My grandparents always played music around their house. At any time, you could expect to hear Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Duke, and — of course — Glenn Miller. When I was in second grade, my family went to hear The Glenn Miller Band in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was all dressed up and excited for my fancy night out. I was ready to fulfil my one true task in life: prove to my grandpa that I could be a gentleman. I remembered to tuck my shirt in, then button my pants, leave the zipper un-zipped so I could adjust the tuck without compromising the positioning or creases. My empty leather wallet sat in my right back pocket. Never the front pocket, unless you were traveling abroad and worried about pick pockets. It wouldn’t fit there anyway; a pack of Kleenex was occupying it now. I didn’t have a cold, but I didn’t have a handkerchief either so I figured the Kleenex would do. I spritzed a bit of my father’s cologne on and I was ready to hit the town. “Looking good, sport,” my grandfather said as I walked out of my room. I beamed.
Things were important to my grandma. Grandpa was in the military so she travelled extensively and collected a large list of items. She carefully displayed these around her home. The Japanese cherry blossom scented soap sat on the sink. The shower curtain had Japanese cherry blossoms on it. Her years in Japan were by far her favorite. If it were before noon on any given day, we could expect her in a robe or kimono. She referred to getting ready as, “getting out of my robe.”
My grandma was also quite thrifty. While living in Germany, she would go out of her way to travel to East Germany for shopping, claiming, “It’s like they’re always having sales.” While I have no evidence to support this claim, being thrifty also led to her constantly cheating in card games. I never believed that one person could be that good at bridge, gin, euchre, and golf. The only person that would ever stand a chance against her was my great uncle, Bob. At the card table, she’d say “He’s a liar and a crook!” He would smile, lean over to me and say, “only liars and crooks say something that stupid.” I didn’t know Uncle Bob all that well, but something in his soft tone and the way my grandma sat, manically shuffling the cards, made his side lean closer to the truth.
My mom was besties with her mom just like I’m besties with my mom. We enjoy going to the theater to see movies. We had a ritual of seeing every Clint Eastwood movie the weekend it came out and then gossiping about the people who wouldn’t stop talking during it. We like shopping at the grocery store together, then gossiping about the idiot in aisle three or the parent that clearly couldn’t control their kids in the produce section. I imagine my mom did the same sort of things with my grandma. My grandma and I used to go to Dayton Dragons baseball games. The Dragons are a small minor league affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds. Since my grandparents lived in Dayton and knew I enjoyed baseball, they would take me. We’d eat hot dogs and popcorn while sitting in the shade. My grandma wouldn’t have it any other way. “Look at those fools behind home plate,” she’d say. “They might have the better seats according to proximity, but talk to me in the bottom of the fifth when they have sweat going down their backs and have paid more than twenty dollars on water.” When my friends would brag about scoring seats behind home plate at a Cardinals game, I would just reply “Yikes, have fun with your sweat and water bill!”
When my grandparents lived in Alaska, my grandma would wait until three or four in the morning and then go golfing so that it was still light out but no one would be around to critique her swing. At some point she decided that if it involved more than a microwave, she wouldn’t be the one to cook it. The way the corn was prepared at their Thanksgivings were always my favorite. In my ignorance, I called it “my grandma’s corn,” until my mom corrected me that it was in fact my aunt Mary’s corn and always had been. I asked why I had always seen grandma in the kitchen while the meals were being prepared. My mom told me she was either chatting away in the corner, getting another caffeine free Diet Coke because my grandpa hadn’t heard her calls for a new one, or she was just plain in the way.
Caffeine free Diet Coke is infamous now in my family. Instead of going to get a drink herself, she would yell, “Daaaaave” from her chair in the living room. Everyone could hear it. Whether you were on the second floor watching TV, or in the basement testing car alarms while a jackhammer sat in the corner just going off for no reason. She turned the extremely common name “Dave”, into the strange cry, “Day-eve.” When asked years after her death about how he felt about her, my grandpa only had to say, “who was the only one that would answer her calls?” I had never thought of it. My name wasn’t Dave, why would I answer her? Sure I heard her calling three, four, sometimes five times in a row before my grandpa would eventually show up with the caffeine free Diet Coke, but why should I answer? Did anyone expect me to do anything when it wasn’t even me she wanted? Sure she had me grab her caffeine free Diet Cokes before, each time taking a pause just before she mentioned the drink of choice, “could you go get me a…hmm…” as if she were in a new restaurant and wasn’t completely dedicated to her choice. I could’ve easily gone to the fridge and grabbed her a caffeine free Diet Coke, but it wasn’t my task. Besides, seeing my grandpa respond to the call to go get her drink was something I grew to love about them as a couple. You never witness your grandparents courting one another. By the time you come into the picture, they’ve either already divorced or are stuck in the normal rut of a marriage that’s lasted over thirty years. Small pleasantries had turned into reminders that hemorrhoid medication was on the counter in the bathroom and that the next time they piss on the toilet seat they damned well better clean it up.
I could see that my grandparents were truly in love when they were dancing. They both loved ballroom dancing. It didn’t matter where they were, they couldn’t resist being in each other’s arms. That night in Fort Wayne, I saw them ache in their seats as “Chattanooga Choo Choo” played. The sweet sounds of Glenn Miller added a soundtrack for our evening. They tapped their feet and wiggled in their seats like small children do in church. I knew they couldn’t get up so I imagined them in their younger years going to clubs on weekend nights — paying to listen to whoever came to town. I cried imagining it. I cried often as a kid for a multitude of reasons. I’d eventually wipe the tears from my eyes with one of my Kleenex, but I would let them sit there a while. By the end of the night, my grandpa had proven to me there is more to being a gentleman than just wearing your dad’s cologne and tucking in your shirt.