Poppa

My grandfather wore pants with whales on them. He also wore bright oxford sport shirts opened just enough to let a tuft of white wool cascade over the top. He hung a pair of reading glasses from a braided leather lanyard around his neck, and he would always place them on the tip of his nose when examining my latest toy car or found sea shell or shark tooth. He had an entire cup full of the last and I used to love talking to him about what kind of sharks each tooth came from. I loved his pale blue eyes and big bald head and that he didn’t smell bad like other old people.

My grandfather showed me how to make wriggling crinkleworms out of a straw wrapper and a drop of water. My mom complained later that he had neglected to show her that when she was young — some lessons are reserved for grandsons. My grandfather also taught me that light bulbs are vacuum sealed when he broke the tip of one off under water in the sink one time. He would make me laugh with his stories about re-assembling his professor’s Ford inside of his office in Princeton — on the fourth floor — and about sneaking into the lab during medical school at Columbia to drink the blue-dyed grain alcohol for a cheap buzz during the war.

My grandfather was supposed to fight in the Pacific but we dropped the bomb before he was out of medical school.

My grandfather’s middle name was Bunnell and his friends called him Bun. He always sent me home-printed Christmas and birthday cards with a logo of a bee on the back that read, “Charlie B. Greetings.”

My grandfather gave me my first gin-and-tonic (his favorite cocktail) when I was still in high school and he taught me to play hearts and poker. He came to my high school graduation even though it was five states away. The last time I saw my grandfather he was walking to his car holding my grandmother’s hand.

Poppa died two days before Easter Sunday and I cried.

I called my mom back still slightly hungover from the night before, and after hearing the news, told her I was okay, but I wasn’t. I hung up the phone and cried into my fiancee’s shoulder, which seemed weird to me because I never cry. I cried because I only got to see him last October at my cousin’s wedding and because he won’t get to go to mine. I cried because I don’t have any grandfathers left to teach me about life. I cried because I miss him and I didn’t get to say goodbye.

I may not have played pranks on my professors at Princeton, gotten drunk on grain alcohol at med school or enlisted, and the future hasn’t yet revealed my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but I will always know how to make a crinkleworm, what kinds of sharks have what kinds of teeth, how to drink a gin and tonic, and how to dress well in retirement. I know those things because I knew Poppa, and I will never forget.

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