Sunday, June 22, 2014

In Memory Of My Grandfather

My grandfather driving the family boat on the Chesapeake Bay, with two of my aunts. I'm happily by the steering wheel. 1974.

   My grandfather passed away this week at 91 years old. He was known as James - or Jim - both equally fitting, but I only called him one name: Afi - Icelandic for 'grandfather.' My paternal grandparents had both died by the time I was born. My maternal grandfather, Gisli, lived in Iceland. He loved to send me craft chocolates and books of fairy tales from there. I knew him and loved him his whole life, seeing him whenever I was in Iceland.

My grandparents, Ragna and Jim Ellis, with me. .
James was my grandmother's second husband. We all lived in suburban Maryland and I saw Afi the most, since I was born in and lived in the US.

 He was a meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. He worked out of various official-looking 1970s federal buildings with bureaus in them and had a station wagon full of spare parts, lumber, recycling and man stuff in the back for his workroom. We kids got paid good money whenever my grandmother had her fill of the mess and commissioned us to toss, keep or clean.

With my aunts and, lower left to second left, two of my cousins outside my grandparents' house. Easter.

   He was one of the voices you heard when you called for the local weather report in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland: my Walter Cronkite. I took him to show & tell so he could show my classmates weather maps.  I never went anywhere that could get rained-out without asking him what the weather would be like in advance, while he looked at the sky, squinted, and gave his personal forecast.  He was never wrong. Sometimes he'd leave the bureau early, drive up to my elementary school and have me excused for the go fishing. Doritos and Cokes for me while he had a beer or three at our favorite fishing spot, for hours,  near a bridge bank in Wayson's Corner.

   Afi was a World War II vet; he didn't allow toy or cap guns in the house. Period. Or chewing gum. But I think that rule had relaxed some by the time I secretly broke that rule at every turn. I was the only nine-year old defiantly buying Wrigleys by the case in Euro duty-free stores.

 He took me by myself to the VFW Post 9619 in Morningside, Maryland, where he'd let me hop up on tables with a corded microphone and sing all the songs the East Coast vets remembered. I'd be singing 'Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue'  and 'Has Anybody Seen My Gal?' while doing my best Michael Jackson Dancing Machine robotics, stepping over ashtrays, beer cans and whiskey neats in mod stack boots. Vets smoking and drinking, cheering for a little kid being a huge ham: the best.
My father, Sylvester Gibson.
   My grandparents and aunts lived not far from me, my Mom and my brother. We were one of the first interracial families in our neighborhood, a true blended family, and it is to my Mom and family's credit that the only time I was aware that society hadn't caught up to us was when I was faced with it outside our family. Our neighbors were great. I rarely got asked at school if I was adopted, more so when Diff'rent Strokes caught fire, but no I was not. It was not a writers room. 

My Mom, with me on the way. Iceland.
    When my grandmother and high-school age aunts moved to a quiet town in Florida,  my mother, my brother and I moved there the following summer. We were a strong family, we missed them, and off we went. 

   Florida was not the East Coast or Eastern seaboard, and that's not a diss, it's just what was certainly true for it in the early '80s. It was when I became 'Other' - the only black, bi-racial, Icelandic-American, African-American Icelander, you-name-it in most of my middle school classes, at the arcade, and for literal square miles. Older people, parents, some good Christians called me 'nigger' on the sidewalk like they were saying 'grass' or 'the sky is blue.' It happened a lot, never in front of my family, but in regular everyday encounters. Everyone wasn't like that, of course, and I have remaining friendships with the kids I went through teen-angst with, which is color-blind. 

   In the summer we moved to Florida, I'd gone to Capitol Hill with my mom and brother to say goodbye to my father at work. I was upset with him. He'd missed my 6th-grade graduation and I was pissed in the way that boys are with their Dad when they miss important events for work. He hugged me goodbye and I hugged him with the half-hearted reluctance of an 11 year old's unspoken frustration. 

"Give your father a real hug," my mother demanded. I looked at her and I looked at him. My Dad looked at her and smiled - with the smile I now can see in myself - and said, "It's okay. He doesn't have to." He was saving face. And I didn't. He was dead less than 3 months later, from a stroke. To this day, I bear hug everybody who hugs me. That haunted me for years. My father, Sylvester, was far too young. I look a lot like him. I regret that moment of pride that meant nothing in the face of never seeing him again. It was over.

   When my mother found out my father had died, she called out, "Boys!", grabbed me and my brother and flew out of the house, sobbing, fumbling for the keys to our car. She sobbed so hard on the road, unable to speak, that I asked her to pull over, afraid she couldn't see from the tears and we'd crash. "Where are we going!?" I asked from the passenger seat, not knowing what had upset her this much. My Mom is incredibly strong, I hadn't seen her this distraught ever. 

