UPDATE: Audio version is here.
Oh my god, I wish you could meet my grandfather! My grandfather when he was in his puppy years, before the age spots shone on his skin and he would forget things. He was in his late 60s when I was in grade school.
He wore a raspberry beret, like the Prince song. I don’t know where the beret came from, because it’s not like we were French. He paired this with prominent dark frame glasses, but he didn’t look eccentric. He looked practical, with an artsy flourish. It was his signature look. Suitable for someone that was a painter, architect, photographer and inventor… which he was.
The most important thing for you to know about Grampy is that he was the definition of a Renaissance Man. He had many talents and many loves. One of these was painting. Canvases of fishing boats and ocean waves, as were native to our Cape Cod home. I remember one day he took me on a 2 ½ hour drive to the seaside town of Gloucester, so he could photograph the waves crashing on rocks, which he would later paint.
Photography was another great love of his, and he developed his own pictures. He had a dark room in his basement, where we dropped sheets of paper into trays of developer and watched the images appear.
You should know, too, that Grampy lived next door to us. Our houses were so close that we could leave our kitchen table and be at Grampy’s in under 15 seconds if we ran. My younger sisters and I were over there all the time. We especially liked his workshop. There was a table saw and drill press and about a million tools. If it were a bad idea to have elementary-school kids around these things, nobody had told my grandfather. First we built doll beds and treasure chests, then later, forts and go-carts.
And then there were the snakes. My grandfather was a master snake-catcher. He even had a special tool — like a squeegee mop, but with a clamp at the end — to trap the snakes so he could deposit them beyond the perimeter of our yard. We’d go looking for the snakes in those half-moon wells outside the basement windows. Snakes love it there, because of the toads. And Grampy, himself terrified of snakes, would capture and remove them. Once, we inadvertently brought a big black snake home from the pond in a beach towel. When we dropped it on the kitchen floor, the snake exploded from it, undulating horribly on the tiles. It could have been a very bad situation. The snake might have gotten lost in our house, but my sister was dispatched to get Grampy the Snake-Catcher and he took care of it.
Grampy married an extraordinary woman, and I spent nearly everyday with her. She put me on the bus each morning, or if there were no school, we’d watch “The Price is Right” together. Sometimes I’d sit in the window all day and hand-grind walnuts for cookies. Grammy was an untouchable baker. At least once a week, an apple pie or tin of cookies would show up at our house. You have never tasted a pie so good! Ginger & Baker would’ve hired her. I’m sure of it. I’d like to bake like that, but it was Grammy that got all the baking genes in our family, and I ended up with the sweet tooth.
Grammy was beloved by all, but Grampy absolutely worshipped her. I got the sense he thought of her as a hard-won beauty, plucked from her family farm with nine brothers and a long line of hopeful suitors. Her treated her like a queen. Every time we’d go somewhere with my grandparents, my sisters and I left through the garage with Grampy, then we’d drive around to the front door where Grammy would emerge like royalty. There might have been a more practical reason for this, but I attributed it to their romance.
My grandparents were married for 49 years. They had one son, who grew up between Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and became a sailing instructor and later a boat builder.
In fact, he and Grampy built our house on the land that my grandfather owned. The houses were so close together — that on a clear cold night like we had in early December, the red and white lights of the ambulance seemed to be in our living room. We ran over to my grandparents’ house, but the paramedics were already loading Grammy into the ambulance.
I was 13 then. Nothing bad had happened in my life so far. It was the first and only time I saw Grampy cry.
Grammy went into a coma that night and she died on Christmas Day. Grammy and Grampy always had a little tabletop artificial Christmas tree that my sisters and I loved. They would give us chocolate gold coins and red and green spice drops in miniature stockings that Grammy had bought at the dollar store. Grampy was too sad this year to carry on the tradition.
I was pretty sure that we’d lose Grampy soon after to a broken heart. Mom encouraged us to go over and check on him often. “Don’t let him get lonely,” she’d say. Except that the most creative people are most immune to loneliness. No one could replace Grammy, so Grampy lived alone for the next 23 years.
But he wasn’t sad for very long. I’ll tell you what saved him: It was the pies. You see, Grampy didn’t spend too much time dwelling on what he lost. He returned to his hobbies and they kept him busy, plus he invented new ones. He decided, for example, that he’d commit to daily experimentation with pie crust recipes to see if he could replicate Grammy’s.
His first few attempts were god-awful, and during this time there wasn’t a box of Jiffy in all of Wellfleet that was safe. I prayed that my Grampy, my childhood hero who was good at everything, wouldn’t become this grief-stricken man that made soggy pies.
But as the pies got better, Grampy’s buoyancy returned. Out came the beret and he was himself again. By then I was old enough to see what I couldn’t articulate as a child. I loved my Grampy not because he could do anything, but because he did everything. He taught me that you will never be bored or lonely if you live a full life. You won’t be lost for long if you stay curious.
That is what I realized when I walked into Grampy’s kitchen and saw the beret back on his head and a freshly baked pie on the table. And how I will remember him always.
The triumph of a man whose love of life kept him afloat even after the love of his life was gone.