Staying with grandparents in Utica, New York (and later Green Valley, Arizona) might seem boring to some kids. But there was never a dull moment visiting our grandparents. The days were filled with activities they carefully planned, from visits to caverns, to road trips to Niagara Falls, to horse racing at Vernon Downs (where I felt pretty cool at seven, being allowed to place real bets with real money, even if only 50 cents).
Even with all the excursions, I most remember the time I spent inside their house. Recordings of Broadway shows often played on the stereo. And there was the constant sound of clocks. Sometimes I felt I was staying in Gepetto’s workshop. Every hour was marked with the clangs of the grandfather clock, the chirp of the cuckoo and, finally, the melodic Westminster chimes from their glass-domed table clock.
Grandpa was a little like Gepetto, and the clocks were not the only devices in the house. I was fascinated by the computer in his study, with an old television for the monitor, completely out-of-date even at the time. I was most impressed by the stereo system he built from a kit in the 1950s. It had separate units for the FM and AM radios and the amplifier glowed orange when turned on.
He sent the stereo to me years later as a gift and I still have it set up in my apartment. I keep using it, even though it is gigantic, it emits annoying buzzing and popping sounds and it can become scarily hot; it’s probably a fire hazard. I keep it because I still marvel at his ability to build a machine from a bunch of screws, metal pieces and light bulbs.
Grandpa was a man of many talents and a lot of knowledge. He had an erudite demeanor and strong opinions on everything. He would decisively categorize the music my sister and I listened to as either art warranting great appreciation or as utter garbage that was completely beyond his contempt. Most of what we listened to was categorized in the utter garbage category (this from a guy who at one time seemed to play the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack on a loop). Still, I always took his opinions seriously, because they seemed to come from a studied appraisal, never a lack of interest or thought.
Though strongly opinionated, my grandfather was also known for his calm demeanor and patience. Another sound often heard in that household was grandma calling to grandpa, often something along the lines of, “Bill, get your shoes on!” Grandma constantly feared being late, which in her mind meant “less than an hour early.” She also loved to give guys a hard time, particularly those guys she loved the most. My grandfather’s response was always a good-natured chuckle, and maybe a gentle retort. He was always cool and collected which was the perfect counterpoint to grandma’s bold and vibrant personality.
These interactions are memorable to me because another sound of that household was my grandma’s nearly equally ubiquitous, “Gary, get your shoes on!” I don’t know why my grandfather and I seemed to share an inability to put our shoes on in a timely manner, or why my sister always escaped the demands, but this experience connected us in my mind. My response was never as cool as grandpa’s though; mine was usually just a slightly scared fumbling of socks and shoelaces.
I’d like to think there were similarities between grandpa and me. And not just the tendency to be told to put on shoes. Right before he died, he gave my mom an ivory elephant statue, a treasured trinket (or “tchotchke” as he and my grandma might have called it), which he had bought in India years ago. And he asked her to give it to me. My mom told me at the time she thought he had always seen a connection between us because we were both “nice guys.”
This stuck with me. I appreciated it because he was a really nice guy, and I’d like to think I am too. He was also far more than nice. He was a savvy guy with strong opinions and beliefs and measured reactions to every situation. He lived a life filled with amazing adventures, fascinating hobbies and wonderful relationships. I miss him very much.