“If you win this hand, I’ll roll a peanut to China with my nose,” he winked and his whiskers grew into a smile. I chuckled, knowing he would neither win the hand nor roll a peanut to China with his nose, despite its girth.
He usually smelled bad, and always had crud under his fingernails. When he went swimming we’d lovingly call it his yearly bath. At times he was grumpy because someone was making him take a shower or clean under his nails, but the promise of ice cream always livened him. He had type two diabetes and when someone complained the ice cream would affect his blood sugar, he said to let him die happy, with his ice cream. In his eighties he lived more than anyone I had known.
“Want to hear my Italian impression?”
“Put the macarroni in the icea boxa,” he laughed at his own joke. His grin was hidden beneath his beard, but I always knew he was smiling when his eyes lit up.
Grandpa, Grandpa!,” the grandchildren shouted enthusiastically.
One day during a particularly long camping trip in Tennessee he said, “Call me Grandma, I’m tired of being called Grandpa.” My little brothers took to calling him grandma, they thought it was hilarious.
The earlier memories are fuzzy; some are just stories I have heard along with vague figments of recollection. I do remember scaling fish with him—the smell, and the feel of scales under my fingernails. I remember walking on wooden planks he put in place, they led to the Mattawoman. As I played in the creek I scared fish from his nets. I remember how my brother Gabriel was scared of Grandpa at first because he had never seen anyone with a beard—he would cry louder if Grandpa tried to talk to him or dare to pick him up. Gabriel got over his fear of the beard and became Grandpa’s buddy—he learned from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, he dressed like a cowboy and if you pretended to shoot him he died valiantly. He twirled around and cried out in agony, “Ah, you got me!” and fell, lying with his tongue hanging out.
When Grandpa was seventy he was having a heart attack. I remember climbing the narrow staircase to see him. He was holed up in his room with a gun, threatening to shoot—no one was making him go to the hospital, over his dead body. He gave in and got a pacemaker. My parents warned me against going up those rickety stairs, but I didn’t listen, I just wanted to be with Grandpa. Lo and behold, one day I tumbled down those stairs and had to get stitches in my head. All I remember was afterward, when the stitches were being taken out, kicking my dad while he held me in place so the doctor could snip out the strings. I wonder if I still have the scar.
I still have a scar on my forehead where Grandpa scratched me when I was an infant. I don’t know if it was an accident, other family members joked that he was marking me “Me number one pattawon.”
If I told you some of the stories of my grandfather, you would not believe me. I have seen photos, I am a believer. He evaded water police on the Potomac in his riverboat. He punched a cop, cursed out a judge, and landed himself in prison. He escaped a few times.
“Wie geht’s, Grandpa?”
“I’m not going anywhere!”
I never knew if he was joking or not during this exchange, but I like to think he was being a smart alec.
“Wie viele Männer hast du? Halt, ich schieße! ”
He taught me German phrases from the War when we sat in the car waiting on my mother during her road runnings. He began to tell me stories.
A common story I heard was how he found Jesus. He was in a fox hole, it was night. A man told him about how his father had cattle on a thousand hills and a mansion on a hilltop. He thought the guy was loaded; he said he better watch out for him, stick with this guy. The man must have went on to explain about his rich heavenly father, the streets of gold and gates of pearl. That sounded like a pretty good deal to Grandpa. The story always stopped there. Christianity sounded like a get rich quick scheme.
“Ich liebe dich, liebst du mich? ” he slurred his German like an alcoholic. I smiled.
“You’re the prettiest girl on this side of the Mason-Dixon, Sherylanne, ” He could never say my name right, and it never bothered me, “Hell, we could put you in a potato sack and you’d still be just as beautiful. ”
“Gin rummy, ” I smiled, “I’m out. Where’s that peanut?”