Friday, February 13, 2015

Everybody’s Valentine

This Valentine’s Day marks Granddad’s 91st birthday. It’s appropriate he was born on Valentine’s Day; he’s everyone’s Valentine. Granddad exudes sweetness from his core. He looks on the bright side when there is no bright side. He’s thrilled by life’s simplest, most mundane pleasures, like an ice cold, overly priced Coors Light at Santa Anita Park. He’s a king among chick magnets, and yet, his heart is dedicated to Granny, whom he married more than 70 years ago.

They met because Granddad’s sister was Granny’s best friend, and when Granny was 16, her friend said, “Do you want to meet my brother? He has a car.” That was it. My grandparents married two years later, right before Granddad joined the Navy and left the country on an aircraft carrier in WWII. Granny didn’t know where he was for six months, or if he was alive, with long-distance communication in its infancy. When he returned, they raised three sons, one of which was unexpected. My dad and his older brother were already in high school by then.

Granddad speaks almost fondly of wartime, even while telling sketchy, near-miss stories.  Here’s what I know about Granddad’s time in the military: He liked Samoa; his friends slept with hookers and got “The Clap”; they once dragged a goat—or was it a pig—onto their ship and got in trouble for enlisting a livestock mascot; once, he almost washed overboard; once, the sea was so choppy, they could only set down their dinner trays long enough for one bite between waves, and everyone got sick; one day Granddad watched an enemy torpedo cruise past him and blow up the barge they were towing that carried many of Granddad’s friends; finally, as a signalman, he still remembers the signals to land airplanes in the middle of the ocean. These are the stories I’ve heard over and over and never tire of.

My grandparents when Granddad was in the Navy, early 1940s
Granddad spent much of his life working on cars at a service station he ran. Permanent grease etches the creases in his warm, wrinkled, rough hands, a mark of the endless hard work he did in the heat of the Inland Empire without every complaining. He paid for everything with cash. He never owned a credit card. They’ve never had cable. They’ve never used the Internet. He’s always been happy.

When he lost his gas station because the property owner sold it and built a brick law office building, Granddad worked at another gas station in Claremont, long after most people retire. There he became acquaintances with Snoop Dogg, Snoop’s wife, and his various bodyguards, always commenting on the varying classic cars Snoop drove. This was before Snoop was banned from the city of Claremont, so I hear.

“Snoop’s my boy,” Granddad said, “and his wife is so nice.”

When my dad was 15, Granddad and Granny bought a two-story house across the street from the gas station. They still live there. Granddad still does yard work and cleans their 10-ft-deep pool. He picks ripe lemons off a well-rooted tree in the backyard. He grows large, sweet tomatoes. He eats Chips Ahoy cookies unabashedly. He inhales breakfast at the Cable Airport café, Maniac Mike’s. His favorite dish is The Controller: two eggs, two bacon, and two biscuits slathered in gravy. He eats buttered everything by the fistful and Vince’s Spaghetti and meatballs by the pound. He’s never been overweight, and his heart is still sound.

Waiting for his fattening breakfast at Maniac Mike's
Granddad grew up on a farm in Missouri, which is where he cultivated his love of comfort food, manual labor, and girls. One girl in particular still puts a twinkle in his eyes: Betty Jean. They took a tumble in the hay when he was 13, so I hear. In their late 70s, after not seeing her since he moved to California in his teens, she called him. Her husband had died. She’d moved to San Diego. She wanted to see Granddad. She still held a blazing torch, apparently.

“Just because her husband died doesn’t mean she can steal mine,” Granny said, still jealous.

We once drove past the building where Betty Jean now worked on our way to Del Mar, but we didn’t stop. Granddad wanted to keep his memory of Betty Jean pure, as a 13-year-old girl, not as an old woman he no longer knew.

