My grandfather, who died March 2 at the age of 84, was a small-framed man with short little legs, saggy britches, and a beer-made belly that extended over his belt. He had a great shock of white hair, which he never did lose, and a bushy white mustache lodged under his large-ish nose. He looked a bit like Maurice, Belle’s crazy old father in “Beauty and the Beast.”
He was something of a “character,” as they say, but not in a wacky way. He was reserved and quiet, a simple man who knew a lot of words but only used a few of them. He was a hillbilly, actually, born in Oklahoma and raised in the mountains of Arkansas in the 1920s and ’30s. His father was a sharecropper; his mother smoked a pipe. I’d heard all my life that he didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was 10, a detail that turns out to be somewhat apocryphal; what he told my dad was that he “always had a hat, but didn’t always have a pair of shoes.” He was a child when the Great Depression struck, though I’m not really sure you could tell the difference in Arkansas.
His life was fairly ordinary from a cultural standpoint. Like many men of his generation, he served in World War II, married a fellow Southerner, then moved with her to California to start a life together. Grandpa worked until he was nearly 70 years old, possibly out of financial necessity, but also possibly because what else was he going to do? He came from a different era, when work ethics were different from what they are now. I’m only 30, and I’m already trying to find ways of never lifting a finger again. But Grandpa kept plugging away well into advanced age.
Oh, and did I mention he was a roofer? Because he was. A guy works until he’s 70 in an office, that’s admirable, but it’s not Herculean. A guy sweats, strains and toils on hot roofs for almost half a century, that deserves recognition. He outlived Grandma by 15 years and didn’t experience any major health problems until recently. Even when he died, it was in his sleep, and he hadn’t felt ill beforehand. If you have to go, that’s the way to do it: after a long life and without any drama.
Grandpa and Grandma moved once during my childhood, from L.A. to the high desert city of Hesperia, Calif. Both houses had a garage, though, and that was pivotal to Grandpa’s success. Like all boys, he needed a fort wherever he lived, and it absolutely could not be indoors. He worked outside, and when he wasn’t working he relaxed outside. As a result, his skin was exceptionally thick, all dark and leathery, like beef jerky. His arms were probably bullet-proof. He allegedly wanted to be cremated when he died, and if that’s true, I wonder if part of the reason was that he was curious to see whether or not he’d burn.
Anyway, his place was always in the garage. The garage door remained open, for ventilation and visibility; he wasn’t trying to hide or anything. He had an easy chair out there, along with a TV tray for holding magazines and drinks, and a black-and-white TV. It didn’t matter that the TV wasn’t color, because his preferred programming was John Wayne movies, which were black-and-white anyway. In fact, I believe John Wayne himself was in black-and-white.
My memories of Grandpa in the garage all include John Wayne movies. He apparently had a magic TV that was patched in directly to the John Wayne Network. The one exception is the time I went out there and he and my dad were cracking up laughing at an ancient “Popeye” cartoon. I believe the cartoon featured the throwing of many pies. Like I said, his tastes were simple.
Grandpa’s fondness for the garage meant that when we’d go to visit him and Grandma, there were two venues. If you got bored with whatever was happening indoors, or if the conversation became too grownup, or if you can only sit in your grandma’s house looking at doilies and knick-knacks for so long before you go stir crazy anyway, then you could go outside and visit Grandpa, who evidently had long ago become permanently fed up with doilies and knick-knacks. In fact, maybe that was part of Grandpa’s appeal. By moving his base of operations outdoors, he represented what all kids aspire to: freedom from grownups. He was a grownup, too, of course, but only chronologically. Most adults were taller than he was, and most adults aren’t doing handstands on the front lawn when they’re 60 years old, either. Most adults keep their teeth, too, and Grandpa’s began to fall out around the same time my baby ones did.
Grandpa’s love of being outside didn’t mean he was anti-social, though. He didn’t initiate many conversations, but he was always keen to talk to you if you started one. When you’d go out to visit him, he was always glad to have company, no matter how riveting the John Wayne movie was. If it was too hot in the garage, he’d move to the little wall surrounding the rose bushes, where he’d whittle and chew tobacco and occasionally lean back too far and get jabbed by thorns. He told jokes and laughed a lot, and greatly enjoyed having his children and grandchildren around. For fun, sometimes we’d punch him in his belly, which made him go, “Oof!,” and then he’d laugh. (I was kind of sad when, about 10 years ago, a doctor warned him about his blood pressure, suggested a better diet, and Grandpa lost his belly.) If there were family activities, he was involved: playing cards around the dining-room table, going miniature golfing, watching Dodger games on TV. He always wore old, comfortable slacks, a white T-shirt and a baseball cap. If he was to be out in public, sometimes he’d put a button-up shirt on over the T-shirt, but he wouldn’t button it. I like to think that’s because he didn’t like The Man telling him what to do, but it was probably because his shirts wouldn’t button over his oddly shaped gut.
I don’t have a single unpleasant or uncomfortable memory of Grandpa. He might seem more flawed if I knew more details about his early life, and it’s with some regret that I realize I don’t. But he was always a fixture in my life, even if I didn’t know all the particulars of his. I can picture him now, sitting in heaven’s garage, watching John Wayne movies. They’re still in black-and-white, of course, but now he gets to watch them with John Wayne.