Thursday, September 30, 2010
Remembering my grandpa
My grandpa was not the easiest man to get along with.
In fact, he could be a bit of a curmudgeon.
But we loved him for it.
Grandpa Gordon was fiercely opinionated, political, independent, and a bit anti-social. When he moved into University House in Wallingford after the death of my grandma, my mother encouraged him to join groups or try some new activities. “Holly, I am not a joiner,” he firmly told her.
By chance, my good friend Dan’s grandparents happened to live right next door to him at the senior living community. When Dan’s grandpa heard about the connection, he remarked to Dan, “Gordon Roberts? He’s not someone I’d have wanted to run into in a dark alley in his younger days.” Yep, I told Dan. That’s my grandpa.
But the gruff exterior merely masked a loving, strong man who learned to rely on himself early in life. I first began to really understand my grandpa in high school, when I chose him as my interview subject for an oral history project.
I’d never talked to my grandpa at length about his life before. When my sister, cousins and I spent summer weeks at their beach house on Appletree Lane, Grandma June played hostess. We sat with her at the dining room table, sipping Russian tea, eating bran muffins, and talking all about our lives. Grandpa retreated to his study upstairs. We accepted his solitary ways. Grandma was the social one; Grandpa was not.
But through hours of interviewing, I came to understand why he was the way he was. He’d left home in Wisconsin at age 13 because of an unhappy family life, and caught a freight train out to Seattle. As a young teenager, he found his own place downtown and a job to support himself. By necessity, he became tough.
At age 18, my grandpa married my grandmother, who he’d met in junior high school in Wisconsin. She took a job in Seattle supporting the war effort and he enlisted for the U.S. Marines.
The military branch seemed an odd choice, as my grandpa couldn’t swim and was terrified of the water. But, as he later explained, the Marines were the best. He wanted to be the best.
Though my grandpa was supposed to swim the long length of a pool to pass the Marines’ entry test, his swim instructor gave up on him and let him get away with just the short length. That was good enough for an assignment in the Pacific during World War II, where thankfully the worst injury he encountered was a crab bite.
During the war, my grandpa decided he wanted to obtain his high school diploma, go to college, and become a teacher. After taking the GED exam, he was instructed to carry his results by train to the test processing office. Don’t peek, they told him. Of course he did. The score was so high, it buoyed him with the confidence that he could do anything he wanted.
And he did. He went to college and became a community college high school math teacher. The profession suited him. On family camping trips to Kalaloch on the Washington coast, he made his four children count logging trucks by prime numbers. He loved mathematics, and he loved teaching.
The teaching track made both my grandpa and grandma – also a teacher – staunch supporters of education. They attended every graduation in our family, even flying down to Stanford for my scorching hot graduation day. They supported all of their grandchildren financially during school. Growing up, I never doubted the importance of a college degree.
If there was one thing my grandpa really understood, it was finances. Though he and my grandma made modest salaries as teachers, his skill in investing earned them a comfortable retirement. My grandpa shared financial planning tips with any of us who acted eager to listen. Though he treated himself with a Lexus and a waterfront home, my grandpa remained a child of the Depression, clipping coupons and washing out his plastic bags.
My grandpa also never hesitated to share his opinions. A staunch Democrat, he railed against conservatives and their agenda. He loved to debate, even on topics that would affect him very little, such as the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Up until recent months, when his energy lagged, my grandpa often sent me emails on news topics. He told me, “look for story in A19,” even though I’d long ago switched to reading the paper online.
He remarked often how happy it made him that I’d become interested in politics. Some of the causes I care about – abortion rights and women’s rights – were the ones Grandma June fought so hard for, he told me. He said, with tears in his eyes, that I was carrying on her legacy.
He also didn’t care much for religion. When we said the pledge of allegiance at any event, he omitted the phrase “under God,” and then told anyone willing to listen about how that part was never a part of the original pledge, and was added by politicians in the 50s.
My grandpa became an atheist, he told me, after my grandma gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. No god would wish that upon someone, he said. After his diagnosis with esophageal cancer two years ago, I asked him if he thought he’d see my grandma after he died. She’d passed away five years ago of Parkinson’s.
Of course not, he responded. Heaven is something people make up to make themselves feel better about dying.
The doctors gave him less than a year to live. He beat the predictions, surviving a full two. It hurt to watch his pain at the end. Esophageal cancer is a nasty disease. Eating and swallowing becomes so unbearable, patients often die of starvation.
In my last real conversation with him, just a week ago, he could barely eat and talked in a low croak. But his mind was still there. An intellectual till the end, he wanted to discuss the life of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson.
His body’s eventual inability to function frustrated him greatly. My grandpa worried about how much he hadn’t gotten done. There were books to sort, files to go through, genealogy research to complete. We told him not to worry. He did.
Last night, hours before he died, he scribbled out a note. It was about his Comcast bill. My grandpa, responsible till the end.