The worst thing about a slow death is that it steals from you memories of who the person was before they started dying. So I am going to write a post that remembers the whole Grandpa, not just who he was these last few weeks
Disclaimer Just For My Family: I know I have the details of lots of these stories all wrong, that’s okay, I have the sense of what they mean to me correct.
When Grandpa was a little boy, he lived just a few blocks from where I live now. It was a very different neighborhood then. His parents had bought their house right before the Depression started. Grandpa’s block and a few others were filled in with nice new houses, but the rest of the area had stopped in the middle of development. It was a wonderful playground for a little boy, empty lots and abandoned housing foundations. Even the roads weren’t finished, just dirt tracks instead of nice finished streets. This was delightful for Grandpa and my Uncle Pat. They had big plans for the dirt road by their houses, they had been reading about WWI and trench warfare. So they were going to build a big tunnel and trench through the road. They would put a roof over the top and they could hide in there and cars would drive over the top and not even know.
10 years after that, Grandpa was in Saipan, an island off Japan, digging a trench. There were still some Japanese soldiers in the fenced off zone, and air raids were regular occurrences, so each soldier set out to build themselves a trench to run to when the sirens went off at night. The island was coral mostly, part of the problem with building an airfield there. The army engineers had managed to make a level plan for a runway, but it was just barely long enough, there was a heartstopping moment at the start of every mission when everyone held their breath and prayed the plane would fly instead of sink into the ocean when the wheels left the runway. And another heartstopping moment at the end of each mission as they desperately tried to brake before it ran right off the end. Making a runway had been hard for the engineers, digging a trench with a little trowel was a hard nasty business too. Grandpa and his crew worked at it in every free moment and finally at the next raid, they ran out of their quarters and leaped into the trench. To find someone else already there! A new arrival who apparently thought “oh how nice, a trench all ready made for me.” They chased him out right quick.
That’s the kind of story Grandpa told about the war. When I was about 10, and my sister was 12, and our cousins were 8 and 6 and 5, Grandpa made several hours of audio recordings of all his memories for us to listen to. We heard the funny stories, like about the weird powdered eggs that bounced on the floor if you rolled them into a ball. It was the same kind of story he told about being in college at the fraternity house with the doors that would swing open in a breeze and crash shut in the middle of the night. It was only in his last few years that he started sharing other memories. Like the guys in the other crews who started having night terrors and mad fits and were whisked away on medical leave. Even those eggs, that was a treat before a mission, it meant you were about to be sent out and might not come home.
When I was a little girl and we visited Grandma and Grandpa, the big treat was getting up early in the morning while everyone else was asleep to spend time with Grandpa. We could watch him do his hair (a big glob of Vaseline and smoothing down the remaining strands on top his head). And then we would go down stairs and make popovers in the special popover pan, which I am pretty sure is the only thing Grandpa ever learned how to bake. In the summer at the lake house, I could never sleep. I would be up by 5am or even 4am. No matter how early I was up, Grandpa was always up too. He would take me out on the pier and show me how to feed the guppies (little rolled up bits of white bread) and then we would drive in to town and check the mail, pick up a paper, and get donuts. Boston crème for him, jelly for me. Along the way I would talk and talk and tell him all about the books I was reading and everything else in my life. He told my parents back then “I don’t know what all she is talking about, but it sure is interesting to listen to.” It never occurred to me to wonder why Grandpa was awake, that was just how it was, no matter how early you got up Grandpa was up already. Only in his last few years when his doctor started worrying about his sleeping and he began talking to my parents about it did I learn that he hated to sleep, because he had nightmares every night since 1944. He went to bed as late as he could, he woke up as early as he could. Our lovely little early morning adventures had a sad backstory to them. Or, his PTSD nightmares had a lovely ending of Grandpa-granddaughter early morning adventures. Both are true.
When Grandpa was working, he got up early, to be at the family factory by 7:30am, but Grandma got up earlier. She was the kind of wife who had meals on the table for her husband before he even realized he wanted them, who kept the house clean, the kids clean, the clothes clean, and loved every minute of it. Years ago when I was little, my parents were talking about the difficulty of getting us settled for bedtime and Grandpa said they never had any problems with that. Which wasn’t how Grandma remembered it at all. And then we narrowed down and learned that Grandpa had dinner with the family, maybe watched a TV show afterwards, and then went down to his basement workshop. An hour later, he came up and went to bed, the kids were gone. Next morning, he woke up and there they were at the breakfast table. We realized that so far as he was concerned, his children could have been whisked away by aliens every night after dinner, and brought back for breakfast. Grandma made his home life very very easy. The only downside being, he just wasn’t a part of his home life in a lot of ways, especially with his children. Working 7am to 7pm every day, there’s not a lot of time or energy left to be with your kids.
