Taking the Bitter with the Sweet: The Story of my Grandpa
“What’s better than God, worse than the devil, dead people eat it, but if you eat it you’ll die?” For anyone who met my Grandpa, there’s a good chance he asked you that riddle. And he’d sit there with a smirk on his face, while you racked your brain for any logical answer, until finally he’d say, want me to tell you? “Nothing.” And then it seems so obvious right? Nothing is better than God. Nothing is worse than the Devil. Dead people eat nothing. If you eat nothing you’ll die. My Grandpa was truly one of a kind. I was lucky enough to spend 35 years with him, before he passed away on Wednesday last week. During these crazy quarantine times, it’s really hard to process and make sense of anything, but to have a loved one pass away when you can’t be together in person with family, amplifies every emotion to an overwhelming degree. So I wanted to write this post to share some of my favorite memories of my Grandpa. And some of his favorite riddles mixed in between, so that he will continue to make people laugh with his riddles posthumously.
I first started writing about my Grandpa in high school when I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. I wrote a few columns about our adventures together. Like the time he caused a scene at our local Stop & Shop when I was in high school and we went to use a coupon for a Free Turkey. The cashier refused the apply the coupon because we had apparently picked up a “semi-frozen” turkey, not a regular turkey. We did end up walking out with our free semi-frozen turkey, and talked about how delicious semi-frozen butterballs were for every Thanksgiving since. That February I wanted to do a special edition newspaper interviewing local veterans, and our teacher Stell said that would be a great idea. I said my grandpa had been wounded in active duty, so even though he lived one town over from Shelton, I wanted to interview him. So I came home, and told my mom. She looked pretty confused, asking what active duty was Grandpa wounded during? I said, you know, when he was wounded by a bayonet in France? He has the giant purple scar on his stomach to prove it. I know because he’d show us every time he would tell his story. Obviously I did not pay attention in history class, because they were not using bayonets during WWII and my Grandpa had a large birthmark on his stomach, but to this day, I’m still convinced a bayonet was somehow involved.
We spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s house growing up, as they lived 10 minutes away in Trumbull. When my dad started traveling a lot for work as a consultant (floating trial balloons and searching for purple cows), my mom would often take us to my grandparents house for dinner. My Grandpa would entertain us with riddles and games. We played card games and bocce. We played PacMan on his Atari. We even fake played Great Balls of Fire on his Player Piano. He had a giant rock in his backyard that we climbed on for hours. But my Grandpa’s favorite game to play with us was Mother May I/Giant Steps. He would let me get really close to the finish, until I thought I was going to win, and then let my brother take two big giant steps over the finish line. Many years of therapy later, I’ve finally worked through all the anxiety induced from this game. He loves telling it differently. “I’d always let you win Rebecca, always.” After dinner, he’d ask us who wanted some “pickled pigs feet” to which we’d scream “MEEEE!” Pickled Pigs Feet was his code name for Neapolitan ice cream, which we got with lots of sprinkles on top.
After my grandma passed about 17 years ago, my mom would call my Grandpa multiple times a day to check in on him, as he lived alone in the same house for 50 years up until summer last year. A number of years ago, when my parents would go on a cruise with limited cell service or a trip to Europe, my brother, sister and I would take over the daily check-in phone calls and report back to my mom. That’s when I got even closer to my Grandpa, as I’d take the 8am and 8pm calls, and sometimes another in between. I’d study up on some riddles to give him new material every morning, and felt proud when he’d tell me “that’s a good one, I’m gonna have to use that.” Often with my Orlando coworkers in the car on our commute to work, I’d do the morning call on speaker and my Grandpa would tell them riddles or ask how their day was going. So even those who never met him, felt like they knew him.
“What was the president’s name in 1985?” he would ask them. “Ronald Reagan!” they’d answer. “Donald Trump.” WHAT? “The president’s name in 1985 was Donald Trump. That was his name in 1990 too. And yesterday, and tomorrow.” They thought it was hilarious. My mom less so, whenever my Grandpa was being taken into a doctor’s appointment and was trying to tell the joke for the 200th time to a nurse.
When my parents would come back from vacation, I’d still call every day. It was a routine that we both enjoyed, often staying on the phone for over 15 minutes. He’d say, “So what else is new?” at least 10 times during the conversation to keep me on the phone. Sometimes driving into the office if I knew I was going to have a challenging day, I’d give him a quick good morning call to brighten my day. My Grandpa had lots of “Grandpa-isms” that he’d say in almost every conversation like “you can’t fight city hall” or “you’ve gotta take the bitter with the sweet.” If you told him you were getting a haircut, he’d say “why don’t you get ’em all cut?” Even up until last week when I would call him when we knew he was nearing his final days, I would say “how are you feeling today?” and he’d reply “typically with my hands.” How about that? Up until the very end he was still making me laugh every day. We started this fun habit of saying goodbye at the end of the phone call by competing to see who could say “bye y’all” in the weirdest voice. Sometimes that went on for five minutes until one of us ran out of breath or just admitted defeat.
