As a child, I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents house. I’m not sure there was ever a place where I felt more warmth and comfort than I did when I was there. It wasn’t the actual house, but my grandparents themselves who created that feeling. Even in my adult life, a visit to them takes me back to being a kid, where I am happy, content, and relaxed beyond all measure.
The home they lived in through most of my childhood was three floors. The top floor consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom, my grandfather’s workshop, which was off limits, and an office I could only describe as WSJ’d. Stacked against the walls, from floor to ceiling, were copies of the Wall Street Journal, a financial newspaper that he treated as if they were the holy scrolls. Throughout most of my life I thought he was a little crazy, spending so much time with his nose in a newspaper, the TV tuned in to some stock market show, ticker endlessly marching across the bottom of the screen. It wasn’t until much later, when I stood in front of his massive new house in Florida that I realized what he’d done. My grandfather had worked hard, saved, studied the markets, saved, learned, saved, invested, and saved some more, all to bring his lifelong dream to fruition. This beautiful, custom designed home wasn’t simply a mansion, it was the culmination of eighty plus years of tireless effort, dedication, and discipline. To think of it in those terms is awe inspiring.
The house that they lived in when I was a boy would fit ten times over in their current one, but I loved it. It was my home, even though I didn’t live there full time, because it was the only consistent place in my life. My mom, a single parent, had to move us almost every year in order to find something affordable, so none of the apartments or houses she rented ever meant anything to me. But my grandparent’s house did. To this day, say the word “home” and I think of that house.
It was actually two lots, one with the house on it and one that was just a giant backyard. The backyard was separated from the house by a driveway that ran from their street, Arnett Lane, down the side of the house, and looped back around to Wilson Lane, the main road. That yard seemed so massive to me, as if it was another continent. If you were facing it, off to the right was an area that was raised, and for many years my grandfather had rabbit cages back there. I know there were multiple rabbits but I only remember one, an albino rabbit named Pinky. I also have a vague memory of tasting rabbit at some point which leads me to believe that they weren’t being kept as pets. He also kept a beehive which provided fresh honey, but that memory is more vague, probably because I was scared of bees.
The center of the yard was just a wide open space that was glorious to play in but horrifying when I reached lawn mowing age. Toward the back of that area grew a lot of foliage that I believe was over a septic tank. Little did I know that all of our family poo was facilitating the growth of massive weeds. My grandparents also had a compost pile where they’d dump old food rinds and such, I’m assuming in order to fertilize the grounds. My childhood paradise was built on a septic tank and compost, yet never smelled anything but perfect to me. Off to the far end, near the main road, were a number of trees, my favorite of which was a cherry tree. I can recall eating them directly off of the tree and even now, whenever I have a cherry, I close my eyes and I’m a child standing in that back yard on a hot summer day.
The bottom floor of the house had two sides to it. One was the typical laundry and storage area that you might find in any old basement. The only thing that was out of place there was a small table in the corner that always had an open appointment book on it. Hanging on the wall to the left of it was a telephone and next to that was a door that entered into my grandfather’s music studio. I didn’t enter that part of the house very often and, when I did, was usually a little nervous. As he was a music teacher, I understood that this was where my grandfather conducted business and trained his students to play piano, guitar, and his favorite, the accordion.
On a few occasions, throughout my childhood, I was one of the students, but likely the worst one he had. I was never musically inclined and didn’t grasp the piano or guitar very well when he tried to teach me. On top of that, I never ever wanted to practice. To this day, one of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t take advantage of what I had right in front of me, a teacher who was willing to give me lessons for free. When I did take them, I first started on piano lessons but soon wanted to be a rock star, and moved on to guitar lessons. Ironic that today I’d love nothing more than to be able to play the piano. I often think of taking lessons but having anyone other than my grandfather teach me holds little appeal. If not learning from him, I’d rather not learn at all. So maybe it’s not so much that I want to be able to play the piano. Maybe it’s that I want to play and turn to whoever is listening and say, “My grandfather taught me that.” Lucky for me, he taught me plenty of other great lessons in life. So that fact that I wasn’t smart enough to learn music from him is the only thing I missed out on.
