I can’t recall ever hearing Granddad speak more than a word or two at a time until after my grandmother passed away. Grandmom reigned. Her voice was at the center of things, saying words to each of us individually, all of us collectively, organizing us, keeping us in line, directing the flow of events. Granddad was her right hand man, somehow always just a beckoning distance away. She called Granddad “Quartz” — an accidental childhood nickname he gave himself, unable to pronounce his own name, Clarence. Quartz! she would call from wherever she was, and Granddad would pause from his newspaper or work bench or garden plot to fulfill her request. My grandparents married in 1929, just as the United States was sliding into the Great Depression. Forty plus years later, the kitchen drawers and closets exploded with empty plastic bread bags, twist ties, crinkled paper sacks, old shoe laces, rubber bands, and a million other useful and useless items. They were string savers. “Waste not, want not” was a lifestyle, a guiding philosophy, and it was passed along to my parents, and to me and my brothers too. In elementary school, the occasional luxury of carrying my lunch in a crisp new brown paper sack brought me indescribable quiet joy.
Grandmom made us magic eggs for breakfast (neither my brothers nor I can account for what made them “magic” but it’s what she called them). We were instructed not to spill any food on the carpet because there was no dog to clean it up like we were used to at home. Granddad cooked pancakes one at a time. My brothers and cousins and I sat around the table with sticky chins devouring them. He moved from the griddle to the table, balancing a steaming hotcake on his spatula. His rule: whichever one of us smiled the biggest got the next one. Granddad was the sweetest man I ever knew. The kindest, gentlest soul. He brought bowls of cherry tomatoes in from his garden and put them on the table for us. We popped them in our mouths like candy. Granddad gave us underdogs on the swing he had hung from a branch and played Pepper in the back yard with my brothers. His old wooden bat cracked the ball. My dad and two brothers took turns catching, the sound of the ball splatting into their leather mitts, the voices of men and boys in the backyard. I watched from the steps because it was a boy thing. I was not invited to join them and did not know I could ask. I was the only granddaughter, an anomaly. Grandmom brought me outfits that matched, gave me dolls to play with, and ran a soft brush through my long hair, freeing it from my two functional braids — a startling departure from my usual tom-boy hand-me-down jeans and tee shirt wearing, tree-climbing, scab-picking preferences.
Each summer we visited Grandmom and Granddad on Ashland Ave., where beyond the weeping willow the sandy lawn disappeared into the meadows and salt marshes. At night the lights from the Atlantic City boardwalk twinkled at us from across the bay, tall marsh grasses swaying in the breeze. It was an innocent time: we caught fireflies in jars, ran barefoot, and slathered butter across ears of corn grown in Granddad’s garden. At dusk we ran behind the DDT truck as it made its way through the neighborhood. My older brothers and boy cousins pedaled fast on their bikes while I ran, the only girl, the youngest, not keeping up. It was training, I suppose, for years later when I would follow my brothers down ski hills in Colorado. They were racers, pounding gates and flying down black diamonds. I did not like to go that fast. Not yet.
At the beach, Granddad lifted me onto his shoulders keeping me safely above the terrifying waves. Chest deep in the Atlantic Ocean my dad would launch my brothers by their feet from his cupped hands, their lithe, tanned bodies arcing into the water. Grandmom brought a cooler with Granddad’s garden tomatoes and cheese sandwiches for us all. Years later my brothers and I recalled the youthful hilarity of eating “sand”wiches at the beach and the torment of crunching course grains between our teeth as we chewed. Late in the afternoon, we returned salty and spent from the beach and used the hose to rinse off outside, the last to go shivering from the coldest water. Grandmom gave us clean rough towels for drying off. The only bathroom was on the second floor. The best view in the whole house was out that second story bathroom’s eastern facing window while sitting on the john. At the edge of the marsh even on the hottest summer days there was always an offshore breeze. Towels and bathing suits flapped from the clothes line. Upstairs, not napping, I listened to the wind blowing through the window screens.
Grandmom had a stroke one winter. My dad and Granddad sat by her side, squeezing her hand until the end.
When I was thirty, my dad and I traveled back to Pleasantville to visit Granddad. With the tape recorder rolling, we sat around that same smile-big-if-you-want-a-pancake table and asked him questions about his relatives, his childhood, his life. He told us about his first job with New Jersey Bell Telephone and how during war time he was literate in morse code. He remembered traveling west as a small child with his parents in search of a better climate for his mother who was recovering from tuberculosis. Granddad used short wave radio to communicate with people all over the world. He recounted sweet memories of courting Bess (Grandmom) and their more than 65 years together. Granddad said he would do it all over again in a heartbeat if he could. He drove us to the cemetery where his grandparents are buried and showed us the farmhouse where he grew up, long since abandoned, dilapidated, covered with vines. In the driver’s seat, Granddad placed his hands at 9 and 3, pinky fingers tucked inside the wheel. He talked for hours, and days. It was the most I had ever heard him speak. It was as if in all those years of quiet he’d been saving up his words and now they flowed out of his mouth like butterflies. He spoke fondly of his mother, a kind woman who died too young. His eyes filled with tears when he told us about his Grandmom Bee who raised him and loved him like he was her own son.
Granddad played the violin — fiddle, actually — a subtle term difference I didn’t notice at the time, but I now think of as an indication of his sweet humility. It was not the stuff of concert halls and velvet curtains where audience members in stiff collars sat with perfect posture. His fiddle was an instrument played for no audience, just for the joy of it, by a man who spent many years working with his hands. The specialness of it was lost on me as a child. I didn’t know it was golden, it was all just happening and I was simply in it. Nearly two decades have passed since Granddad pulled his bow across the fiddle strings for the last time. My dad and brothers reached hands over the side of a boat, releasing his ashes into the swirling black water. I don’t remember our final words to each other or the last time I saw him. What I do remember is sitting barefoot on the wide wooden stairs, elbows on my knees, chin in my hands, watching his hands make music.