We got my Grandpa an Alexa show a few years ago, because he had a habit of leaving his phone off the hook, which made it kind of tricky to get in touch with him without driving over or calling a neighbor to knock on his door. For a man who never had a computer or the Internet, he picked up the Alexa technology really quickly. A little, too quickly. My mom had told him that we could dial him to do an Alexa “drop in” which is like Facetime without the person on the other line having to accept, but he couldn’t dial out to anyone. So one night I’m working at my laptop in my kitchen, and I start hearing voices. “Hello…” a few minutes later … “hi” …. so I assume it’s people in the hallway, until I hear … “Rebecca?” so I know I’ve cracked. I walk into my bedroom and on my little Echo Dot is my Grandpa … and he goes “took you long enough.” Yes, at 90-something years old, he scared the living bejesus out of me with an Alexa.
My Grandpa was my biggest fan, and my greatest supporter. He’d always tell his friends how I won a big baking contest for a cash prize. I did write recipe once for Cake Boss and got paid a few hundred dollars for it, but if you heard it from him you’d think I won Top Chef. When I’d call him, he would answer the phone with “where’s my cookies?” So every weekend I’d send my mom home from the Cape with a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies for him. He loved fried scallops, and asking at every restaurant on the Cape if they had Manhattan Clam Chowder. (which they never do … because it’s New England).
My Grandpa loved taking trips to the Casino in Connecticut. I’d often drive down from Boston to surprise him at Mohegan Sun. I’d just sit at the slot next to him and start asking him for money, until he’d realize it was me. When we’d take a break for lunch, we’d swap stories of how we “almost hit the big one” and the slot machine stole our money. If you’d ever say you were “so close” he’d reply “close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.”
For the past few years, even when I was traveling like a crazy person flying over 120 flights a year for work, I’d always make sure I’d get back to CT for the holidays. I had a very important job. I would chauffeur my Grandpa from his house to my parents. At first he’d say no no I can drive myself, and then my mom would say I was going to drive him, and he’d say okay fine I’ll let her pick me up. I really liked those car rides just the two of us. We’d talk about work, and life, what kind of cookies I baked, and always a riddle. “What can go up the chimney down, but not down the chimney up?” Even knowing the answer, I’d often guess a few wrong ones so he’d think he’d stump me until he’d give in and say “an umbrella” and I would tell him, that’s a good one, I’d have to use it on my coworkers.
This past Thanksgiving my sister and I had lunch with him at the assisted living facility dining room, just the three of us enjoying some chicken noodle soup together. We talked about movies. The last movie my Grandpa saw in theaters was 2001: A Space Odyssey. But he liked Forest Gump and Saving Private Ryan. We told him Tom Hanks was playing Mr. Rogers in a new movie, and he rolled his eyes and said he had no interest in seeing that. We asked him if he had a favorite year. Kind of a random question, but we loved his stories. He said “1944.” Okay, that was very specific, so we asked why, anticipating a poignant meaning to the year. He said … “I was 17, a mailman and I had a car. Life was good.” Good answer Grandpa, good answer.
Today is the first holiday of many that I will not be chauffeuring my Grandpa to dinner. It’s also one of the first holidays we can’t be all together because of the quarantine. I’ll miss my Grandpa calling me before 8am on my birthdays singing (in actually a very good voice) happy birthday with an encore of may the good lord bless you. He didn’t sing two weeks ago for my 35th but we got some Facetime via his Alexa.
My Grandpa lived life to the fullest, and I have no regrets about our 35 years together because we really made the most of all of our time together. My heart aches when I get the urge to call him up to brighten my day, and I’m sure it will feel that way for quite some time. But right above me as I write this from my kitchen table is the giant wooden fork and spoon from my Grandparent’s kitchen. I used to always joke with my Grandpa that it’s the only thing I would want when he passed. He put stickers on the back of them as a joke a number of years ago with my name on it, “in case I died and someone tried to grab these,” but he gave it to me a few years ago when I moved to North Carolina for a few years.
And I had them framed so I could hang them in my kitchen in Boston in my new home. They’re a reminder of both of my Grandparents. All of the ziti dinners in their kitchen and pickled pigs feet and sprinkles for dessert. The holiday cookies baked and enjoyed at their kitchen table. The coin tricks, the card games, and the bowls of corn flakes eaten. I’m sad that my Grandpa will not get the funeral he deserved. Not just because he deserves to be surrounded by all of the people who’s lives he’s touched, but mostly because he once asked me if I could make him a custom kneeler for his wake and record his voice saying “hey! thanks for coming!” so that it would play that recording whenever people knelt down to pay their respects. Honestly, shoulda done this. Maybe the only regret I do have. We’ll do a memorial service for him later this summer. And maybe that’s even better. We’ll have a better appreciation coming out of quarantine of the things that really matter. And we’ll have had some time to reflect on the impact Grandpa had on our lives.
Yesterday I started thinking what would Grandpa say if he wrote his own eulogy and I started to laugh, because it would start with him saying “listen very carefully to every word I say…”
One knight, a pilot a priest a nun and an atheist go up in a helicopter. The helicopter crashes. The pilot, priest, nun and atheist all die. Who survives?
It only works when you say it, don’t type it. Because most people think you’re saying “night” not “knight.” Try it sometime. And when you stump someone after you repeat the riddle a few times, just think of my Grandpa when they finally get it and smile. And always remember, to take the bitter with the sweet.