The man who was my (biological) paternal grandfather died when I was small. I don't consciously remember him except in the photographs of his very serious face and the stories my mom told me about how I, as a baby, found him so fascinating that I would stare at him, unblinking, for hours. He was, by all accounts, a difficult man to understand and love.
I suppose that is why it always struck me as somehow poetic that my grandmother then married someone who, I have to imagine, was my biological paternal grandfather's polar opposite. My grandpa. He has always been my grandpa...as long as I can remember. Even though the greeting cards were always signed, "Mahlon and Ruby," I always referred to them as grandpa and grandma. And today I learned that my grandpa is gone.
Family with blood connections could not have been closer and more loved than this family created by marriage. A fact that he prided himself on. A fact that he stated directly to me that Christmas visit when I was pregnant with Samuel when he held my hand and whispered to me, in confidence, "I consider them all my children...and you all my grandchildren...regardless of how it happened to come about."
He was the life of any party...able to laugh and make everyone else laugh. That's what I will remember the most...his laughter...his smile...that spirit that made everyone like him no matter where we went. He flirted with waitresses...no...he flirted with every woman he ever met...in a charming and endearing way that made everyone want to be around him. He could meet a person and consider him or her a friend in less than ten minutes. And he ALWAYS saw the value of new friends.
I think I was about 10 years old when we went on a family vacation out west. We road a bicycle built for two, my grandpa and me. And we were late everywhere we went because he always had time to stop to talk to new people...to tell a story...to play a trick...to offer a bit of advice. Not overbearing and not condescending...just friendly.
He love to explore new places. Places you have never heard of...and places you've only heard of in books but never imagined actually visiting. If something struck his interest, he would head in that direction and not be satisfied until he had figured out the who's and why's and what's. Where in the heck IS Wall Drug? Grandpa could tell you. I remember when the fuel pump went out on the truck at the top of a mountain and Grandpa drove it BACKWARDS down the mountain to the nearest service station (and then drove it back up so he could see what he was there to see...he would NOT be deterred).
He collected pens. It started out as a collection from each of the fifty states in the Union and developed into a pen collection from every interesting place he visited (and from most of the interesting people he had met along the way). At last count, I think he had several hundred pens.
He was the kind of grandpa who would visit you once a year and make you feel as if you had never missed a day apart. He couldn't use the telephone because he was so hard of hearing and he never wore his hearing aids...but yet he ALWAYS knew what was going on with the family. He was a farmer...and his home and his family were important.
He loved to play games. Every Christmas, once the dinner dishes were washed and the wrapping paper carnage was burning in the fireplace of the old farmhouse, he would call us all together for a rousing game of UNO. Young and old...as many as we could fit around the kitchen table...we would play cards and tell stories and laugh and eat leftovers. The games would often stretch into the night until someone was declared the ultimate winner or too many of us became too bleary-eyed and could not see the cards properly (or just outright fell asleep sitting in place).
The last few years were not kind to grandpa. He suffered a series of strokes that left his personality a mere shadow of what it had been. The things I loved about him were slowly replaced with the characteristics common to those with advancing Alzheimer's. And I will admit that I did not visit since the Christmas when he said some hurtful things to me. Not because I was angry with him for saying them, but because I know he didn't mean them. I know that was not him speaking...not really. And selfishly I just could not stand to have any more of my happy memories of him replaced with anything different. And though I feel like I'm making excuses, I knew that my fragile emotions could not handle anything else than love and happiness. I wanted him to always remain as I remembered him...I wanted to remember my grandpa. So I stayed away and did not have the chance to say goodbye. I am a coward in that regard, but I do not regret it now...because I can remember and smile. I think grandpa would have approved of that.