Grandpa was a father on weekends and vacations. Which is still an awful lot, and when he was there, he was very good. He never got angry. Or rather, he got angry one time. Which was so unusual that it lived on as legend among his children, The One Time Dad Got Angry. They were on one of their long three week summer vacations (Grandpa shut the factory for three weeks every summer, he and all his workers got a paid three week vacation). They were driving across America somewhere, and the three kids were fighting in the backseat. Three kids in a backseat is never good, because of course only two of them get a window seat, which is a recipe for disaster. And Grandpa turned around in his seat and kind of swatted towards them with his hat and told them to be quiet. That’s it. That’s the angriest anyone ever saw him be in his whole life as a father. The three kids were stunned to silence and remembered it forever.
The rest of the time, Grandpa was just the quiet guy in the background making everything work. He drove the boat so his kids could learn to watersky. He put the tent up and down so they could enjoy camping trips. He drove the car on the long long family vacations. He was on the school board, he went to PTA meetings, he served on the church board, he did all the hard work and squeezed in the “fun” around the edges.
Grandpa was a very serious young man, and a very serious young father. And just a young father. His first child was born when he was only 25, a year after he got back from overseas. At 25, he had a house and a baby and his father was expecting him to help run the factory. By 32 he had 3 kids and a bigger house and his father was training him to take over. By 42 his oldest was looking at colleges and his youngest was getting bored with playing the trumpet and the dog was always getting out of the yard and they needed to build an extension on the house so the kids could have their own bedrooms and they had to move the factory to a new location and and the church was in the middle of a capital campaign for a new building and on and on and on. His life somehow accelerated and he never had a chance to catch his breath since he was 18.
One of Grandpa’s joke-complaints was that he didn’t have a graduating class. He graduated high school in 1939, but it was already an accelerated schedule because everyone knew war was coming, so he was sort of thrown out midyear. And then Pearl Harbor happened his sophomore year in college and everything went crazy. He finished college in 3 years and was shoved straight into the army without ceremony. He saw his girlfriend (my Grandma) a few times during training and then called her up and told her with a week’s warning that he was going to have leave and they could get married. Grandpa’s mother somehow managed to throw together a wedding in no time, a real wedding in a church with bridesmaids and everything, Grandpa showed up and was married, and then was rushed straight to the train to go back to training in Kansas City. They had about 6 weeks of married life, living in the attic of a relative’s house near base, and then he went to Saipan. He came home on VJ day, literally on VJ day, after completing an impossible number of missions to qualify for leave and happening to arrive in America the day Japan surrendered. His release from the army was accelerated, and then suddenly they had a house and a baby and his life never really slowed down after that.
I think the last time things were slow for Grandpa was when he was courting Grandma. They met at college. It was a set up, they both needed dates for a dance and their friends arranged a meeting to see if they hit it off. Years later, when my sister and I were teenagers, Grandma and Grandpa took us on a trip to see their old college. It was a wonderful weekend, we just kind of wandered around and heard stories. When we were wandering through the student union, I think Grandma and Grandpa took it in turns to go to the bathroom. So first my sister and I were alone with Grandma, and walking around, and suddenly she grabbed our arms in her tight Grandma grip and said “look girls! You see those stairs? 55 years ago, I came down those stairs and saw your Grandpa for the first time. I was coming from a cooking class, and I gave him some bread I had made.” And then we wandered off, and Grandpa came back and Grandma went away. So we were walking with Grandpa and he was remembering how the building had changed and things and we got to the stairs and he said “I saw your Grandma for the first time coming down those stairs. She was carrying a loaf of bread.”
Grandma was hot property back in college. We kind of knew this already, just because Grandma was still so charming and pretty and sparkly all her life. And because her stories of high school and then college revolved so much around dances and fun times. Grandma was a good girl, for sure, a very good girl. But she was fun, she loved life, she loved doing things. If I were a boy in the 1940s looking for a good girl to go to a dance with, she would be a top choice. This was the 1940s after all, there were very few boys around and a lot of girls. The fact that this never seemed to be a problem for Grandma kind of indicated that those few boys gravitated towards her. But I didn’t really figure out just HOW hot a property she was until after she died and Grandpa went through her box of memories she kept in a drawer and shared them with us.