Allow me to digress for a moment and actually introduce my grandparents. Although I refer to them as my grandmother and grandfather, they are actually Nena (pronounced nee-naw)…
I am 40 years old and I call them by those names to this very day. The only thing I modify is to sometimes call my grandfather Grandad instead of Grandaddy, but only because it feels almost too childlike to say the word “daddy” out loud, in any context or iteration. However I always think of him as Grandaddy in my mind. Nena always has been, and forever will be, Nena. Strangely, I don’t feel like a child when I say her name in spite of that fact of it is clearly a name designed for a baby to say. I suppose it makes sense though. When I speak to, or about, my grandfather I try to be a man. He is a man. I don’t ever want to appear to be a child to him. I need his respect in order to feel like I am a man. Nena, however, is a different story. I am a child when she’s near. I am the same little boy she always nurtured, took care of, and comforted. I don’t want that to change, ever. Don’t get me wrong, I want her to be proud of my grown up accomplishments, and I require her approval, but I still want her to take care of me as if I were a small child. I need her to always be my Nena. And she always is, no matter how old I get. Now that you know them by their proper names, let’s get back on track.
The middle floor of Nena and Grandaddy’s house was the main living area. It had both a living and dining room, neither of which was used much, along with an eat-in kitchen that was in constant use. When I was there it seemed that Nena was cooking 95% of the time and, when she wasn’t, something was going on in the kitchen. She cut my hair in that kitchen, made me costumes for school, helped me with painting or other arts and crafts, even taught me to cook some things. I have untold numbers of great memories from spending time with Nena in that kitchen, and yet it holds one horrible memory for me as well.
For some reason, my grandparents seemed to have lima beans pretty regularly and, although I loved most vegetables as a kid, I hated lima beans. To this day I can barely gag down those dry, disgusting tasting legumes. Why anyone eats them is beyond me. Yet eat them they did because I was forced to eat them. As much love as those people showed me, somewhere deep down I think they used lima beans to punish me for everything I ever did wrong. One day I am going to figure out a way to pay them back for the lima bean torture. I just have to determine what unspeakable act is as bad as those beans. Admittedly, the lima trauma was but a small fraction of the time I spent in that house and clearly I survived, but I still have nightmares. Lima beans.
My favorite time in my grandparents house was after school. I’d come home, exhausted and hungry, and instantly any care I had in the world was removed. In my grandparent’s bedroom, my grandfather had a lazy boy chair that sat beside a huge picture window and faced their television. I’d climb into that big, comfy chair and recline it all the way back. Nena would put the TV on whatever I wanted to watch and head to the kitchen to make my favorite afternoon snack of sliced apples and peanut butter. Beneath me, coming up through the floor, was music, or attempts at music, created by my grandfather and the student he was teaching. It was so soothing, the food lovingly prepared by Nena and the sound of music, Grandaddy imparting his lessons. If there are moments in my life I could define as bliss, the times I spent in that chair would be them.
This story is simple, and doesn’t begin to express the complexity of my childhood or what my grandparents mean to me. I could write thousands of pages filled with stories about Nena helping teach me to paint, or encouraging the creativity that helped define who I am today, or just taking care of me, something she’s done my entire life. Or about Grandaddy, also known as “The Good Grandaddy”, telling me my all time favorite story about how he was the first person to see me at the hospital when I was born. Instead I will leave you with just this brief description of a piece of my life that I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday. I would write more, but I don’t have the words to express how iconic these two people are in my mind, and in my heart. Nena and Grandaddy are the most amazing grandparents any kid could ever hope to have, and I was lucky enough to have them as mine. Every day I think of them, every day I am thankful for them, and every day I love them more. They are my grandparents.
I wrote that at the end of February 2011, exactly four years before my son was born. I am so fortunate that he has been able to spend time with them and experience the same love I have my entire life. Because their grandchildren have children, they now have the title of Great-Grandparents, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s what they’ve been since the day I was born.