Next month my Grandad turns 97! He’ll have lived through the past 17 presidents, all 92 Academy Awards, and every major war since World War II (for which he earned two purple hearts). And yet, I can’t claim much time spent with him during the time our lives have overlapped. Growing up in Kentucky, my family and I were always far from our relatives who were almost all on the East Coast (which resulted in many long car trips to visit). Now, living on the West coast, there’s a lot of uncertainty for when I get to see my extended family. And Grandad is turning 97… I would hate to think… That’s why last summer, when I flew back East for a wedding, I convinced my parents to make a vacation out of it and visit our relatives (particularly Grandad). So, low and behold, when we arrived at my Aunt Regina’s house where he lives, the first thing he said to me:
“So how do you relate?”
Can you blame him? Before this past summer, the last time I saw him was a day and a half in 2016. For the first time ever he flew out to visit my parent’s home in Louisville. I was working a tourism job and only had a few days to be home for Christmas, other than a few meals and showing him how to use the Keurig machine, we didn’t get much time together. I also had hair that didn’t nearly go down to my shoulders back then.
My Dad explained I was his son, his youngest, and while Grandad understood, I’m not sure how much of a difference this made. When showing Grandad how to use the Keurig he told me “You know… I can remember being four years old.. But I can’t remember yesterday.” This was appropriate considering my mom had shown him how to use the Keuring the day before. Hopefully he remembered me at least a little, maybe as a kid running around with the other cousins. Or a handful of occasions I reached out to him. My Dad would try to get us grandkids to call him on Veteran’s Day or his birthday. This was never a burden for us to do, but the older he gets, the harder it seems to be for him.
On this trip we spent the better part of two days with him, along with my Aunt and two cousins that he lives with. He was very quiet throughout, content to sit back and enjoy his O’Douls with his eyes locked in a squint and mouth usually just slightly agape. Occasionally, we would try to engage him in conversation, but this would require a bit of volume raising. He would respond though with his gentle, litely New York accented voice that sometimes faded into a mumble. But mostly he was quiet. His meals were simple, half a burger with not much on it, one or two plain cheese pizzas (although we had ordered Hawaiian per my preference), and always with an O’Douls. He loves his beer, but alcohol is not allowed at this point.
The next day my parents and I took him out to eat at an Irish pub. Again, he stuck to O’Douls. It was when we returned back to my Aunt’s, he really came alive. With a just a dash of enthusiasm sprinkled in his voice he asked:
“Do you want to see my workbench?”
Naturally, I said sure despite not being a handyman myself in the slightest.
“Alright, but you can’t let your Dad steal anything.”
He said this with a bit of a chuckle. My Dad and I followed him to my Aunt’s garage, assuring Grandad I would keep an eye on him. The garage was crowded as my cousins are both mechanically inclined and constantly working on things, but on our right just as we got in was an ancient workbench and a tool cabinet to go along with it. He sat down on a nearby chair and talked about it proudly. I’m not sure what personal mementos he holds onto in his bedroom, but his tools were clearly some of the most important things he held on to.
Perusing through what he had, you could see how he had built this collection over and he lit up talking about it. He loved explaining old tools that were foriegn to me and eventually asked what tools I had. He and my Dad bickered a little about my Dad taking things, but my Dad saying they were his. Eventually, he asked me a little about living in California and what I did for a job. I don’t imagine much of it stuck, but the fact that he asked…
I don’t worry too much about getting older. I’m only 26 and so long as I take care of myself I should have a fair amount of time ahead of me. What I do worry about is what fades away the older you get. The memories that drift and your relationships with people, even family. When I watch movies that have characters with alzhiemers or dementia, I get more scared than watching The Exorcist. The idea of losing so much of yourself is what terrifies me most about being that age. But when your 96 year old granddad shows you his tools in the garage, you see a part of him is still there.
My Grandad at his workbench.