I always time the drives to my grandfather’s house to arrive by five o’clock: happy hour. He retired on the Eastern Shore of Virginia to get away from city life, and the house rests on the Chesapeake Bay bordered by thick woods and silence. The closest neighbor is a hundred yards away, just the way he likes it, on a road named Assawoman Drive -- he always appreciated Native American culture. A year after he moved, a community petitioner came to the door seeking a more “appropriate” street title. My grandfather told him, “How ‘bout we change it to ‘Big Assawoman’?” and slammed the door on the guy.
I knock while entering the house and yell “Helllooooooo!” so the high ceilings boom my voice, indicating someone is here. He slowly reaches for the pause button of his Library of Congress books-on-tape and removes his headphones. “Hey, it must be Alicia,” he tells Linda, his second wife, 25 years his younger, who is already greeting me at the door. He takes his time walking over from his spot on the couch. Every step is mapped out, remembered. At 84-years-old, he has only ten percent vision left due to macular degeneration.
I give him a hug and detect the same aftershave since I was a kid. Old Spice. His large hands, which I’ve seen crack walnuts, grasp my shoulders softly. “So, you’re back from Paris. How was it?” I had returned a month ago. Funny how he can sense it. Why I’m really here.
I hesitate to discuss my trip just yet when he remembers, “Hey, should be happy hour about now,” and smiles. “What are you drinking?”
“Water first, then vodka-soda. Just let me put my stuff up.”
Though they moved here ten years ago, nothing ever changes. The place mirrors an eccentric antique shop where all the contents grow old but stay the same. He has kept many of the same fixtures from the South Philadelphia row home he shared with my late grandmother. A dark portrait of a Quaker man and his wife in a winter forest; three-feet tall wooden gargoyles protect the fireplace (they once guarded the bathroom, terrifying my brothers and I from using the toilet); an old Victrola player with big band vinyl’s; a glass cabinet of memorabilia including the trinity of Italian American icons: Frank Sinatra, the Statue of Liberty, the Pope; and an antique chestnut armoire displaying his WWII medals, photographs, and artifacts, including the diary of a young Waffen-SS soldier he found dead in the winter of 1944.
By the time I return, Linda is setting out his favorites: chips and salsa and wasabi peanuts. My grandfather is on a strict low-sodium diet due to his heart condition, but Linda lets him indulge when I visit. After his defibrillator install last year, she reads the scale every morning to measure his water weight; any gain means flooding in the heart or lungs. I go to help her in the kitchen and grab some water when she whispers to me, “You know he’s still trying to drive that tractor? I wouldn’t mind so much if it was a riding-mower, somethin’ that could cut the engine off if he fell, but the tractor?” She swiftly waves her palm in front of her face and looks down shaking her wavy, gray curls. “No. No. I don’t feel good about it,” raising her right arm to God.
“I hear you,” Grandpop interjects. I shouldn’t be surprised. His expensive hearing aids distinguish hummingbirds at the porch feeder. “I see the shadow of the tree line in the grass.” He slices the air with his hand. “I follow the line. That’s how I cut!”
I turn back to Linda and tease, “It’s a sin,” a common, Philadelphia-Italian phrase used to imply sympathy.
“It’s a sin,” Linda giggles.
My grandfather slowly opens the freezer door to rummage for the Stoli. Linda’s petite frame reaches like a child and pulls two short glasses from the cupboard. She sets them on the wooden island. He grazes the countertop with his fingers to find the first glass, feels for the rim, and drops the ice. Spreading his fingers over the opening, he patiently lowers the bottle of vodka. Linda tells him when to stop, though he knows a good pour.
He then reaches for the Johnnie Walker and does the same.
We make our way to a small table pushed up against the island, a wooden square with three chairs. He takes his seat. A bright lamp hangs over us. We always eat here instead of the dining room table. It’s closer. His head turns in my direction, though he can’t make out features, see how I’ve grown, or how much I look like my grandmother. I ask what he is reading now, what outdoor projects he insists on completing, and he asks how teaching English is going at the university and how my brothers are holding up in Norfolk. But it’s too quiet for him. The music is missing. He reaches for the iPod dock next to his chair. His middle finger skims the top for the felt-tipped play button that Linda glued on. Dino chimes in, “Ain’t that a Kick in the Head?”
“Salute!” we say together, raising our glasses.
“I want to play this song at my wedding if I marry Luke.”
“I’ll be there.”
“You better be.”
Luke was a thin, small town Nebraska boy I met at a party after graduate school a few years ago. He was a gentleman through and through, and his blue-green eyes expressed a fondness for me that few could match.
My grandfather snaps to the tune and sips his scotch but lowers the volume so we can talk.
“You don’t drink gin, do you?” he says.
“Good. You know why I don’t drink gin, don’t you?”
