My 96-Year-Old Grandfather Moved to Town a Few Years Ago, and Nothing’s Been the Same Since
After decades in which I knew him from afar, my grandfather now lives 10 minutes away. I wasn’t used to having him around, and now he’s everywhere.
“Can you come over and help Pop-Pop? He got locked out of his iPad again.”
My mom sounded frantic on the phone, as though my 96-year-old grandfather was expecting something huge and important to come through, an email or some notification of lottery winnings or an unanticipated inheritance or maybe a nuclear code. He’d gotten the iPad a few days before to replace his old laptop, which he was locked out of as well. The gentleman at the Verizon store told him he needed a six-digit passcode for the iPad, even though he always uses the same four digits. So my grandfather gamely tacked on two numbers, maybe a symbol. Either way, he didn’t remember the passcode, and he’d guessed wrong too many times and now was locked out, and the Verizon guy told him he would have to wipe the whole iPad clean, and my grandfather didn’t know how to contact the Apple place.
“Well, hel-lo, sweetheart!” my grandfather said when I got to my mom’s house a little while later, bearing a tangle of cable cords. My grandfather’s voice is deep and gravelly, like someone rubbed it with sandpaper. “I can’t get into the damn thing,” he said as he handed over the iPad. It was disabled, and even though he would be able to try again in an hour, it wouldn’t matter. The passcode was lost in his brain, trounced by more important numbers like the one of the naval ship he was on in the war (217), the year he got married (1948), and the address of his first apartment (6505).
I knew the stories behind some of these numbers, but only in vague detail, as they were painted with the wide-brush overview you give to an eight-year-old who’s come to visit you in your Florida condo. I remember that condo, all white and navy, more than I remember my grandparents’ former home in Maryland, where my mom grew up with her three siblings and where we visited when I was very young. I remember this house as a grand stone castle with an enchanted koi pond in the backyard and maybe a parapet or two. (According to a recent search on Redfin, the house is actually a perfectly normal colonial. The koi pond, however, is real.)
My grandparents lived in the Florida condo for 29 years — long enough for us to age out of frequent visits down there, too busy with school and work; long enough for them to age out of frequent visits up here, too old for flights and long drives; and, eventually, long enough for them to age out of living alone. In 2015, after accepting that he couldn’t manage my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s by himself, my grandfather sold the condo, slapped on a tweed flat cap, hoisted my grandmother and her wheelchair into the huge champagne-colored Cadillac he calls the Golden Goose, and went barreling up I-95 to Pennsylvania.
All at once, the circles of my grandfather’s life intersected mine. After decades in which I knew him from afar, my grandfather now lives 10 minutes away, his big life whittled down to a tidy one-bedroom in an assisted-living community he dryly calls the Institution. My grandmother lives in a separate memory-care building on campus, where she sleeps for most of the day.
At first it was weird, having them here all the time. I wasn’t used to having grandparents around, and suddenly they were everywhere: at Thanksgiving and Christmas, at birthday parties and baptisms, at our church, our diner, our dentist. There was a prickle of resentment, too: Now you come, after we’ve all grown up and moved on? But this softened, quickly, to something closer to gratitude, because by the time my grandparents moved to town, our family had already begun tilting into unfamiliar territory. My mother-in-law died. I had a baby. My sister got engaged, my father-in-law started seeing someone — our family contracting and swelling into something new, slightly off its axis. And then came my grandfather, careening onto the scene in his Golden Goose, here to shake up the clan. I didn’t know him well enough then to realize he would also become our center.
My grandfather never went to my soccer games or recitals or graduations; he couldn’t, living all the way down there, and I never expected him to, just as he never expected me to spend spring break with him in Florida. Maybe he could have and maybe I should have, but we didn’t, and, lucky for us, time didn’t run out. Now he’s here and so am I, Venn-diagrammed together at the end of his life and the almost-middle of mine. We never said it, and probably never thought of it like this, but in retrospect, perhaps our first conversation after my grandfather moved to town should have gone something like this: Welcome to our life up here. Come on in and let’s get started. We have a lot of ground to cover.
My grandfather is wearing a grass skirt, a coconut bra, and a lopsided blond wig. He’s swaying his hips hula-style, really hamming it up for the crowd, which is a couple dozen silver-haired seniors. They’ve all filed into the Institution’s auditorium for the drama club’s twice-annual show. The club has decided on a choral medley of South Pacific songs, and my grandfather (who, I should note, is wearing a dress shirt, a tie and slacks beneath the island garb) is the comic relief.
When it came to joining the drama club, my grandfather — Pop-Pop to me, Bernie to everybody else — didn’t really have a choice. Men are in short supply at the Institution, and when Bernie arrived, he was snapped up immediately, the perfect leading man: tall, broad shoulders, an impressive spray of white hair, a strong nose, that deep, gravelly voice. The fact that he’d wear a coconut bra to jazz up the joint was just a bonus.
“Everybody laughed like hell,” my grandfather says of his performance. “For a couple of days, everybody stopped me in the hallways!”
I’ll be honest: I spent my whole life not really thinking of this man. Some of it was distance, but some of it was the sunny self-absorption of childhood, when you’re the center of the universe and anything outside your orbit doesn’t matter all that much. Now, 30 years later, I finally see my grandfather as a planet in his own right, with his own orbit, all held together with his weird brand of magnetism.