She had literally dozens of dance cards (if you don’t know, little notebooks a girl would have at a dance to keep track of which boys she had promised to dance with), all with a different boy listed on the cover as her date. And she met Grandpa in October! So between the start of school in September, and late October when she met Grandpa, apparently she was asked to a dance by a different boy once a week, sometimes twice. We also found Grandpa’s letters and little messages his sent. Which were kind of sweet and very revealing. There was a lot of “why haven’t you responded to my last letter?” and “you still haven’t said, are you going to the dance with me next weekend?” It drew a picture of a serious eager boy desperately chasing the prettiest girl on campus. I almost felt sorry for Grandpa, until I remembered that we were looking through Grandma’s things. So he may have been the one calling again and again trying to get an answer, but she was the girl who saved every little scrap from him, even the phone messages taken down by someone else, and kept them for over 60 years to remember their courtship. I also remember another story from that trip to their university. Grandma had charmed her way into her old dormitory/girl’s boarding house and gotten permission to take us all over it. We were down in the basement by the back entrance, kind of a hidden corridor, and she grabbed our arms again and pulled us close and pointed to a dark corner of the corridor and said “your grandfather kissed me right there 55 years ago.” He may have felt kind of serious and boring, but in Grandma’s eyes he was the most romantic wonderful dashing man in the whole world.
Grandpa was kind of dashing. The thing about him was, he didn’t seem to see boundaries. For instance, he was stationed in California for a little bit during his training (he was a flight engineer on B29s, which meant he was in training for a year before he was sent overseas because it was such a complicated difficult job). He was at camp in the middle of nowhere and he thought it would be fun to go down to LA on weekends. But how to do it? First, he found an old broken down car that he could manage to get running somehow. Second, he made a deal with the camp gasoline officer, traded him beer for siphoned off gas from the camp stores. And then he invited his crew and anyone else who wanted to jump in his car and drive down to LA and see the clubs and the people. All of this is remarkable, but what is really remarkable to me is what Grandpa did once they got down there. It was kind of a joke among his flight crew, “let Redlich watch the drinks”. See, he didn’t drink. So it would be safe to leave him at the table with all the drinks because he wouldn’t take them. And he would be the one still sitting at the table, because he didn’t much want to dance either, not if he couldn’t dance with Grandma. He got the gas, he got the car, he got them all down to LA, and then he very happily sat and listened to the band and watched everyone else dance and drink while he thought his own thoughts.
Grandpa did a lot of things like getting a car and gas in wartime to drive down to LA and see the bands. When he was a teenager, he started a sailing club. Heck, when he was a teenager, he learned how to sail! My great grandfather wasn’t a sailor, he was a fisher. He liked going out on the water, drinking a beer, sitting and laughing with friends, and then coming back to camp at night where you didn’t have to shave or shower or anything. Grandpa wasn’t like that. He liked to sail, clean fast lonely cutting through the water. They had a neighbor at the lake house when he was a teenager who taught him, and his father bought him a boat, and then he got a gang of other teenagers together and they managed to start up a sort of sailing club, with races and everything. But he never thought of himself as dashing and adventurous and fearless for doing things like that (even though that is how my Grandma always saw him). I think he saw himself always a little bit in the shadow of his father’s memory.
My Great Grandfather was a big personality, the kind of guy who walked into a room and immediately took every eye. And he truly was fearless, did not care about what people thought or who they were. He was also a genius. He was an engineer, and invented and designed so many things. That’s how our family fortune was founded. He was hired on by a small sheet metal factory just starting out, realized one of the partners was incompetent, told the other partner, and ended up being made new partner. He designed food trucks that were used during the 1933 World’s Fair (Grandpa remembers being taken with his father the night before the fair opened to a dark holding room to check over all the trucks, make sure they were working). He designed or developed basically everything the factory made and kept them going strong even during the Great Depression. He looked at the world and just saw it a little differently. And that includes people. During WWI, he was in the army, and of course he designed something, some little piece of metal that made a gun work more efficiently or something like that. He got an award or a commendation or something for it. But the part of the story I remember (not being very interested in designing and guns and things) is that Teddy Roosevelt came to visit his camp. Teddy Roosevelt was an enormously popular ex-president at this point, everyone was very excited about him coming. He was taken around and introduced to people, including my great-grandpa. At which point my great grandpa politely invited him to have a look at his little invention. Because he thought Teddy would be interested. No fear, president or common man, they were all the same to him.
