Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Of Raft Races and Cannonball Contests

Last week, I toured a neighbor’s condo to check out her new closet organizers. I walked away convinced Dave and I could do a better job of maximizing our limited storage space. So far we’ve rearranged our pantry, entry way closet and sock drawers, efforts that have largely consisted of throwing away stuff we didn’t know we had and moving everything else into a new spot. In a couple of weeks, it will be the same jumbled mess.

But I did, in the process of sorting through various handbags, excavate $73 (!) in cash and another couple of bucks in change, including probably every penny I ever picked up off the sidewalk. I also found a pack of unopened Orbit gum, three tubes of Chapstick, a dozen each of pens and lipsticks (so that’s what happened to L’Oreal #410 Volcanic), Band-Aids, hand cream, expired cold tablets, a bag of congealed cough drops, a bottle of Excedrin Tension Headache and prescription Imitrex for migraines, the last two being major indicators that I needed to quit my job.

From the additional detritus, a paleontologist could deduce that I had attended a Cubs game in 2004, purchased an apple at the Salt Lake City airport in 2003, and visited an Internet café in Fresno, Cal., date unknown. Men wonder what women carry in their purses. It’s my life story, writ on receipts and ticket stubs.

And then there was the note from Grandpa.

February 10, 2003.

“Dear Patty,

I haven’t forgot your birthday, I just mislayed [sic] your address…. My eyesight is so bad that I can’t read the newspaper without a magnifying glass and that’s no way to read a paper. As a matter of fact I can hardly see the paper I’m writing on.”

He was 97 years old and still driving a car.

If you think that two years is enough time after a person dies to suddenly see their handwriting and not feel like someone has pounded you in the chest, you would be wrong. My heart hurt.

I miss my grandpa. Especially in the summertime.

Sundays in the summer were reserved for pool parties at my grandparents’. These were high-spirited gatherings with the entire assemblage of cousins, aunts and uncles—raft races being to my family what touch football was to the Kennedys. There were Cannonball contests and games of Capsize, a diversion of our own invention in which we attempted, via dive bombing, to dislodge two castaways from their life raft. Each afternoon was punctuated by Grandpa’s much anticipated belly flop off the diving board. I have friends who never witnessed their grandfather in so much as shirtsleeves or shorts, whereas I can conjure up Gramps in his navy blue trunks and untameable toenails without closing my eyes.

Sometime around 3, he would disappear into the house to prep for Happy Hour, emerging with soda pop for the kids, Manhattans for the grown-ups. Bowls of peanuts and pretzels. Trays of crackers and cheese, each square meticulously sliced by my grandfather’s hand.

Having drained their drinks, Dad and Aunt Mary Jo and Uncle John would begin their weekly bitch session over Grandpa’s refusal to spring for a gas grill. His charcoal chimney drove them insane, and they argued their case for propane before a jury of their offspring: It simply took too long for the coals to get hot. “With gas,” they informed us, “you just flip the switch.” Our burgers and hot dogs would be ready in minutes. (Actually, my grandmother called them “wieners,” as in “You boys want wieners?” which sends my brothers into convulsions to this day.) Yet week after week, from Memorial through Labor Day, the Old Man stooped over his briquettes, fanning the embers with his breath—while the cabal provided a running critique. “Always starts too late.” “Never uses enough lighter fluid.” “Why does he have to be so stubborn?” I don’t doubt that last one, at least in part, had something to do with the kick he got out of yanking their chain. Point being, on Sundays, he was still the boss.

On steamy nights between Sundays, Dad would pile us into the car for an after-dinner dip, an advantage we had over our cross-town cousins, what with our house being a mile or two from my grandparents’ at best. After we’d cooled off, we’d sit on the porch to let our suits dry before the drive home. Gramps would serve ice cream cones while we listened to the cicadas’ end-of-summer song. Back to School was right around the corner, but not that night. Not as long as we had the pool.

I remember one summer I became obsessed with swimming laps. I would practice my freestyle technique on weekdays, away from the maddening Sunday crowd. Grandma would position a lounge chair in the shade near the deep end and pepper me with questions that came to me in snatches underwater; I struggled to answer between chlorinated gulps. Grandpa would come home from work and join us. He’d read the afternoon edition of The Blade—without the need of a magnifying glass—and I’d hang around to mull over the day’s headlines. I was surprised and a little bit honored that he considered me a worthy partner in conversation.

And then the Sundays stopped. I grew up and moved away. Grandma died, Grandpa got old. He filled in the pool.

I wrote him once to tell him how summers were never quite the same. His reply, dated August 11, 1998:

“Dear Patty,

It was so nice to hear from you some weeks ago. I too treasure the days our family gathered around the pool on hot days and evenings in summer, especially the happy hours on the weekends….

Thanks for the memories.


Thank you. Even if it makes my heart hurt.


Blogger jonesybot said...

All of a sudden I miss my grandpas too. That was sweet. That is the stuff childhoods are supposed to be made of.

3:11 PM


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