My Gramps was quite a character. He and my Grandmother met at the Ali Baba Ballroom, in Oakland, California. He was her second husband and my mother’s stepfather. Gramps grew up in Sutter’s Mill, California, raised by his Grandmother and had two brothers. During World War II, he served in the Sea Bee’s and was stationed in the South Pacific and while I always knew he was very proud of his service, he didn’t talk much about the war or of his past. Time has lost so much of his history; but I remember how he was when I was growing up and there are stories that I’d like to give to my daughter and my nephews to keep his memory alive.
Gramps was abrasive, cantankerous, stubborn, tactless, cocky, proud and tone deaf. Beneath his bluster and cussing, he was a man our family could count on. Under the right circumstances, he could also be patient and kindhearted with a vibrancy to his whole being and that’s how I remember him. I called him Gramps or Papa Cedge when I was feeling sleepy and sweet. He was my grandfather and I thought he was the best.
Much to our family’s private delight and public discomfort, he always said exactly what was on his mind. He didn’t seem to have any internal monologue and if he thought a thing, out it came. Over the years there were fewer and fewer outsiders willing to tolerate his tactless and sometimes insulting comments and I know that it used to make my Grandmother absolutely exasperated. She always stood by him though; most people just didn’t understand her “Davey”. There was the family though, and while we weren’t too shocked by his occasionally coarse behaviour, there were definitely raised eyebrows and always lots of chuckles. It should be mentioned that he yelled, all the time, mostly not in anger but because he was very, very hard of hearing and I don’t ever remember him using hearing aids. My sister used to tell me that when I got home from staying with the grandparents I’d be yelling for about a week.
After his military service, Gramps worked as an accountant for the Union Rubber Company. I remember being allowed to visit him at work one day shortly before his retirement. I’ll never forget the visit – not because his job was very interesting to a little kid but Gramps was interesting and I was proud of him. He always wore the same kind of outfit to work. White dress shirt, long sleeves in winter, short in the summer, one pocket, black tie, black slacks, black shoes and socks and suit coat or Mr. Roger’s sweater, strange little pork pie hat for driving and black horn rim glasses. I thought the “fancy” attire was neat. I always liked the way he looked so important and official. He always had candy in his shirt pocket, I think this was a left-over ritual from when he quit smoking, but no matter, he always had sweets and he always shared with me.
When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I clearly remember working in the terraced garden with Gramps at their house in Castro Valley. I was quite young, pre-school I think and we were sifting dirt. He had rigged up a little wire screen contraption that we were pushing the dirt through, picking out the little rocks and then pushing the dirt through again. It seemed like a lot of hot and dirty work but I got to work with Gramps; so of course I loved it. No project was too tough, dangerous or tedious for Gramps. He worked very hard at whatever he did and got so much pleasure out of his accomplishments.
Sometimes the results of his “accomplishments” led to more projects in an attempt to correct whatever he had “fixed“. Upon returning from even the shortest trip to the grocery store, my Grandmother would find that Davey had again been fixing things in her absence. His fingerprints would be on whatever he touched. Paintings, mirrors, windows, glasses, walls, pictures. Everything breakable or fixable got the Gramps treatment. My grandmother was a calm, gracious and fastidious woman and it must have been maddening for her to see what kind of trouble he could get into.
Gramps always said he had “people to see, places to go, things to do”. Shortly after he retired Papa sold the cabin he had built with his own hands, sold their house in Castro Valley and bought a mobile home in Fremont. Gramps was very conscious of cutting expenses once he no longer had his paycheck coming in. He also had heart trouble and I think the big house and the cabin became too much for my grandmother and him to take care of. They seemed happy in the smaller space. He had the best vegetable garden in the neighborhood and my grandmother had her pretty flowers too. Gramps had a little tool shed for his “projects” and my grandmother was still sewing, crocheting, canning fruit and cooking amazing meals. I guess they thought they needed more hobbies because my grandmother took up painting, my grandfather took up needlepoint. They seemed to be ready for a quieter life and then they bought a truck and trailer to take on the open road.
One of the strangest and sweetest times in my life was the road trip I took with them to Canada the summer before my father died. Always looking for a deal or an angle, Gramps had researched Canadian dentistry and found that he and Nana could both get their dentures or as Gramps called them his “choppers”, for a fraction of the cost they would have to pay in California. Seemed like a strange reason for a vacation but the idea of killing two birds with one stone appealed greatly to a mind like my grandfather’s.
That road trip was an incredible and sometimes terrifying adventure and Gramps and I ate rocky road candy bars as many times as we could sneak them past the watchful eyes of my Grandmother.
While in Canada, Gramps ended up somehow driving on the wrong side of the freeway but we avoided capture, collision and accident so it was really very exciting. I remember being worried that Nana was going to have a heart attack. My Grandfather was pretty nonchalant about it but complained that the Canadian road signs were really defective. Actually I think he may have said something like, “God damn signs aren’t worth a good God damn, how in the hell is any person supposed to read that? Stupid idiot sign makers”.
