I’m not sure why I experienced shock when I heard that my grandfather had passed away. When someone reaches the age of 100 it’s expected, of course. I think I was shocked not so much that he had died but that I hadn’t sensed his passing. Even though I was on the other side of the world I was certain if he “left us” I would FEEL it.
I’m told that Pop pop left this world around 10:00 pm on a Thursday. In Thailand it was about 9:00am. I was swimming laps in a pool at that time. I was actually thinking of Pop pop as I swam. Whenever I am in a pool I think of him. Some of my fondest memories are of time spent with Pop pop at his pool in Braddock Heights.
Each May the hose ran from the spigot at the back of the house, draped over the concrete wall, and fed into the deep end (the bucket) of the pool that was painted sky blue. “It’s going to be cold kayo.” Pop pop would warn, calling me by my nick name, as I stood in the shallow end where the water hadn’t yet reached. But I could hardly wait for the pool to fill up, so waiting for it to warm up was out of the question! As soon as the water was deep enough for me to float, I was in that pool for the rest of the spring, all of the summer and into September. I was in that pool more hours of the day than I was out. And when I did step,out of that pool it was only when pop pop got home from work so I could follow him around like a dripping wet little shadow.
After a long day at work Pop pop must have been tired but I would grab his big hand before he even had a chance to step out of the car. “Let’s play cards!” I’d demand. Or “read me the comics!” I’d plead, or “watch me dive” Pop pop always wore a serene smile under his mustache. He’d put his briefcase down, put his grandfather hat on, and patiently played any game I wanted, or clapped for my belly flops off the diving board until Mom MADE me go home.
As an adult looking back on these memories, I don’t think pop pop was just being patient with me, he actually ENJOYED our time together. “Kayo,” he’d whisper in my ear and look around to make sure no on was listening. “You’re on my team.” He would say. “Yup!” I’d confirm. It was sort of our secret friendship code and ‘our team’ was just me and Pop pop. It was exclusive, at least as far as I knew. I felt as though I were the most important person in his world. It was as if he were my best friend…a playmate who would never let me down and who also happened to have privileges of an adult, like access to money and a car.
Pop pop was a constant joyful presence in my daily life growing up. Each morning before he went to work pop pop and mom had breakfast together. The creaking sound from the kitchen screen door would enter my morning dreams. If it were the milk delivery or someone else unimportant in my life, I’d slip back into sleep. But when that door creaked open and Pop pop stepped inside, I bolted out of bed. I wouldn’t have to hear his voice to know. I just knew when he was there. It was a ‘thing’ we shared. A thing best friends share.
All of his family was very important to Pop pop. He worked hard to create and hold a space where we could all gather. Uncle Gene and my soon to be aunt Bev, Uncle Gary, and his long string of girlfriends (we were all delighted when Gary finally settled down with my lovely Aunt Penny), Uncle Brian, Aunt Jimmie, cousins Missy and Walter and of course Mom and Dad enjoyed many summer days and evenings on the back patio and in that pool. When not hanging out with me, Pop pop seemed to always be working; mowing the lawn, tending to the pool, tinkering on a project in the garage. I don’t have a single memory of Pop pop lounging around the pool. I’m pretty sure he spent all of his free time playing with his grandkids.
All his work, love, and effort afforded us even more precious family time. Pop pop planned for us yearly family trips to Kitty Hawk NC. Pop pop was quick witted and had a dry sense of humor that constantly entertained the adults at our family gatherings but eluded me at 8 years old. To make sure I wasn’t left out of the laughter on our beach trips he used to pick up a small white clam shell and wedge it under his front lip. With that deadpan sense of humor he would strike up a serious conversation with me while sporting that ridiculous set of seashell buck teeth. The contradiction of the shell buck teeth made me, and the adults alike, roll with laughter.
The weekends spent at the river house in Harper’s Ferry WVA I will forever associate with the Americana family bonding experience of churning ice cream. Pop pop let me lick the salt in the bucket and sip sweetened cream, something we didn’t tell mom about, it was a secret on ‘our team’. He applauded my efforts at turning the crank. Slippery Fresh cut peaches fell from my clumsy little hands to the floor more than into the vat of cream and sugar but Pop pop never scolded or shamed. When I was around Pop pop I could do no wrong, apparently, and I felt important, I felt needed, and I knew I was loved.
While summers hold my favorite memories, Pop pop wasn’t a fair weather friend. He was always there. I knew if I ever needed anything at all he’d be there, with a joke to cheer me up when adolescent trials got me down, with money to send me on a weekend trip with friends, with silent but nonjudgmental love and support as my marriage dissolved when I was a young adult…he was like an anchor, or a rock, he never wavered in his love for me no matter how many mistakes I made.
When dad had his heart attack back in 1997 Pop pop was there. He was our chauffeur, our counselor, our bank, and mostly our friend. I remember thanking him for taking care of us when we were so worried about dad and so confused about everything. “That’s what Pop pop’s are for” he simply replied. To Pop pop the was no question of IF he should step in when his family needed something he was just always there.
As Pop pop grew older he slowed down physically but his spirit continued to shine. Even at 100 when I visited him he would encourage and applaud, listen and make me laugh. The family continued to get together over the years, although less elaborately. Bowling alley lunches with mom, Uncle Gary, Uncle Brian, memories of Uncle Gene in his mirror twin and in our hearts, and the addition of my children were a weekly and sometimes two and three times a week regular event. My children were drawn to my grandfather just as I was. He had a heart children knew they could trust. I felt a little sorry for my kids that they wouldn’t have Pop pop in their lives the way I did.
During my visit to Thailand I thought about Pop pop every time I’d swim, every time I ate ice cream, and every time I’d laugh. When I got the call I couldn’t believe he was gone because I still felt like he was with me…A phone call away or a few miles away.
I’ve never lost a best friend before. I thought there would be such a void, a relentless ache of emptiness I’d sense as soon as he were gone but instead it’s as if all that love and all those memories are like a tidal surge flowing up from my heart and overflowing, streaming from my eyes, at the moment. I don’t think that kind of love and connection ever dies. I once again feel like a dripping wet shadow following Pop pop around. But now, I don’t have to wait for him to come home, all I have to do is look into my heart. He’s still on my team.