I lie, “I forget what you told me.” I know how the story goes, but I always let him tell it.
“When I was in my twenties...” Every night after the war, he drank gin martinis at the officer’s club with my grandmother Rose. They would dance to blaring bands of brass until their feet gave up. “But this one night we got home, and I started bleeding from my ass! I thought I was dying! I went to the doc and asked him what the hell was going on. Doc tells me the gin’s killing my liver, and I have to stop, or I’ll die. So, I stopped drinking gin from there on.” After a brief pause, he adds, “He didn’t say anything about scotch, though,” and smirks.
Linda shakes her head back and forth.
Once the ice hits his front teeth, he rattles his glass, signaling to Linda for his second and last round. She reluctantly collects it but only pours half of a shot, adding more ice. He knows he’s been cheated but says nothing. I debate a refill but decide against it since we always have wine with dinner.
Linda places the bread on the table, margarine, a knife. My grandfather spreads his fingers wide in the direction of the basket to find a piece. I grab the knife before he does. “Want some butter, Grandpop? I’m having some, too.” He nods.
“So, Grandpop, I was thinking,” finally getting to it. Of all my seasonal visits, this one has a request, and I am uncertain how he will react.
“You know, after I went on that bus tour of Normandy…”
“Yeah. That was some phone call.”
I had called my grandfather after I arrived at Utah Beach where he had landed on D-Day.
“Wow, it must have been a real sight going there?” Linda says. “Del was so surprised you called.”
“Me, too. It’s pretty powerful. The beaches, the American Cemetery. I brought pictures to show you guys after dinner.”
“I would love to go to Normandy, but Del doesn’t want to visit.”
“Why the hell would I want to do that? Jesus, Linda! I have no desire to go back there!”
“All right, all right!” she says, flipping her palm up. “But Paris. That would be lovely.”
“Well, of course, Paris. Was there on furlough during the war, went to the brothels. A great city.”
“Yeah, Grandpop. We know,” I smile. “That’s what I really wanted to ask you about, now that I’m here.”
“Ask me what? About the brothels?” he laughs.
“Not quite. It’s kind of a big request.”
I realize this is taking too long, and suddenly become conscious of how slowly I am talking. But I had to ask.
“I was hoping to record some of your stories from the war. You know, write them up for the family? Something to pass down.”
He chews the bread. No reply.
“But only if you want to,” I add. Perhaps I have asked too much.
I stare at his poker face, but the man has no tell. I should know better -- he taught me not to have one! Casual eyes staring back, no irregular or abrupt movement, no shift in breathing, think fluid, think nothing. Damn it. My grandfather rarely talked about the war. He would tell us story after story over Sunday dinners with the family. Like growing up during the Depression, working in Philly, or the one about some guy breaking into the row home. Not to steal anything but just to shit on the carpet and wipe his ass with my grandmother’s hand-made doilies. The police told Del that he couldn’t “murder” the guy, but the lone shitter could “accidently” fall out of the second story window no problem. Not the war, though. Not the details. That was private.
With a slight shrug of his shoulders, he answers. “Sure, I got stories.”
I look at Linda to confirm, and she throws her hands up.
“Are you sure, Grandpop? I know it’s a sensitive subject. I might press you on things.”
“What do you want to know?”
“He has five Bronze Service Stars, you know, write that down,” Linda says.
“I did not know that. See, this is what I’m talking about.”
“Yes, he fought in the Bronze Star Campaigns, all the major battles. Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe!”
"Gimme a second. Got to grab my phone."
“Predicted they would lose!” Grandpop jumps in. “Hitler could make any brash moves he wanted, that was after he built up the SS troopers and other forces. You can’t have military running the country. Military is military, that’s their job. When they get into politics, it’s dangerous. Some Germans were against Hitler. He was a lot like Caligula. The people loved him first, then realized he was nuts. He had no opposition until we got into the war. I watched the news reel of the Italian Army invading Ethiopia. The people were throwing spears at the planes! They were just mowing them down. Then the Germans got there, and things got worse.”
“Hitler was trying to fight on two fronts, East and West, and he couldn’t handle it. The generals were all against him, too, even Rommel -- that’s why they tried to kill Hitler. He eventually killed Rommel for it. Had to take poison. If they’d listened to Rommel from the start…things would have turned out a lot different. It’s a good thing they didn’t! I don’t regret any of it because I’ve been living on borrowed time – should have died the first day.”
I carry on, kicking my feet under the table and rubbing my hands together. I might finally learn what I should have known all along about his young life, the war, our family. At the same time, I cannot shake some hesitation over my request. Selfish maybe. Digging up an old man’s past. What purpose would it serve? Would knowing the truth really ease my mind -- or his for that matter? Why was he telling me now, anyways? And why the hell was I asking?