Thirty years later, I finally see my grandfather as a planet in his own right, with his own orbit, all held together with his weird brand of magnetism.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when Bernie came to town. He was 91 then, and I didn’t know any other 91-year-olds. (Thanks to him, I now know three.) I guess I thought he’d be more like my grandmother, whose hands shook so much when she lifted a cup or spoon that her gold bracelets clinked together. But my grandfather seemed almost invigorated by the change of scenery, the Pennsylvania air. Instead of tethering to our life, he created his own. He’s the de facto mayor of the Institution — the resident bingo caller, the solo in the drama-club shows, the flag bearer at the Veterans Day concert. (He’s also a cover model: If you ever happen across the June 2019 issue of Suburban Life magazine, you’ll see Bernie standing squarely in the center of a group of residents for a cover story on the Institution.)
Before Bernie came to live by us in 2015, I hadn’t seen him since my wedding in 2008. My husband didn’t meet him until two days before the wedding. (“What do I call him?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “Bernie?”) I never had his phone number, never really had a reason to call him, and he never really had a reason to call me. I’d get a birthday card most years; sometimes my grandparents would forget and sign it “Bernie and Norma.” I never sent them birthday cards at all. There were reasons for our distance that stretched beyond geography: generational drama, deep resentments, the kind of baggage that weighs every family down and keeps its members spinning in separate orbits.
But now my grandfather is 96, my grandmother has COVID, and my sister’s wedding, which was supposed to be next week, instead is next year. A tree fell through our house. Literally. The world feels like it’s ending, and we all just generally have too much shit going on to worry about the past or bother unpacking it all. We have bigger things to deal with. Like breaking into iPads and getting to know each other, finally. Bernie isn’t some vague grandfather figure down in Florida anymore. He’s standing right in front of me, wearing a coconut bra. This is what it’s like to have grandparents around, I think. How sweetly, bizarrely wonderful.
I called him once to invite him to breakfast. He had to consult his calendar first, a thin booklet he keeps in his shirt pocket. He had a dentist appointment on Monday, he said, drama club on Tuesday, and the end of the week was looking busy, too. How about the following Monday?
“Sure, Pop-Pop,” I told him. “That Monday works.” And my grandfather, then 95 years old, penciled me in.
“It’s actually very light, just the beef and cream sauce,” Pop-Pop says. He’s holding court on my parents’ patio, explaining the appeal of creamed chipped beef. My three-year-old is on his lap; he helped my grandfather blow out the candles on his birthday cake. There were only six of them, because you can’t fit 96 candles on a seven-inch cake. It’s the tail end of June, just a few weeks before the Institution will crack down again on residents leaving campus, and Bernie is enjoying the freedom. The Golden Goose isn’t here today; my dad picked Bernie up so he could throw back a few beers. It’s probably for the best: The last time my grandfather backed out of my parents’ driveway, he reversed the Goose like a bat out of hell and hit a car.
A few months ago, I interviewed him for this magazine. The piece was yet another cover story for him, a collection of reflections about married life. I visited him at the Institution to hear the story of his 72-year marriage to my grandmother, and he met me in the lobby: “Hel-lo, granddaughter!” As we wound our way to his second-floor apartment, he introduced me to fellow residents: “This is my granddaughter!” he said. “The writer!” He sounded so proud. I never knew how much my grandfather’s approval meant to me until I realized that I had it.
We sat in his one-bedroom apartment — neat as a pin, all vacuum lines and Windex swirls; my mom told me later that he’d cleaned for me — and Bernie told me stories of his life. This time, they were painted in fine detail. It’s interesting learning about your grandparents as an adult. I wasn’t hearing my grandfather’s war stories for the hundredth time, but for the first: He was terrified, he told me, when his naval ship, USS New Kent APA-217, approached Okinawa on Easter Sunday in 1945, bombs spitting out of the thick sky like rain. I knew some of his stories about raising a wild quartet of kids in the ’50s and ’60s, like the time my uncle drove the family car through the neighbor’s living room and the time the dog ate the neighbor’s chickens. But I didn’t know all of it, like how much my grandfather loved sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, and how another of their dogs, a loping Great Dane, had an account with the Mister Softee man. (Bernie would settle up with him at the end of the week.)
My grandfather can’t visit my grandmother in her memory-care building anymore because of COVID, so he stops by her ground-floor window every morning to see her, hopefully catch her while she’s awake, which she hardly ever is these days. He taps the window three times, which is how they’ve silently communicated throughout their marriage. Taps on knees under the table, taps on shoulders while dancing, taps on hands while walking, always three: I. Love. You. My grandfather explained this to me in his apartment, but I’d already heard the story. In fact, I stole the move for myself; my husband and I have been doing it for 14 years. It’s engraved on the inside of his wedding ring, although you have to look very closely to see it: Tap, tap, tap.
The get-together for Bernie’s 96th birthday is winding down. I’ve gotten my grandfather into his iPad — everything had to be erased and restored to factory settings, but sometimes erasing and starting over is for the best — and he’s getting ready to hitch a ride back to the Institution. He bends down, slowly, slowly, to his great-grandson and promises to bring Hershey’s Kisses next time. It’s sort of their thing. Last Christmas, Pop-Pop gave my son his very first Hershey’s Kiss. I recorded it on my phone so that even if he doesn’t remember Pop-Pop when he grows up, he’ll know he was there, around from the very beginning. In the video, my grandfather sits on a stool, wearing his coat and flat cap, ready to take the Golden Goose back home. But first he bends over, slowly, slowly, and shows his great-grandson how to get into a Hershey Kiss, how to peel the silver wrapper away, how to pull the little white tab that holds it all together, the one right in the center.
Published as “Life With Bernie” in the September 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.