There's this picture I have of my grandfather. I never knew him. My mom barely did; he died when she was a kid. He's at the beach in the photo, on a boardwalk. He has a wide-brimmed hat, a tweed jacket, a well-tied cravat, pinstriped pants, spats, a little pocket square in his coat pocket. He's one dapper and swanky gentleman, to be sure.
He's got my nose. His eyes are shaded. It looks like his chin might be dimpled.
This photograph is the only physical tie I have to him. It's my bond with him, this photo, folded and tattered and torn. I wish I could have known him. Norman was his name. I feel like I do know him sometimes, just by looking at this old photo on my desk.
My daughter's lucky. I remind her of that sometimes. She's got most all of her grandparents still, and a couple great-grandparents to boot. I hope she can spend as much time with them as she can, soak up as much familial history as she can, laugh with them. Play. Hear stories from them. Tell them her own. I never really got to tell my own to my grandparents.
My mom's dad died when she was a kid. My dad's dad died when I was a baby. Certainly we visited my widowed grandmother's plenty. Flora was my mom's mom. She lived in Northern California. Nellie was my dad's mom, she lived near Portland.
But, truth be told, I was a kid, and I didn't really care too much about who they were. They were old ladies. What did they have to teach me? And, truth be told, they both sort of frightened me and, because of that fact, I didn't like them that much. Of course, I never gave them much of an opportunity, I'm afraid. That'll be my fault for the rest of my days.
Memory of Nellie: Her creepy basement. There was this one room down there filled with musty books and a bed that I swear was slept in by a haunting specter. My siblings can vouch for its creepiness.
My daughter has forged, thankfully, tremendous relationships with her various grandparents. She plays with my mom's guinea pig. She goes on nature hikes with my dad. She's learned about 138,509 folk songs from her mom's mom. Her new step-grandparents take her out on their boat sometimes, and sometimes she gets to be skipper. What a wonderful thing — that multi-generational bonding that I never felt.
Memory of Flora: It's late on Christmas Eve. I tiptoe into the living room to check on my presents. I see my grandma in the kitchen stealing my mom's popcorn balls. She filches at least half a dozen into her purse.
When I was still married, my kiddo still young, my wife's dad died in a terrible rogue-wave accident in Mexico. It was devastating. Still is. My daughter was just a little thing then, but she had awareness. She knew her grandfather, cherished him like we all did, like I still do. I was in her room, after, with her dolls and toys and crowns and ballet things and told her that her grandfather had died. Told her she wouldn't see him anymore except in her memories. In her heart. She didn't cry. She wanted to know where he'd be so she could leave him flowers whenever she wanted. Just her having memories of him is a bouquet enough for him, I imagine, wherever he may be.
It's good that she has more than just memories with her grandparents. She's making new ones all the time. Easter-egg hunts with mom, brownie-making with her mom's mom, visiting with her great-grandmother in Auburn, proud that the woman is nearly 100 years old. “That's really old and amazing!”
Memory of Nellie: She made good mashed potatoes.
Memory of Flora: She'd always serve melon for breakfast. So much melon.
I only have a handful of memories of my own grandparents. My grandmothers died when I was a teenager or soon after. I wish I could go back, inquisitive as I am now, and ask them all sorts of things.
What did you do during the Great Depression? How'd you meet my grandfather? Did you ever see Frank Sinatra in concert? What was WWII like? What kind of candy did you like as a kid? What was your first car? What did you want to be when you grew up? What were your grandparents like?
My daughter can ask those sorts of questions to her grandparents. She does. What a gift.
We didn't own cell phones back then. We didn't have color TVs back then, kiddo. Black people weren't afforded the same rights we were back then. My brother was sickly and died when I was a youngster. I've always liked John Wayne movies. I collected baseball cards and had some Mickey Mantle cards before mom threw them away. I like Big Hunk candy bars, always have.
I'm fairly certain me and my daughter would like Norman. He was a banker and a bit of an artist (a couple of his watercolors still hang in my mom's house).
I can see us both at the beach, me and Norman. We're sipping iced tea. He spills a little on his pants and dabs it with the handkerchief in his coat pocket.
“Beautiful day,” he says to me looking out over the span of beach. My daughter's out there frolicking in the surf with Norman's wife. We both smile hearing the peals of laughter. “Indeed, grandpa. It is.”
Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer living in Fremont. He enjoys many things including losing to his daughter at most every board game ever created.