Grandpa George, my mom’s father, has passed away. He made it to his 90s, which is admirable, though I’m sure he wanted to continue for a bit longer. He did manage to outlive all four of his brothers -- quite a feat, considering George was the middle child. I think most people who’ve grown up in Indiana have known someone like George. He was a very gruff man of few words who’d grown up on a Hoosier farm. The character Carl Fredricksen from the animated film UP reminds me of Grandpa George in many ways -- short and stocky with a slight underbite, salt-and-pepper hair, thick glasses, and a gruff demeanor, though I think George was even gruffer than Carl. George was the only member of my family I know of to carry that gruffness. His brothers certainly weren’t that way.
My great uncle Lester (younger than George) was referred to by family members as a "large child." He was often found roughhousing with nieces and nephews at family gatherings. Whenever Lester joined us for Thanksgiving, we could count on at least two pieces of furniture (especially chairs) getting broken over Lester horsing around or arm wrestling the biggest guy in the room. Uncle Charlie (the youngest brother) was a fireman who was an avid reader of science fiction. Thanks to him, my brother and I were introduced to the written works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak, and Lester del Rey. Then there was Uncle Larry (older than George), who fancied himself a ladies man and did his utmost to emulate his screen idol, Cary Grant -- sometimes to unintentionally comic effect. I don’t remember much about the oldest brother, Ed, except that he was a nice and rather articulate man.
Because he grew up surrounded by such colorful characters, perhaps Grandpa George felt he couldn’t compete; so he contented himself with being the quiet brother. Grandpa WAS quiet, often ridiculously so. He always let Grandma call the shots while he went about his business, which usually involved running his small and successful concrete company. He hardly ever talked during family gatherings, but he was always found listening to other people’s conversations and sometimes chuckling quietly to himself. Even if someone asked him a question or tried to engage him in conversation, he would shrug and reply with things like, “Dunno,” or “Ain’t got much to say ‘bout that.”
Aside from my grandma and his family, George had two great loves in his life: fishing and reading. His favorite author was Louis L’Amour -- I think Grandpa must have read all of his books at least fifty times. That I was a book editor and writer myself seemed to give Grandpa a bit of quiet pride. For the last twenty years, whenever I saw him, he always asked the same thing: “What books ya workin’ on?” I’d tell him, and he’d reply with a grunt and a small smile -- and that would be the end of the conversation. Maybe he was just waiting for me to say, “I’ve written a Western, Grandpa!”
Like many of his generation, Grandpa was an army veteran of World War II. He never saw battle, however. He was trained as a sniper and deployed south out of Florida to guard the Panama Canal. “He must have done a good job,” Grandpa’s only son, my uncle Tommy, once told me. “After all, the canal is still there!”
World War II provided the only story that Grandpa ever told me about himself. While in Florida waiting for deployment, he got to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, who was there visiting and lunching with the troops. “She was th’ ugliest woman I ever seen,” said Grandpa. Then he chuckled and said, “Nah, I was th' ugliest woman I ever seen.” Just before being deployed, some of the soldiers threw a party, and as a joke, Grandpa showed up in drag. I have a photo of him from that party. Yes, he was definitely an ugly woman.
Grandpa George wasn’t an outwardly affectionate man. He was more comfortable with a handshake or a gentle cuff on the shoulder than with a hug. He showed his affection through doing things for his children. He and Grandma had four children; three daughters and a son -- my mother was the oldest (and I’m the oldest grandchild). When I was growing up, Grandpa was often present, helping us with home repairs -- and he was very proud of the concrete porch that he poured for our house: “Better ‘n my own!” Another point of pride for Grandpa was the fact that his children were the first in his family to earn college degrees, though he was clearly even more proud that his only son became a tradesman like him -- Tommy is a carpenter.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time at Grandma and Grandpa’s, usually with many other family members around. The men could almost always be found in the living room watching sports or old movies on TV and drinking beer. During one of these visits, when I was about eight years old or so, I walked up to Grandpa and asked, “What’s beer taste like?” In a move that would no doubt have gotten him arrested these days, Grandpa shoved his beer into my hands and said, “See watcha think.” I took one big gulp and immediately gagged. To my eight-year-old tastebuds, it was the most awful stuff imaginable. I shoved the beer back at Grandpa and yelled, “How can you DRINK that?” Grandpa just chuckled and went back to watching TV. I didn’t touch beer again until I was in my 20s. I suspect that was Grandpa’s intention.
Gruff and quiet though he was, there was something oddly comforting about Grandpa. He always looked the same, no matter how old he became. He always dressed the same way, too. In every color photo I have of him, dating back nearly 50 years, he’s wearing a light blue cardigan sweater. (My brother swears it’s actually the SAME sweater in every photo.) The sweaters in the black-and-white photos were probably light blue as well. Grandpa was a stubbornly changeless presence in a world of constant change. When everything in my own world seemed unbalanced and frightening, I could always count on Grandpa being there, and being how I always needed him to be -- just Grandpa.
‘Bye, Grandpa. I love you. I miss you.