When Grandpa was a little boy, a serious quiet little boy who liked to read, this kind of behavior was torture for him. On family driving trips, when his father started to get sleepy, he would pull over in some small town, find the town square with an open grass area, take the pillow he kept for this purpose out of the back, and lay down in the middle of the grass on the pillow and take a nap. While Grandpa died a thousand deaths of embarrassment, his father sleeping on the lawn in the middle of town with everyone watching. When Grandpa was about 15, there was a boat parade for the 4th of July organized at the lake house. His father decided they would participate, designed a no doubt brilliant way for the boat to be decorated and light up so that it was the hit of the show and everyone was looking at it, and then ordered his children to stand on the boat and sing “You’re a Grand Old Flag” over and over while everyone watched for the whole parade. Grandpa still shuddered at the thought of that experience well into his 90s.
It’s a hard thing, to be the son of a Big Personality. And it was probably a hard thing for a Big Personality to have a quiet son. I can see it in the old family movies we have (of course, my brilliant engineer great grandfather bought one of the first home use movie cameras available. And then probably modified it to make it a little better). Lots of videos of a serious tall skinny teenager with a big smiling father putting his arm around him and pretending to make him smoke a cigar or getting him to hold a can of beer and pretend to drink it, or take part in the sack race, or anything that would make him smile and stop being so serious. Luckily, Grandpa was blessed with a wonderful mother who loved and understood both her husband and her son. My great grandmother was a very dignified woman. She loved to read and shared that with her son, she read aloud to him every day when he came home from school for lunch. She also loved her husband, and he loved her, half of my great grandfather’s craziest stunts (for instance, the time he volunteered to do a hulu dance in Hawaii, also on a home movie) were an attempt to make her fuss at him and then laugh. She wasn’t exactly a bridge between the two men, but she was a safe space for both of them, someone who could give Grandpa the unconditional love and acceptance every child needs. One story I remember is when Grandpa almost failed out of college. That wouldn’t have bothered his father I don’t think, but it bothered Grandpa, who liked school a lot. The problem was that he couldn’t spell. My father can’t spell either, and neither can I, some genetic quirk the three of us share. For some archaic reason, in order to get an engineering degree, he had to correctly spell a long list of technical words. So he came home for vacation, and his mother patiently drilled him over and over again until he was able to take the test and just barely pass.
Not that Grandpa was a perfect son. Which, I guess, is also a tribute to his mother. She gave him the love and acceptance that made him able to rebel. When he was about 13, he and my Uncle Pat had a paper route together. It was just a weekly paper, more a flyer of coupons than anything else. Uncle Pat had the route, and Grandpa was a subcontractor. I think it was something like, Uncle Pat was paid a dollar a month, and gave Grandpa 40 cents. They were supposed to deliver the papers to the backdoor of every house within a certain area, so the housewives would find them. This was in the city, so a lot of those backdoors were on apartment buildings, old Chicago apartment buildings with wooden fire escapes up the back. What Grandpa and Uncle Pat realized was that they could run up one fire escape, leaving a paper at the backdoor of each of the 3 floors, and then instead of going back down again, it was far easier to stand on the railing and balance yourself, and then leap the 3 feet to the fire escape of the building next door, and go down there. This was a brilliant time saver, and yet somehow Grandpa felt that his mother would not appreciate the technique and decided to keep it from her.
Grandpa also kept it from his mother when he enlisted in the army. After Pearl Harbor, he and Uncle Pat and their friend Chuck all made a bet about who could enlist fastest. Grandpa was at college, he went downtown where the enlistment offices had just been set up and walked into the Navy (remember, sailor). The Navy promptly rejected him (flat feet), so he walked across the street to the army who welcomed him with open arms. Then he went home and sent a telegram to Uncle Pat in order to prove his winning of the bet. But he didn’t tell his mother because, he figured, he wrote her every Sunday while he was at college, so he would just wait to tell her the news until the Sunday letter in a few days. But what he had forgotten was that Uncle Pat lived down the block from his parents. Shortly after Uncle Pat got the telegram, he cheerfully burst into Grandpa’s family house to say “Hey, how about Bill joining the army, what a thing!” Which Grandpa found out when he got a phone call at the fraternity home from his mother, who was not the happiest at this news, nor at the manner in which she received it.
