Monday, January 23, 2012

Long Shot

When I was a kid, grandparents grew on trees. I knew seven grandparents and met at least two more. As the sixties crashed into the seventies and my parents started their family, just barely out of college, their extended families were falling apart. There was a round of grandparent divorces before a round of new marriages. My brothers and I were big fans of Grandpa J, the man who married Grandma M.

Grandpa J, what we really called him, liked nice things. He loved cars, and he liked to talk about them and take pictures of them and trade them up; at one point, he proudly drove a Jaguar. He bought a beautiful big house with a pool in Novato when he married my grandmother, and it's one of those places that remains timeless in a corner of my mind, down to the black standing ashtray next to the toilet covered in red and black rugs.

Being offensive was not an obvious concern of Grandpa J's. He was finicky about his nice things, and he had this half joke/half issue with my father for always accidentally breaking something when we visited Novato.  My mother asked J what color of sweater he wanted for Christmas one year - and he cracked himself up when he told her, "Titty pink! I want titty pink!" repeating himself again and again to his own delight. He wasn't one to keep his mouth shut, especially when not well received.

However, J was a first-rate grandparent. He taught me how to swim, he taught my middle brother how to play golf, and he taught us all how to play poker. I have fond memories of sitting with my middle brother and him, playing round after round of poker for golf tees, well into the night. He seemed to genuinely enjoy our company and gleefully picked on my brothers as a form of entertainment, sometimes crossing the line in what is considered appropriate communication with children.

The story Grandma M shared recently about her first date with Grandpa J captured my imagination, partly because she met him when she was roughly my age, post divorce. My grandmother's cousin arranged the first phone call. My grandmother said the first time J called to ask her out, she said no. He called back, and when she finally agreed, he told her to call his brother who would give her a ride to the airport. Grandma M, probably living in Manhattan Beach at the time, was taken aback, "Where do you live?!" He told her Mill Valley, which she was suspicious of as she had never heard of it. He told her there were several bedrooms in his house, and she could have her pick, and if she didn't like him, he could take her to a hotel. She reluctantly decided to go.

When she called J's brother to ask for the ride to the airport, he wasn't very polite, saying something like "Oh my god. OK, fine." She wondered what she had gotten herself into, especially when the brother picked her up in a car with a dirty windshield. The dirty windshield was a bad sign alright. But not to worry, she had taken "two and a half nerve pills." That my grandmother could remember precisely how many pills she took but kept getting her age mixed up when she told my mother and I the story - first she was 40, then 35, then 30 - tickled us. No Grandma, you were in your forties - now, let's get back to those nerve pills. What in the world were they calling nerve pills in the seventies, anyway?

J's brother got her to the airport, and she gladly accepted when he offered to buy her a drink. She was getting fuzzy when they parted like old friends. Then, "they" offered champagne on the plane. Keep in mind this was a short flight, so it's safe to say Grandma M was pretty buzzed when she met Grandpa J. She told him ahead of time she would be wearing a yellow suit, another bold choice, as they had never seen each other before.

At first sight, Grandma M knew she had made a mistake. She thought J was plain unattractive, and when he asked her what she thought of his car, she replied, "It's a car" and he repeated, surely a disappointed car buff, "Yeah, it's a car." Grandma said she noticed his purple socks and that he grew nice houseplants and cooked for himself in the home he built himself. She decided he was gay. That courtship was a long shot, but they fell in love and were married for more than 20 years, until he passed. And, I really do remember them loving each other, despite some cranky, yelling at each other, half-deaf years toward the end.

There's something about the image of my grandmother, all sweaty and high in her yellow suit the day she flew to meet J that I connect with, although it's not what she did exactly. It's a story from another time - before the internet, women's equality, and airline cutbacks. What I connect with is the awkward uncertainty at an age of experience. There is much that I finally understand with absolute clarity, yet I am also so clueless at times that I might as well put on a yellow suit, take a nerve pill, and hope for the best.

I'm glad she took the risk.

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