False Teeth! Their dentures were molded, fitted and purchased. I guess they went one at a time for the procedures but I hardly remember that part at all. It must have been really uncomfortable as they both had to have a LOT of their teeth pulled. When you’re 7, dentures are the last thing on your mind.
At some point during the trip, we decided to linger in one place for a few days and do some blackberry picking. It was necessary that we pick a lot as my grandmother had brought all of her canning equipment and was going to “put up” blackberry jam. This sounds crazy looking back, but at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable to the three of us. I was mainly interested in the eating of the blackberries, so whatever my grandparents wanted to do with the rest was fine with me.
The trailer seemed huge to me and I imagine it was probably pretty good sized with a queen bed, a little sleeping area for me that doubled during the day as the dining nook, a miniscule kitchen complete with working stove and fridge and an even smaller bathroom. The idea of my grandmother using that little kitchen to stage a blackberry canning session now seems just nuts.
After the appropriate amount of blackberries had been picked, my grandmother told me that Gramps and I were to take the dog for a LONG walk while she got started with the canning process. We set off on our little walk and were gone for what seemed like hours and ended up with me playing in the playground at the trailer park.
I was swinging when gramps took the dog back to the trailer to see what was “cooking”. He tipped over the pot that was simmering with blackberries and pectin. It’s a miracle no one was burned.
The playground was a good ways away from the trailer; but I could tell from the yelling and banging around that it would be a good idea for me to stay away. Out stomped Gramps and the Suzy the poodle declaring that they would go on ANOTHER walk. I stayed right where I was and waited for some kind of signal that all was well. I wasn’t scared, just really curious. About 5 minutes later, my grandmother walked over to the playground and she was definitely mad. “You just stay right where you are and don’t come near the trailer. Davey knocked the pot over and there’s blackberry juice everywhere. I’ll let you know when you can come back”. So I waited and pretty soon Gramps came back with Suzy and the three of us waited some more.
Eventually we thought the coast might be clear. Gramps went ahead to check the lay of the land. As a peace offering, he bought burgers, fries and shakes for us all. It would have been a very bad thing if my Grandmother been asked to fix dinner that night.
Luckily there was a laundry facility at the campground because EVERYTHING need to be washed. Little rugs, curtains, blankets, towels, sheets. Some of the things came back from the wash a lovely lavender. I liked that color.
The next day they started over again, Gramps went and picked more blackberries, I played on the swings, Nana put up the jam, just like everything was the way it was supposed to be. That’s how they were. They’d go through the rough patch, get mad, make up and move on.
My grandmother had been a beautician and because of this, she was in charge of all family haircuts except my mother’s. I didn’t mind the French braids and the cutting of the bangs when I was little and my grandfather would just be tickled pink thinking of all the money he was saving since she always cut what was left of his hair. She had all of her special beauty shop tools and I loved seeing her setting out the implements on a white towel and getting him covered in the haircutting cape. Then she’d cut his hair and shave his neck and fix his sideburns. When she was done she’d whisk the stray hairs with the little barber brush she had and place the glasses on his nose and give him a little kiss on the cheek. I always liked these times with them, it must have been calming to watch her do this little kindness for him and see them quiet and comfortable together.
For all of his swagger, he was not a disciplinarian. Oh you could tell when he was irritated. It always ended with, “Here, you go sit at that desk and make some drawings, I’m going to take a nap“. That was the death knell to my fun but also let me know in the gentlest of ways that Papa had had enough of me.
Gramps’ radio broadcasted baseball games were a source of enjoyment for me. This little ritual required an unending supply of mixed nuts, cheese and crackers, grapes and ice cream. Sublime. I never have liked baseball but to this day when I hear a game being announced on the radio, I smile and think of him. It was one of those peaceful, lazy times with him. He’d sit in his chair and I’d sit by his knee on a little footstool and try to nab peanuts.
When I look back, some of the activities I took part in with gramps weren’t all that safe. There were a lot of screwdrivers, hammers, rusty nails, engine oil, gopher traps, electrician’s tape, baling wire and I had full access to all of it. Sometimes you’ve just got to be allowed to get dirty, do dangerous stuff and make messes. Gramps was perfect for all of these things. I was never hurt once while in his care and I think it had to do with the confidence he instilled in me to just tackle a project – NO MATTER WHAT. I wish I had taken a little more of that confidence with me as I grew up, it was powerful stuff.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the wonderful and irritating things I could write about my Grandpa Cedge. I think that he and my Grandmother were just the perfect Grandparents for a kid like me. He taught me to appreciate the multitude of simple pleasures that life offers if you pay attention. He was sweet in his own way, sometimes you just had to search for it.