It was the summer before my senior year in college. 1979. I was living on campus, working and enjoying Ann Arbor in the summer. My mother was declining. Her dad, my grandfather, was ill. My grandparents lived in Florida and I had a ticket to fly down to help my grandma. My younger sister came to “live” with me in the hopes that a break from the stress of having a terminally ill mother would be a welcome change. She deserved to have fun and I had a fantasy that I could be a supportive, yet watchful older sibling. (More on this another time)
I still remember answering the phone that July morning and hearing my 11-year-old brother’s voice on the other end. “Grandpa died.” WHAT? That couldn’t be. I was getting ready to spend a few days in Florida to support my grandma and visit with my grandpa. My grandparents were my world. Some of my earliest memories are with them; if I was sick, they showed up at the pediatrician’s office and followed that by a visit to the nearest store to buy me a goldfish for my bravery (what kid likes getting shots?). For years, that was the only pet I was allowed to have. Goldfish were small, didn’t mess up the house, they were definitely quiet and required very little care. Certainly, these were my mother’s criteria for a pet, though one could hardly classify a lonely goldfish in a bowl a “pet”. I had to make do. On many Friday afternoons, my grandmother would arrive by cab with grocery bags in hand. She arrived with all sorts of goodies from challah to bopka to kosher dill pickles (probably from the barrel at Dexter Davidson). She never had a license to drive and would’ve loved our ride-share era. At the end of the work day, my grandpa joined us, and we enjoyed Shabbat dinner as a family, though for some reason my family called the experience, “Friday night dinner” rather than “Shabbos.”
Sleepovers at the Curtis duplex in Detroit where my grandparents called home were the best. I loved being with them and having their undivided attention. The routine when I stayed over was always the same and they indulged me endlessly. I loved “cooking” in their tiny kitchen. This entailed pouring every spice and liquid into a bowl and stirring until I was satisfied that the “concoction” was ready to be chilled in the fridge. My grandmother never minded the mess and my grandpa always was willing to “try” what I made. Of course, he pretended that he didn’t know it was not edible and I always stopped hm right before it made it to his lips. His eyes twinkled at the ruse and I belly laughed in delight.
My grandfather lived life; family was everything. He loved a good party and always was full of surprises. He played solitaire every night until he won or would cheat to finally win so he could go to bed. He was loyal to Jack Daniels Black Label “on the rocks,” and fed his bad heart with a heavy, high fat, cholesterol-laden diet. And, he smoked. I remember as a kid, leaving him strategically placed notes, encouraging him, begging him to quit. Even back then, I knew that this was not a good habit. My grandmother watched him like a hawk but even she, as much as he adored her, had little impact on his behaviors.
The call that brought the news of his demise was his last surprise for us all. He was only in his 70s, I was 21, and we still had so many memories left to create.
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