Up until a few years ago, when he quit driving anywhere farther than the grocery store, Granddad still drove solo to Santa Anita Park to place bets. Horse racing had been his favorite pastime for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, he taught me about long shots, exactas, and betting win, place, and show. He led me to the pre-race ring where jockeys parade beautiful, sleek—and sometimes skittish—horses in a circle before leading them onto the track. Granddad, clad in a worn ball cap from his growing collection, would bust out his newspaper, folded in half lengthwise, his picks already marked with a pencil. He knew about jockeys. In fact, he wanted to cultivate one of his grandchildren to be one someday. He used to say about my youngest cousin, “She’s tiny; she’s going to be my jockey.”

At the track, when the best jockey was riding the best horse, he’d get excited. We’d go to the window to place our bets separately after discussing which horses “looked good” and were “ready to run.”

After a race, when we’d lost, and we’d throw our tickets on the ground with the other confetti of losing bets, he’d pull out a fresh ticket from his pocket. He’d purchased the winning ticket at the last minute without telling anyone. He’d grin and say, “I won.” He was always lucky.

Except once. He spoke of one notorious race for years. He had every intention of betting a certain exacta when I was a teenager. The horses’ names were I Fell in Love and Mary’s Tune. He kept repeating, “I fell in love with Mary’s tune,” like a mantra. But that race was late in the day, and he had already lost his shirt, so he decided to cut his losses and not bet the long shots to come in. They did. He would have made a killing. It drove him nuts for years.

Granddad had a Santa Anita racetrack “girlfriend” who kept him smiling, however. She worked behind the betting counter. She was maybe ten years younger than Granddad. The last time we went to the track as a duo, before his prostate cancer started to take its toll, I walked up to her window.

“Is that your grandpa?” she asked in a singsong voice, glancing in his direction. “He’s so nice.”

“Isn’t he?”

I guess it’s never too late for schoolgirl crushes.

Racetrack Lady was not Granddad’s only “girlfriend.” A pretty, athletic Asian woman in her 40s jogged past his house one day and stopped to chat and called him “Chuck.”

I asked him, “Is that your girlfriend?”

“That’s one of ‘em,” he replied.

Later, I asked, “How’s your girlfriend?”

“Which one?” he asked, in all seriousness.

Up until last year, Granddad walked his dog at least two miles a day. He’d shuffle, barely lifting his feet off the ground, but I had trouble keeping up with him. He could really book it. One time he tripped, fell, and landed on his face when he was by himself. A neighbor came out of his house and asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m great!” Granddad said, still smiling, a trail of blood streaming down the side of his cheek.

Walking the various dogs he’s had over the years has been his ticket to being the town charmer. Everyone loves him, even a call girl in her 30s who used to do drivebys down the main drag where my grandparents’ Victorian-style house sits. The first time she saw Granddad, she slowed her car.

“Hey, baby, do you want a date?” she asked.

“I can’t. I’m walking my dog,” he said.

She slipped him her cellphone number on a sheet of paper.

He took her number home to Granny like a show-and-tell trophy.

“Look what I got!” he shouted, slamming the screen door.

Granny grabbed the piece of paper and called the young woman. She left an epic voicemail.

“Listen up, you whore bitch! Can’t you leave a poor old man alone when he’s walking his dog?”

She threatened to call the police.

“Would you have gone with that woman if you weren’t walking your dog?” I asked him.

Hell yeah,” he said.

I think he was kidding.

“I’m going to buy him some condoms so he doesn’t come home with god-knows-what,” Granny said.

They were in their early 80s at the time.

Granddad’s true love, however, is at home, hobbling around on a bad hip. He still loves Granny, despite that she’s an impossible pessimist with worsening dementia and half-deafness. He got weepy after she had a mastectomy in 2008. He said he couldn’t lose her.

“She’s my mama,” he cried.

Granny and Granddad in good health
From what I can tell, though, she’s going to outlive him. A couple years ago, Granddad went into the hospital the day after my uncle retired, had two surgeries, and was moved to a nursing home. Up until then, he’d been strong, his muscles still thick and solid from years of being a mechanic.

My parents and I visited him in the nursing home. I was ill-prepared for what I would find. He was lying on his back, flat against the bed, parched, and in a mental fog. I’d never seen him like that. He wasn’t the same man. His eyes were vacant. His smile was gone. His few words came out like he was under water. He looked suddenly small and pale. It was as if someone had ironed his face into the pillow. Anesthesia had kicked his ass. My mom gave him water and called for a nurse, while my dad and I went outside to sit on a planter and cry. A nurse came out and handed us a box of tissue.