I just heard that story recently, we knew the whole “bet” story about enlisting, we had heard that from Grandma’s side too (the loser of the bet had to take the winners and their girlfriends for a fancy dinner, Grandma had pheasant under glass at the dinner and it made a deep impression on her). But there is another story about his enlisting and his father that isn’t even really a story, just a thing that comes up every once and a while and trails off. Grandpa and his father had a difficult relationship start to finish. They worked together for decades at the factory, had lunch every day, but never really talked. About anything. Grandpa loved to read, loved books, loved to travel. His father read one book in his whole life, and traveled only on packaged tours with set plans. They certainly never talked about emotions or relationships. I don’t know if that was just two different personalities running into each other, or that men didn’t talk about those things. Years ago we were going through family papers and we found a notebook my great grandfather kept, a daily tracking of Grandpa’s weight as a baby for the first year. He may not have ever said “I love you”, but he rushed home every night to weigh the baby for a year and noted it down in a little notebook. And at some point during the war, I’m not sure if it was before or after Grandpa enlisted, his father made known to him that, if he wanted, his Dad would pull connections and keep him from going overseas. This is a man who had enlisted himself in WWI, who gave so much blood at the Red Cross during WWII that they had to send him home, who was absolutely fearless in every way and refused to acknowledge the possibility of defeat. But he was ready to go against his ethics and keep his son out of the war, if his son would let him. Which of course Grandpa didn’t.
Grandpa always seemed so sure of himself, sure of the right thing to do and when to do it. Grandma would follow his lead in organizing their life and they had the sort of firm stable safe home that always made me feel like they were rock steady statues that would hold up my world, not people like me. That changed for me when Uncle Pat died.
I’ve been saying “Uncle Pat”, but he wasn’t Uncle Pat when Grandpa was a little boy, he was just “Pat” from down the street. He married my Aunt Marilyn, Grandpa’s sister, when they were all grown up and became Uncle Pat to my Dad and then me. He and Grandpa were friends since the summer they were 9. They had known each other from school, and then over summer break Grandpa and his family went to some lake resort place (this was before we had the lake house) and Grandpa was walking back to the room late at night, it was dark, and he heard a voice say “Bill! Bill! Bill!” It was kind of spooky, and then out of the dark, like magic, Pat appeared. He and his family were at the same resort, randomly. After that, the two boys were close friends. They dug (or rather, planned) a trench together under the street. They rode their bikes over to the lake. They gulped down dinner in ten minutes so they could race to the movie theater and see the early show. And then Uncle Pat married Aunt Marilyn and Grandpa married Grandma and they both had kids and life changed. They didn’t grow farther apart, if anything they spent more time together. Every Sunday both families would converge on my great grandparents’ house. Every summer they split time at the lake house. But life changed things, they had different interests, different paths, different experiences. In my childhood, Uncle Pat was a constant presence in stories but not so much in reality, he and Aunt Marilyn spent winters in Florida now, their grandkids were a little older than us (enough that we didn’t really play together), and of course my great grandparents were dead and that tie was gone. And then when I was 15, Uncle Pat died. It wasn’t really surprising, I had been hearing for years about his heart and this operation and that operation and so on. We all went to the funeral, I had to wear a nice dress, I met my cousins on that side again as I had off and on over the years. And Grandpa got up to give the eulogy. I don’t remember the eulogy, but what I remember was looking at Grandpa up there and suddenly seeing an old man. Not “old” because he was bent over a little bit, or had no hair, or needed hearing aids, that had always been true, that was just Grandpa. “Old” because it felt like he was starting to fade away. He wasn’t a whole person any more, something had been lost, Uncle Pat took away a bit of Grandpa and it wasn’t ever coming back.
In the years since, Aunt Marilyn died and took another little bit. And then Grandma very slowly and painfully went away and took half of Grandpa with her. His friends went one by one, every time I saw him it felt like there was a little more missing. I could give it back to him, his granddaughters could tell him about their lives and joys and bring new things to him, but it was only a little drop into an ocean of loss. Grandpa lived a long long time, but he was living a little less with every year. The last few years, more and more dribbled away. And these last months, he was almost gone entirely. A fading thin pained body housing a soul that was eager to leave.
Grandpa had a lot of time on earth. But it’s not about quantity, it is quality. He had so much time, but also so much pain, so much worry, so much missed. If there is a heaven, I want him to spend his time living his life over again, but better.
I want him to be at clubs in LA hearing the top bands of the day, and this time dancing all night with the woman he loves. I want him to spend all day sailing with his son and no worries about going to the office tomorrow. I want him to wake up early in the morning just because he is so excited to spend time with his granddaughter and not because of nightmares. I want him to build that trench under the street, finally, just as he and Uncle Pat dreamed it, and sit in it and read comic books and be happy forever.