My grandfather on my father’s side dropped out of school in the third grade to work in a coal mine as a rat. He was one of those dirty little bastards you always see in old time photos with a candle strapped to his head. He survived that to go fight in one of our world wars where he was awarded a purple heart with a cluster after killing people in the snow uphill both ways. He came home with a pair of magic shoes like Forest Gump.
My grandmother dropped out in the fifth grade, and I’d like to think she played the higher education card in their arguments. I’m not quite sure what she did for a living but I’ve been told it always involved a hair net. Her crowning glory was a craft room in the back of the house that was lined floor to ceiling with painted porcelain figures. I guess you could buy them in some sort of a kit that came complete with paints and an unadorned statue of a cherub or Jesus or a really fat pig sitting on his haunches. Grandma would paint them and bake them in the oven so the glaze would set and then she’d proudly display them as art in a room with plastic covered couches and multi colored quilts.
I don’t know how my grandparents met but their relationship was odd. I stayed at their house in Bethel, Ohio whenever my pops would take me “back east” for a brief reminder as to why he moved away in the first place. She’d wake up first which would go unnoticed because they had separate beds. Grandma would migrate to the kitchen and pop pills from a panoply of little orange containers before cooking something with Crisco. Grandpa would wake up shortly after, do ten sit-ups, strap on his magic shoes, and then prey to a framed picture of Ronald Regan that was closer to his bed than his wife’s mattress. He’d go to the TV room and watch game shows. I’m sure they went places out of necessity or spoke in passing, but theirs was a life divided.
Grandma made me rice crispy treats for which I’m grateful but she was ignorant and sheltered and we got in all sorts of arguments. She’d drop the N-bomb with a southern conviction and blame all her woes on the left. Our last argument was about cigarettes. She swore up and down that all that “cancer nonsense” was propaganda and that I could smoke if I wanted to; I was thirteen. I had a morbid wish that she’d at least get emphysema so I could pull out an “I told you so” but she never did. She died alone in a nursing home from some sort of dementia. I guess she’d often forget to dress. I don’t know all the details because family truths rarely burrowed under the wall my father had built between Alaska and back east.
My pops took the two of us and his parents on two family trips; one to Hawaii and one to Florida (maybe just to prove to his mother that the ocean existed). We went to Sea World during the Florida trip and attended one of their little shows that are full of dolphins and trainers with plastic smiles. They had decided to spruce up the show with a little comedic relief. One of the trainers dressed up as a drunken bum and constantly interrupted the show by overfeeding the dolphins or falling off a diving board. He got laughs and jeers from the audience but my fifth grade grandmother just didn’t get it.
There was one point in the show wherein the jester started to climb up to the highest diving board as he swayed back and forth in exaggerated inebriation. The head trainer, the one with the megaphone, waved an admonishing finger in the air and warned this supposed dumbass that he might hurt himself. He ignored the waving finger and stuck out his tongue which made the children laugh, but it made grandma snap. She stood up in the stands and started shouting. I can still picture her standing next to me and blocking out the sun with her muumuu encased Crisco figure. Her jowls were shaking and her arms were swinging as she yelled at the drunkard to get down before he ruined everything. I was poleaxed. She was serious. And that’s when it dawned on me that I, as an average middle school student, was smarter than this sixty something woman who had sired countless grandchildren. She finally sat down after the man fell off the ladder into the water and swam to safety. I’m not even sure grandma understood why the guy took a bow with all the other trainers at the end of the show, but I’m absolutely positive that I looked at the greatest generation a tad differently after that moment.
We drove back to the hotel in our rented convertible and that’s when I really started watching my father’s parents; it was the first time I saw them. Grandpa was looking at everything with disinterest. He was just passing through. It was either the mine or the war, but he was detached from reality by his toil. Grandma had simply never been attached to start with. A life of hair nets and tobacco in Ohio hadn’t prepared her for the coast. Florida is known for its retirement communities but she was looking out the window with distrust and a touch of hate. I smiled to myself as I realized that some things just belong back east.