Saturday, June 10, 2017

dear mr. mcalpin

What's the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral?

-the last joke my grandfather told my mom

One less drunk.
It's hard to say that I was *close* to my grandfather. When I was little I spent a lot of time at his and my grandmother's house, the one my mother had grown up in, but he was usually in his room watching television, eating Fig Newtons. He wasn't one to play with the kids in the same way my grandma would. But he was there, always, whether it be at home or a school play or on a family vacation.

One time we'd gone to Fire Island with my aunt Linda and uncle Jean-Jacques. I'd been basking in the glory of having introduced myself to a group of older kids on a peddle boat. They were nice, cool, fun. But then I got bit by a crab. I stumbled out of the water, fighting back tears, and was relieved when I saw Grandpa in the distance. I waved to him for help. He waved hello and then laid back to sunbathe. My grandmother wasn't thrilled with that response when she found me crying. He hadn't realized, of course.

He was the one that took me and grandmother to church all those times. I could often convince him to take us to the diner after, or if I'd spent the rest of the morning and afternoon with them, out for ice cream. On that note, summer Fridays were a surefire way to get a trip to Carvel because they had the vintage car show in the parking lot, which my grandfather loved.

While he still had his boat in the Long Island Sound, he'd pick me up early morning (I'd better have been ready!), grab deli sandwiches and sodas, and take me out fishing. My grandmother only occasionally joined. It was the kind of quiet activity you might picture a grandfather doing with his grandson, but I was the eldest and my brother was too young. It only made me feel more special.

I brought him straws whenever I could. He collected and chewed them, a habit he'd picked up after he insisted they stop smoking before my birth. Occasionally, I'd go see what he was tinkering with in the garage. That garage filled with tools and duct tape and a single poster of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. If my grandfather was in a good mood, he'd entertain my questions about why they were up there and if he knew them and what it was like to grow up in New York City. He'd been born there in 1928.

During the wintertime, he and my grandmother would escape to Florida. I remember how exciting a day it was when they came back; especially when my sister was a baby and we weren't sure if she'd remember them. She always did.

Years later, when my aunt MaryAnn was in labor with my first cousin, he took me down to the cafeteria for a snack. We'd been at the hospital for hours. I was 13 years old. I asked him what could be taking so long. Without flinching, he replied that my petite aunt's hips needed to widen so she could push the baby out. It was a lite-medical explanation, for sure, but looking back I admire him for being so candid. I had friends at the time who'd be embarrassed to ask their moms such things, let alone their grandfathers.

My grandfather loved old music. He'd listen at home and in the car and even sing out loud sometimes. His lyrical memory was entertaining (even if his voice wasn't). He had an impressively dry sense of humor, and no matter how much he would repeat a joke, the seriousness of delivery managed to keep it funny. He wore suspenders. He carried a camera, and a hankerchief, everywhere.

He softened with age. I recall calling him to wish him a happy 84th birthday—my uncle Walter had reminded me. He'd had a very good day and, when I mentioned I was strolling through Chelsea to meet a friend, he started talking about how different his childhood neighborhood had become. I remember being so touched by our collective family memory. He closed by telling me how proud he was of me and thanking me for calling. I'd made my grandfather's day.

He moved in with my parents while I was abroad in grad school. Though a lot to handle, it was a cherished opportunity for my mom to get to know her father in a different capacity than she ever had before. I, too, learned unexpected snippets on visits. And my gosh was he was funny! One time, I was critiquing my mom's new haircut: "It makes your head look like Frankenstein's", I said (neither tactful nor kind). "What can I say, I have a square head. Look where I came from," she retorted, pointing at my grandfather. He'd been sitting on the couch, assumedly not paying attention to our superfluous conversation... and yet at that moment he slowly stood up, put his arms straight out in front of him, and groaned, just like Frankenstein. My mom and I broke out into laughter.

Last fall, I visited him at a veteran rehab facility in Upstate New York. Though his memory was foggy, he was still sharp—telling jokes and stories, taking photos, commenting on the black and white film they were screening. I'm eternally grateful for all that time.

My grandpa was hardly perfect, but he adored my grandmother, helped my parents purchase their first house, and, if the number of men and women from AA who attended his wake is any indication, touched more lives than we'll ever know. He passed away at home at the age of 89 on May 30th after an especially tough few weeks in Hospice. May he rest in peace.