   We pulled in front of my grandparents' house and she went inside. Minutes later my grandfather asked me to come with him. He sat me down next to him, did a couple of stalled throat-clearings that I now know are the sound we men make when we don't want to cry. "Karl, today we lost a man that was very special and important to you and our family. Your father has died, Karl. I'm so sorry." Tragic. Unforgettable. It was horrible news, coming from anyone, but I'm glad it came from him. It was something I never forgot.

   My Mom, my brother and I moved to an apartment complex on a street called... Main Street. A school bus picked us kids in the complex up and made a few more stops at other subdivisions on the route to school. Assigned seating.

   The first day I got on the bus, the kid I was assigned to sit next to looked at me and sneered, "I'm not sittin' next to no f-----n' nigger!" I was dumbfounded. I wasn't shocked. I just had no idea we were in a parallel Selma in the early 1980s. I called him a choice word in response, said I didn't want to sit next to him either. Glares. No fists. Just me standing with an arm full of books while the school bus careened down I-95. It was gonna be a long school year.

  As soon as the bus got to our middle school, the bus driver asked for the principal and told him I'd been disruptive and he didn't want me on the school bus from here on out. Two sentences was all we'd said, but I was effectively kicked off the bus that morning. The kid who started my day with what a f-ing nigger I was got a pat on the head. How I got to school from that day forward, school administration told me with an assured twang, was on me and my family.

   My Mom relented, after I swore I could do it, and bought me a BMX bike that I rode 4 miles round-trip, to and from school, for an entire school-year and some. Every day, deep in the panhandle. I volunteered at a nursing home that was on my way home, the better to constructively transmute my rage when the school bus would pass me and laughter would waft from the windows as I pedaled a bike, in traffic, in 90 degrees.

   In Florida the thunderstorms are Gothic and epic. It doesn't just rain, it  literally pours. Riding a bike to school in the rain was out of the question. You'd be soaked to the Hanes for 2/3 of the day in air-conditioning, miserable. Without fail, anytime it rained, my grandfather - who knew I'd been kicked off the bus and was a post-retirement school bus driver himself - would come and put my bike in the back of his station wagon and drive me to school. All the time. That's the kind of man he was.

   His passing this week was sudden, but merciful to him, in his sleep.The thought of losing him last week made my mouth widen in a grimace of pain akin to a CGI-sequence, like my jaw would unhinge. I cried until I saw rainbows around any source of light and felt unmoored.

 He wasn't my father. He has children who love him dearly. He has many grandchildren who love him equally and have their own great stories. Generations of love. He was our grandfather and there was enough of him to go around. The grandfather you could hug anytime because he appreciated kindness and family. He confirmed you with them, easily.That's what went through my mind earlier this week. It'll never happen quite that way again.

   A few years ago, I was visiting with him at his house. We were having a drink, some great Scotch. He offered me a beer as a chaser and I made a demonstration of tilt-pouring it into a glass, with all the elan I thought it intimated, and said, "See, Afi - I paid attention! It's just classier and old-school drinking beer from a glass, right?!"  Man drinks. Ha! Isn't this the best?

   "Oh, Karl," he laughed, "I started doing that in World War II because all the GI's used to put their cigarettes out in beer cans all over the place, without asking whose it was. Why, if you didn't pour it in a glass, well, you didn't know what the hell you'd be drinking! We just didn't want to swallow cigarette butts." We laughed our asses off. I thought it'd been a classy gesture all these years - he was the one who'd co-hosted Mad Men-style cocktail hours with my grandmother, right down to crystal lighters and ashtrays. Instead, he was just being practical. He was also a fountain of wisdom - you could ask him anything.

   We will all miss him but we know he had a great life. No family or person is perfect, but we always had and have metric tons of love. No matter what, ultimately, occasional furies and arguments aside. We will remain so: it's what we lived, what we saw, what we were taught. He is surely with my grandmother now, his lost loved ones, daughter, and God. 

   One of the last things my grandfather said to me was, "I never worry about you, Karl." I thought, that's impossible. I chose two adulthood professions, theater and journalism, that were precarious at best. But he said it was true. And that my father couldn't say it and he did... it meant and means a priceless value. And he's right. So, to my grandfather, one of my heroes:  I'm honored to have known you and been your grandson. Thank you for sharing and teaching me your love of books and magazines. There was information in there, he said, and there is. A world of it. Between my mother's gift of words, spoken and written, and his voracious reading, it became my passion. Thanks again, Afi. I love you. 


- Karl 


1 comment:

  1. Hi Karl, this is your mom's cousin Jerry. Thanks for sharing these wonderful stories of Uncle Jim and your own childhood. Hope to see you at the Dunes soon.