneously.
My grandfather spent a lot of time in the hospital towards the end of his life, but he was usually far too ornery too die.
Once my aunt visited, and he went on for hours about how beautiful the falling snowflakes were. We were convinced he was going to die for sure. Thankfully, a couple of days later they were watching Jenny Jones or something. My aunt commented on the banality of the guest and he erupted with the classic, “How do you know she didn’t talk to Jesus!” After that we would thankfully put up with the hollering, and forever hope that we’d never see him pondering the beauty of snowflakes again.
“How’s he doing? He isn’t talking about snowflakes is he?”
Two days before he died he could barely speak, but it didn’t stop him from beaming over the fact that one of his stocks was up two bucks and change. “Ahh, Sepricore!” I used to call him just about every day during the last four or five years of his life. Sometimes we would even talk about something. The Cleveland Indians, why he had lost interest in the “Rockford Files”, stock dividends. For the most part, I was just checking to see that he was still there, and we’d mourn the fact that his age had left him pretty much bored out of his mind. Most of the time I was just checking to make sure that the world as I knew it still existed, despite the rigors and forces of time.