Pop

Like many people, I had two living grandfathers during my early childhood. My mother’s father (Pa) accepted me as one of a growing brood of blood related children for whom he was obligated to buy Christmas presents. Tall, stern and tremendously serious, I can’t ever remember him hugging me as a child or wanting to spend time with me. In the past, I heard my mother and her surviving siblings speak of his sense of humor, but I never saw evidence of it. More than anything else, I remember him eyeing me with curious scrutiny.

My father’s father (Pop) adored me. There were many times when he and my grandmother asked my parents to share me for a day or two, and I would spend a Saturday walking with Pop up and down 69th Street in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania frequenting shops that sold magic tricks and toys, of which a few would always return home with me at the end of the weekend. Far less financially successful than my mother’s father, he always managed to tuck a five dollar bill in my pocket when we were together. My Dad told me stories of his misadventures and schemes, of which there were quite a few, and in contrast to my maternal grandfather whose bearing and manner seemed a solid and impenetrable silver gray in character, my Pop was a man whose life was lived in living color.

Pop smoked 16 Phillies blunts a day, was known to take a beer on occasion, and held conversations laced with blistering epithets. Pa disapproved of most of the things that made Pop a character and to my knowledge, they never engaged with one another after my parents’ wedding day, which was probably just fine with both of them.

While Pa’s life was consistent and stable, proceeding on an uninterrupted trajectory of dependability to his death, Pop’s life was marked by physical and emotional volatility. An unending battle with hypertension resulted in his enduring a slow decline hastened by a series of strokes that left him aphasic and halting in gait for the last 10 years of his life. That decade encompassed the bulk of my living memory of him. Still, his physical diminishment in no way impaired his ability to delight in my presence or his desire to mark each of our encounters with some monetary or material memento.

For the last months of his life, he was an inpatient at a county nursing home, not being able to afford higher-end care, and after his admission, I had only one opportunity to see him again. Five decades ago, medical facilities had a ubiquitous rule that children under 16 years of age were never permitted as visitors, and I was consigned to news that my father might provide about his decline, with one dramatic exception.

The nursing home permitted children under 16 to visit on major holidays, and as Thanksgiving approached, I pestered my Dad to take me with him on his daily visit. Shortly after Pop’s admission, Dad had begun going to the nursing home every day to perform some daily personal care that wasn’t being accomplished by the staff. He cleaned and trimmed Pop’s nails, shaved him, combed his hair, brushed his teeth. This was all accomplished in the mornings before my father went to work. As Thanksgiving approached, I begged my father to take me along on the one day I was permitted to visit. For some reason my father seemed reluctant, but finally caved in to my constant pleading.

My excitement on that day had nothing to do with the anticipation of a large turkey dinner or the gathering of other family members: it was all focused on being with my grandfather who, I was certain, would place his arm around me and smile at me with a satisfaction I never truly understood until I had grandchildren of my own.

When we arrived at the nursing home, I was taken aback at its Spartan appearance and oppressive odor; cinder block walls and metal frame beds swathed in the aromas of industrial strength disinfectant created an atmosphere of indifferent efficiency rather than personal care.

Seeing Pop was shocking. He was small in the bed, his face gaunt, and his eyes rheumy. This man who towered over me just a few months before was reduced, diminished. Worse, as we entered the room that he shared with five other residents, the expression on his face was not one of delight, but rather one of emotional indifference. This wasn’t my Pop, this was someone else. A gentle nudge between my shoulder blades from my father pushed me forward, and I hesitantly placed a kiss on his scratchy cheek. He smelled bad, his lips were crusted.

I began a litany of nervous chatter – tests I had taken in school, news about sisters and pets, movies I wanted to see: all the things that he, in a better state, would have appeared to listen to with interest. There was no response. He just stared at me, expressionless.

I was only vaguely aware of my father puttering around the bed – filling a wash pan, setting out a towel and washcloth, whipping up a froth of lather with a badger hair brush in a shaving mug. “Move over, now,” he said. I sat on a metal chair at the end of the bed as my father began his ministrations, lathering Pop’s face after wrapping his cheeks in a hot washcloth.

Pop’s eyes narrowed as he looked at my father and he brought forth a torrent of obscenities that was to continue for the remainder of our visit. He swore at my father in language that I had heard on the playground, but knew was utilized by only the most unsavory people., adding some words and phrases with which I was unfamiliar, but was certain were even worse.

I sat wide eyed, horror struck at the end of the bed while my father patiently, gently, shaved his Pop’s face, cleaned his fingernails, combed his hair, ignoring the stream of verbal abuse directed at him. After 20 minutes, he leaned forward, kissed Pop on the cheek, put away his kit, and held out his hand to me. We turned and walked out of the room. My grandfather’s swearing followed us down the hall and I could swear I could still hear it as we got into the car in the parking lot.

The ride home was painfully quiet. Finally, I summoned the courage to ask. “Dad, why did Pop treat you that way?” Pulling into the parking lot of a diner, he said, “Let’s get some breakfast.”

We sat in a booth and Dad waited until a waitress had taken our order – scrapple and toast for me, coffee for him (drinking coffee was my father’s favorite hobby). I asked again after the waitress left. “Why did Pop treat you that way? You were just trying to help.”

“You may not understand this for a long time, but I’ll tell you anyway. I’m the only person he trusts enough to be that angry with.”