Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Grandpa Dols

My Grandpa Dols passed away today. He was in his late '80s, and it was apparently peaceful. He had been in a coma since around Christmas.

Grandpa Dols married my mother’s mom when my mom was already an adult, so I never remember her calling him “Dad.” However, I knew him as “Grandpa” because he was married to my Grandma for as long as I knew her, and he considered us his grandchildren. Since becoming a Christian, I understand the principle of relationship that transcends the technical issue of "blood" or "real". In my mind, he was my Grandpa.

So, although I am not incredibly emotional today, believing that Grandpa was a Christian and therefore is better where he is, I do have some fond memories, which I will share today before many years go by and I forget.

Grandpa was a successful electrical engineer and made enough money for him to support my Grandma and live in a very spacious house in Minneapolis. They were popular and well-known in Minneapolis due to my Grandma being the chair-woman of the League of Women Voters, both being involved in the Republican Party, tutoring for GED, very involved in their Lutheran church, and hosting various social events. Seems like there was always some sort of event happening, even if it was just a few friends getting together to drink and play bridge.

There was a certain uptightness and formality to them. Their house was always spotless, and expectations were high. Cleaning your plate was very important, much to my horror. I never could eat as much as I was expected to. I was typically denied dessert because I couldn’t eat my food. I saw this as a horrible battle that I could never win, because if I was able to stuff all the food in, Grandpa would look at my plate and say, “Great! Now go back for seconds,” not understanding the great stretching and gastric indigestion all this food was having on my little system. “Don’t you want to be a member of the Clean Plate Club?” the adults in my life would ask. I remember thinking, why would I? Every kid knows, that’s not even a real club. There are no benefits, no badges, no cash dividends to club members. You don’t even know who the other members are. What’s the incentive? I remember my Grandma tracing the bones on my back and exclaiming, "You have angel wings! You need to put some meat on those bones!" And meat and potatoes was definitely the food of choice. With butter on all the bread. And pastries for breakfast. And the only place where I could actually open the refrigerator and find Snickers bars. Unheard of!

When I was very young, Grandpa still smoked pipes. I still think of him if I smell sweet pipe tobacco. I remember sitting at the butcher block kitchen table and watching him take out his bag of tobacco, remove the pipe from his front pocket, and press the tobacco down into it. After he lit it, the smoke "encircled his head like a wreath." Little puffs would come out of his mouth and a faint glow would come from the pipe. Then he would take out his daily crossword puzzle.

He was a puzzle fanatic. When I was older we moved to New York, and regularly bought the Sunday New York Times, famous for having one of the hardest crossword puzzles in the world. Each week we would cut out the puzzle, fold it carefully, and mail it to Grandpa. I think he solved every one. And the older I got, the more I was expected to assist. Most of the time I had no clue about any of the answers, but as always, expectations were high.

He had daughters from a previous marriage, and after his first wife died, he had to learn how to take care of girls. I remember sitting on a stool at the same kitchen table while he braided my hair. He gently combed my hair, and plaited a braid on each side, with his gnarled hands and one crooked finger. Now that I think about it, I don't know many grandfathers who can do that. 

Grandpa was a veteran of WWII, and, I’m assuming because of his high intellect, he was involved in some sort of communication with codes. He was an excellent typist and one of the first persons I knew to own a computer. He often showed me how he remembered the finger positions for typing the coded messages in the War, by closing his eyes and putting his fingers in front of him in just the right positions - then typing in mid-air. 

Education was important to him, and with it, reading, of course. There was always a copy of National Geographic magazine in the house, and articles were discussed. I'm not sure what my Grandpa thought about homeschooling. I remember being quizzed occasionally, and a sense of concern emanating from him that I didn't know algebra. When I delayed college, both Grandma and Grandpa were concerned. Still, when a book was written about my life as a homeschooling teenager, it was proudly displayed on their shelf.

He taught both me and my sister several card games, dominoes, and puzzles. Some of my fondest memories were of sitting with him and Grandma around the small card table in the corner of the living room, perhaps listening to music (jazz was a favorite), playing cards, Grandpa and Grandma with an evening cocktail and myself with cranberry juice. Although there were certain expectations to be successful and do well in school, to clean my plate, wash my hands, pick up after myself and work hard, there was an unusual patience when it came to card games. I can't remember the countless hours Grandpa took to teach us and play with us when we were too young to really be much fun as an opponent.

I think if there is anything I can do to carry on his legacy it would be to be a life-long learner and reader. Come to think of it, that is something indicative of all my grandparents. Perhaps it was their generation, one in which getting a good education really was the only way to not starve to death. Even though my Grandpa was relatively well-off financially, he still had the frugality of those who experienced the Depression. During some of our last visits together, he was still very careful to eat all the leftovers, and to use coupons when eating out.

What I understand now, but that I didn’t know then, was that all of my Grandparents had lived through the Great Depression and WWII. There’s nothing like enduring poverty and war that makes you concerned for the well-being of the next generation. Sure, we all take care of our kids. But those who lived through the Depression had a special desire that their families would never experience anything like that again. Why was it so important to clean our plates? Because for a time, parents who loved their children couldn’t feed them. Now, to be able to feed them was to say, “I love you.” For that generation, a plate of food was more than momentary sustenance. It meant the next generation was going to be okay. 

Because of Grandpa and those of his generation, I appreciate hard work, determination, frugality, sacrifice. I can keep a clean house and clean my plate. Appreciate the importance of an occasional crossword puzzle. And taking time to play with my children and grandchildren.

I think it's time to break out a deck of cards.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Grandma's Mission

"I'm on a mission to save three things," said my 83-year old Grandma.


the Post Office,

and.... what was that other thing? Oh yes, Newspapers!"

Some of my Unconventional New Year's Resolutions:
1. Read more tangible books (wait... do I read too much already?) in support of books you can hold and smell and (dare I say?) write in. 
2. Buy more stamps and write more letters.
3. Read the newspaper (the one that comes in the mail, not the one on the screen). 
Why? Because I'm on a mission!