Yesterday I ran into my neighbor walking up the block with her two little daughters and a man I didn't know. The younger girl must be about sixteen months old, and her older sister perhaps three and a half. Alyssa was holding the hand of the little one, and the man was holding the hand of the older child.
Alyssa introduced the man as her father, which I'd already guessed, and I felt a rush of emotion on meeting him. The first thing I felt was a great sense of warmth, seeing that grandfather walking with his baby granddaughters. The second thing I felt was grief. Grief, mixed with jealousy.
When I was tiny like those girls, I adored my Grandpa Aro. I recall follwing him back and forth as he mowed the large field outside the big barn, black radio swinging by it's leather strap from the handle of the mower. Grandpa Aro always had a candy in his pocket for a grandchild. He always had a knee for me to sit on. He always had a story to tell, and a song to sing.
I always imagined Dad the same way- sharing his own songs with his own grandchildren, on his own knee. I have always thought my Dad was made for Grandparenthood.
The day to day grind of parenthood was maybe a bit much for him- Donna and I were often out of clean socks and tee-shirts to wear, and don't get me started on his cooking. He wasn't much on doctor visits or dentist appointments- preferring to treat our occasional bouts of ringworm with antifungal cremes purchased at the farmer's co-op. He didn't sit down with us to do homework over the kitchen table. But we always knew he loved us. He was always glad to see us. Always happy to have our untidy hands helping him with whatever he was doing.
More than that, he LIKED us. Dad liked kids in general.
He loved talking to us and telling stories. He loved taking us fishing or letting us help him work on his car, or fix this or that around the house. Dad always spoke to children respectfully. He never assumed that, just because we were young, that we weren't logical, epathetic, humans, qualified to think for themselves.
He assumed we had enough sense to reason things out, and enough sense to handle a hammer or a saw. He also teased us. He teased quite a lot, actually.
Dad liked to make silly puns. Donna and I loved to rock back and forth in our seats while we were driving in the car, bouncing off the springy seatbacks. Every time we saw one of those "Stop Ahead" signs, Dad would reach out his long, tan right arm and press our heads gently back against the seat. "Stop a Head!" he'd laugh, and we'd laugh too.
When Donna and I were kids, we loved to gather around him with our many cousins to hear him tell stories like The Pee Little Thrigs, Rindercella, and my personal favorite, Esmerelda Finderfoot and the Bloody Drippy Hand. He'd pick up his guitar and sing silly songs- songs like That Little Brown Shack Out Back, Kaw-Liga, and even Eskimo Dog. Donna and I thought those songs were sad.
He teased us, tickled us, colored with us, and played endless hours of Aggravation with us, even though we were often giggling too hard to roll the dice.
He gave all the kids nicknames like Fireplug, Fussbudget, and Rock.
Dad told the most ridiculous jokes. Jokes we didn't understand at all. We laughed at them anyway always assuming we'd understand them when we grew up. Eventually, he explained that he and his friends made up these jokes when he was in the army to entertain one another.
I think now that the joke was that there's no joke. Which is actually my kind of joke, now that I think about it.
Question: What is yellow and goes "click-click, click-click, click-click?"
Answer: A ballpoint banana
We were both still in high school when Dad moved to Missouri. After that, we mostly saw him at family reunions, weddings, and graduations.
Question: How can you tell if there's been an elephant in your refrigerator?
Answer: By the footprints in the jello!
At my wedding rehearsal dinner, I noticed Dad standing alone and a little forlorn near the coffee maker at the back of the room. I hopped up to drag him to his seat, which was right between two kids. Just as I'd planned, Dad loved meeting Theo and Rhoya, and talking to them helped him to relax and enjoy the event.
Question: Why did the elephant paint her toenails red?
Answer: For camoflauge in the cherry tree!
My daughter was just 8 weeks old when my sister got married. On that wedding trip, Dad spent every possible minute holding his first grandchild. I felt that I had given him the best gift he could ever get.
I confess, it was a gift to me, when I saw him looking down at my daughter with that same teasing look that he always gave me. To see those large, capable hands cradling her head as she slept in his arms.
Dad liked to be called Grandpa Aro, like his dad before him. I always assumed that grandchildren would be good for what ails you, as he used to say- that playing with them would bring him joy. But things don't always work out the way we hope they will.
Dad was happy in Missouri. Happier than he'd ever been. Donna and I had jobs. The kids had school, they had camps, and they had ideas of their own. Luckily, Dad had kids in Missouri to tease- children of his friends, and the children of my cousin, Trent. He told me about those girls just about every time we spoke.
In the end, our kids never had the pleasure of lazy summer days fishing with Grandpa Aro, or making hay forts. They didn't get nicknames. They heard Grandpa Aro's songs and stories from Donna and I, and not from him.
My Grandpa Aro- Dad's father- had a cardboard box of white plastic circles that we used to play with when we were at their house. The circles were that thing that is left over once you've used up all of the scotch tape.
When we played with them, Dad would inevitably place one in his eye like a monacle and say,
"So I sees the bloke in the ditch, and I takes me gun, and I shoots him! And he says to me, he says, "I say there, gov'nor, that smarts!"
I learned later that this was another Army thing. He was quoting another soldier, who had been telling a story about a training exercise in which they were shooting at each other with blanks.
Naturally, I do the same thing whenever I find a circle that will fit in my eye socket. As soon as it was possible, I taught my daughter to do it too.
Though I'm grateful for the happy life he found, all those miles away, I will always miss the memories we didn't get to make together- especially the ones we could have made with these kids. I know Grandpa Aro adored them even from afar, and I know that they would have enjoyed his antics just as much as I did.
When I'm feeling regretful about these things, I like to remind myself that they've been having a relationship with Grandpa Aro their whole lives already.
Every time I tease them, or sing some silly song that I've made up, I'm being Grandpa Aro. Every time I make fun of the dogs for not having thumbs, I'm being Grandpa Aro.
Likewise, every time they make silly puns, and every time they laugh until they cry while playing board games, they're being Grandpa Aro too.