“Let us know if you need anything,” she said.

We need Granddad back, I thought.

That day I rubbed my hand on Granddad’s forehead through his sparse, white hair. I told him I’d see him soon, and that I loved him. It was goodbye.

Then I waited in the car for my family because I couldn’t bear to see him in that state any longer.

This is it, I thought, the day I've been dreading.

When my dad returned to the car, he said Granddad looked up at him and his brother and said, “Are you guys ready to roll?”

“I think you are,” my dad said.

I laughed. Those were the best last words I’d ever heard.

Back at the house, even my youngest uncle was crying, but Granny seemed resigned.

“It’s time for him to let go,” she said.

He didn’t. A few days later, I walked back into the nursing home to find him sitting up, watching a Laker game. He was smiling, laughing, and bitching at the coaching staff on TV. I held his hand and beamed. Granddad was back. It was a miracle.

“You should see some of the people in here,” he whispered. “I’m so glad I’m not as bad off as they are.”

You were, I thought.

He was a cat on its eighth life.

“When you get out of here, I’m going to take you to the races,” I said.

“Okay!” he said with glee.

We didn’t go, and now I don’t think he could handle such a strenuous outing.

But he did come home after I thought he was a dead man.

Shit, now I have to go through the goodbyes all over again, I thought. I can’t stand the thought of reliving that experience.

Before he came home, when he was back to his old self, his nursing home wheelchair-bound roommate was abusive toward the nurse, hitting her.

Granddad grabbed the guy’s arm and pulled him right out of his wheelchair onto the cold, white floor.

“I took him down!” Granddad bragged.

The nurses, like the old lady at the track, the cute jogger, and the young prostitute, love Granddad.

One of them drew a heart on his leg when he went into surgery. I’m not sure if she was the same one who was shocked to see him grocery shopping later. She’d thought he was a goner too.

In old age, my grandparents are dispersing with their things: granny with physical items around her antique-filled house, granddad with old secrets. He recently told my dad, “I could have loved her,” speaking about a random girl in Texas from when he was in the Navy. We‘d never heard of this girl before.

It’s as if he wants to share as much as possible before it’s too late. What does he have to lose?

I’m in denial. He’s always going to be here, sitting on his porch swinging, greeting the neighbors, getting excited at the mention of kabobs from the Mediterranean place down the street. He’ll always be giggling. He’ll always be asking, “Oh yeah?” when I tell him a good story, and he’ll always want to know, “Did you see that game last night?”

He’ll always be in the hammock reading spy novels. He’ll always be rubbing his puppy’s head, saying, “She’s my girl.” We’ll always be playing Pinochle, and he’ll always let me shuffle. He’ll always ignore Granny when she says, “He cheats.” And he’ll always clean up the guacamole he dribbled down his chin onto the table cloth by laying out his napkin on top of it, smiling at me, and saying, “There. Fixed.”

He’ll always be in South Padre Island with my dad, having Bloody Marys for breakfast.

“The usual?” the bartender will say after they go to the same bar three days in a row.

Flight attendants will always slip him free single-serving bottles of vodka on the sly just for fun, and he’ll always be the man who bounced back from the brink of death to attend a granddaughter’s wedding and visit the Dreamliner his youngest son is helping test.

Granddad in the present, standing in front of his mint 1969 Camaro
This may very well be his last birthday, and I will be spending it with him, probably consuming too many calories at the airport café.

When he’s no longer here in physical form, he’ll be here anyway, right in the middle of my chest. He’s the national treasure you never knew, the greatest of the greatest generation.

Granddad will always be my Valentine; he’d be yours too if you knew him.

Granddad and his three sons at my cousin's wedding, July 2014


  1. Hands down the most heartwarming tribute I've ever read about anyone. He is a lucky man to have a granddaughter who cares the way you do.

  2. Thank you! I really appreciate it. :)