I came across this poem by Theodore Roethke called "My Papa's Waltz" the other day on The Academy of Poets' website and couldn't help but think of my Pappy. It reminded me of a picture I have of him dancing with my cousin at his 50th anniversary party. And it also reminded me of sitting in his lap as a child and feeling his rough "whiskers" when I stole hugs and kisses. His face was often scruffy and he often smelled of wood shavings because he'd usually just come upstairs from his workshop in the basement when we came to visit. He was always tinkering with or building something. In fact, the house he lived in he built all by himself. And one of my prized possessions is a sturdy little stool he built for my mother.
When Pappy wasn't tinkering and building, he was typically puttering around town on his moped, out on his boat, or salvaging things from the dump (like the first bike I learned to ride). Easy to see where I get the penchant for all things aquatic and thrifty.
Pappy was sweet and silly with us grandchildren, often singing us short, funny little songs like "Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had not hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn't fuzzy, was he?" My favorite is one that I can't do justice to in writing because the refrain involved snorting, razzing your tongue, and then saying "wheedle-ee-ay." We'd always beg him to sing it, and he always would. We'd plead "Faster! Faster!" and he'd sing it faster and faster until we were pretty much peeing our pants.
This same guy who was such a softy was also quite the tough, no-nonsense "man's man" too though. I remember a fishing accident in which a rather large, thick fishing hook went in one side of his thumb and out the other, straight through the nail. It wasn't as dramatic and life-threatening as the scene where John C. Reilly's character gets hooked and goes overboard in The Perfect Storm, but it was pretty gruesome nonetheless. My grandfather? He just grabbed a pair of wire cutters, clipped the hook end, took a deep breath, yanked it out, and stuck it in some hydrogen peroxide for a bit (that last part at my grandmother's stern behest). You know, mythic Chuck Norris-style. When he had appendicitis, he held off going to the hospital for way too long. When my family finally figured out something was wrong and brought him to the emergency room, my mother told the nurse that his appendix may have already burst. The nurse condescendingly told my mother, "Ohh dear, if his appendix had burst we'd know. He'd be screaming in pain right now." His appendix had burst.
Avoiding the doctor had nothing to do with being able to pay for the care. He had good health insurance. It was just that old-school machismo mixed with an earnest desire not to draw attention to himself or put anyone out. And, unfortunately, it was because of this that none of us really knew when he was suffering from cancer-related pain. He'd just grin and bear it. When it got really bad, he'd just go in the kitchen and take a belt of whiskey when no one was looking. When my grandmother would smell it on his breath later, she'd cluck at him annoyed. It wasn't until far too late that he was diagnosed. And we lost him.
It's twenty-three years later and I still miss him very much. Today is his birthday.