As Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grampa’s house. I went there virtually every Father’s Day, as our extended family would gather there and some serious snacking and sitting while my grandfather grilled hamburgers. But I also think about just going there period, how often I did, without any real thought given to the possibility that one day, I might not be able to.
If you went to my grandfather’s house on any given weekend, chances are he was watching golf, snacking from a large box of Cheez-Its while doing so. He was not really a sedentary person. He was outside more often than not, gardening or mowing his lawn or golfing himself. But when he did relax, this was his favorite way of doing so.
I grew up next door to him, and so I’d go visit often, although “visiting” is probably the wrong word for it. It was not so much a friendly visit as me taking full, brutal advantage of his home and hospitality. As I know I’ve mentioned many times, he had a VCR years before I did, and so I’d beg him to tape things I wanted saved for posterity–animated specials mostly, usually holiday related, with the occasional movie thrown in. He did this for me every time without fail, even though he wasn’t quite sure how to tape something on one channel and watch something else, which meant the poor guy was stuck watching Peanuts and Garfield specials all night whenever I placed an order.
If I felt like watching one of these tapes, I’d just show up announced, and he’d let me put on whatever old tape I wanted to, even if it was the middle of the summer and I felt like watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and even if he was in the middle of watching Arnold Palmer at the Masters.
To top it off, he’d let me eat as many of his Cheez-Its as I wanted, even if “as many as I wanted” usually equaled “all of them.” I would never be told I couldn’t have more. I would never be asked to leave. I could stay there all day, all week if I wanted to.
When I got older, Grampa had cable before I did, and he allowed me to program his VCR so I could tape and watch shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and 120 Minutes. I was permitted to do this no questions asked, despite the fact that he didn’t quite get the former and knew nothing of the latter. I’d come over, make enough small talk so I wouldn’t feel bad, and retrieved a tape so I could go home and watch “Manos: The Hands of Fate” or Dave Kendall get berated by The Pixies. I might even grab a handful of Cheez-Its for the road.
Only once in my entire childhood did my grandfather deny me. During one family get-together when I was around 9 years old, my brothers and cousin and I found an old electric card shuffler in the basement that contained rusty, ancient batteries. We used these to devise a game called Battery Roll. The object of this game was roll batteries across the basement floor. (Have I lost you yet?) We did this until they burst open and leaked battery acid all over Grampa’s basement floor.
We would could be dumb, destructive jerks, but none of us knew what battery acid was or that it was monstrously caustic and could destroy a concrete floor. Still, Grampa was so furious with me that he refused to tape any shows for an indeterminate amount of time. A more effective punishment could not have been devised. I was devastated, both for making Grampa angry and for missing out on VCR privileges. And I was also tortured by the thought that some show I liked would air and I would not be able to document it.
I distinctly remember that during this punishment period, CBS showed a Peanuts special called What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown, in which Snoopy dreams about being a sled dog for some reason. I was obsessed with Peanuts, and I’d never seen this special. I’d only read the weird book-ified version from the local library (does anyone remember these?). I really wanted to save this show forever, and I was denied. I don’t think that show was ever broadcast again, at least not when I was a kid.
I felt crushed. I thought for sure–in a way that only a kid can think–that Grampa would be angry at me forever. But in a few months something was scheduled to air that I really wanted to tape, and I worked up enough nerve to ask I could. Grampa said yes without further comment.
Now my house is filled with old VHS tapes that I made him record. They have little notes in them written in my grandfather’s hand, marking what is on each tape and when they begin, according to the counter on his old VCR. He was a retired bookkeeper and he liked to keep detailed track of everything, whether it was the mileage between fill ups on his Oldsmobile or the money he saved on his groceries. Some of the notes are on his old stationery, with his name printed in florid script, followed by very proper Catholic school handwriting.
I love watching these tapes now. Each one acts as this perfect time capsule of an evening of television, commercials and all. It’s like flipping through an old newspaper and seeing the ads for Shop-Rite pushed up next to an article about Iran-Contra. But they also remind me of a small sacrifice my grampa made for me. It may seem like a little bit of time and effort, but all the times I asked him for this favor, it added up. And he could have reasonably said “no.” He could have just said he’d much rather watch Highway to Heaven or Murder She Wrote. He never did.
He did much more for me than this, of course, and for everyone else in my family. Just by living next door to me, I could go him when my own house became unpleasant for one reason or another. My mother, brothers, and I went there a million times when my dad’s drinking got out of control. There was this unshakable belief among everyone, my mother included, that his house was an impregnable fortress where nothing could get to us.
I took the VHS tapes with me when the family finally sold Grampa’s house. The thought of not being able to go back there ever again was crushing to me. I joked with my cousin that we should only sell it to someone who agreed to clear out every Christmas so we could keep having holidays there. And also we’d get to toss all their furniture out on the lawn, because we wouldn’t want their dumb furniture polluting our memories.
With that pipe dream exhausted, I ran around the house with my camera, snapping pics of every square inch. It had never occurred to me before that a day would come when I would not be allowed to come here, watch whatever I wanted, sit on the back porch and stare at the clouds and the woods that seemed to stretch off in the distance forever. My house, being next door, had the exact same woods in back it, and yet his woods seemed bigger somehow.
My daughter was still very little when we left Grampa’s house for the last time. I remember her toddling into the living room while all my aunts and uncles were laughing about some shared memory, and she got scared and started crying because I don’t think she’d heard that many people laugh so loud all at once. So she has no real memories of this place where I basically grew up.
I have this fantasy. I won’t call it a dream, because it’s not something that comes to me when I sleep. More like a thought that flares up when my mind wanders. The fantasy is, if could be anywhere at any time, it would be at my Grampa’s house during some family get-together from my youth. But I would be an adult and my daughter would be there so she could see how great it was to be there as a kid and be able to experience that kind of love.
But I can’t bring my daughter to that house the way it was, anymore than I can bring myself there. The best I can do is, when she asks to have a piece of an egg roll I’m eating or a cookie I dug out of the cupboard for myself, just let her have it. Or acquiesce to her demands to watch The Backyardigans when I’d much rather watch a Mets game. This is the only true way she can experience what I was lucky enough to experience at my grandfather’s house.
I’m finding these little sacrifices easier and easier to make as I get older, and she gets older. It’s extremely liberating to give up your want, give of yourself, and give up yourself. To make someone else happy and expect absolutely nothing in return. I don’t think being a parent is the only way you can experience this, but I know it’s the only way that I’ve truly experienced this.
It took me a very long time to understand this, and even longer to do it with any regularity. Too long, I think. I was a father several years before I could really get over myself and not sigh and grumble and snap every time just a little bit extra was demanded of me. That’s not to say I still don’t get annoyed, because I do, and I’m definitely not proud of that.
But when confronted with a choice between satisfying my id and making my child happy for a moment, I try to remember that bottomless box of Cheez-Its. Sometimes I think it’s easier to be a hero in a clearcut good/evil situation, where only a true jerk would deny you help. It’s harder to give up the little comforts of life, especially in your own home, to a kid who almost assuredly will not appreciate it, when no one will judge you for saying no.
How easy it would have been for Grampa to say Get yer own box, wouldja? He never did, not once. In its own way, that’s an almost saintly, Buddhist level of self denial. I am grateful every day that I had that, and him, in my life.