DeVotchKa Week: My Grandfather

I was raised in a home that was always filled with music. This isn’t news, I’m pretty sure I’ve stated it before. My Dad loved jazz, especially big band and swing. On his days off, he would work outside in his garden with Maynard Ferguson or Chuck Mangione playing out of a little boom box. My Mom liked show tunes, and pretty much anything with a good vocalist. She loved Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli. Unlike my Dad, she likes a lot of more modern music as well. I don’t mean to disparage my Dad’s musical tastes, there just aren’t enough horns in more modern music. But my Mom doesn’t need a big trumpet section to be interested, and so from time to time I will recommend a band or artist to her. She was really appreciative when I turned her on to Venus Hum, and enjoyed Scott Bradlee’s Post Modern Jukebox. But when I recommended DeVotchKa to her, she gave it a try and said she couldn’t listen to it anymore. I was thrown by this, since it seemed like it would be right up her alley. When I pressed her on why, she said it was because it reminded her too much of her father. She said it sounded a lot like the music they used to play at the Ukrainian Club he used to frequent. She said she didn’t want to be reminded of him, and couldn’t get past it. I understand where she’s coming from. DeVotchKa does have a very Eastern European sound in many of their songs, but I am fine with things that remind me of her father, my grandfather. You see, she and I have very different experiences with him.

My grandfather, Paul, was born in 1920 in upstate New York to a pair of Ukrainian immigrants. He had several brothers and sisters, and was among the eldest of them, but not the eldest himself. He dreamed of becoming a doctor one day. War, however, would derail that plan. But before that, he would meet my grandmother. I don’t have a lot of details about the meeting. I would love to tell you some cute story about it, but I don’t know if there is one. I have seen a picture of my grandmother and her sister double-dating with a couple of men in military uniforms, one who would become my great uncle and one who would become my grandfather. I know that before my grandfather went off to the war in Europe, the one we know as World War II, he would marry my grandmother and father my mom’s eldest sister.

Paul took part in the D-Day invasion, serving as a field medic in the army due to the limited medical training he had already received. He, along with many others, would storm Omaha Beach in one of the first waves of attack. It was here that we would take shrapnel to his shoulder, earning him a Purple Heart. He worked through the wound and continued to be part of the Allied offensive until V-E Day. His homecoming from the war would result in my mother being born.

I sometimes consider that Paul saw enough wounded and dead in the war that he started to sour to the idea of being a doctor. But the truth is that he would need years more training to become a doctor, and now he had a wife and two kids to support. So he let his dreams of medical school atrophy and die and took a job as an electrical engineer. He and my grandmother made a decent, lower-middle class life for themselves in New Hampshire. Another girl would be born before Paul would get the son he wanted, one he felt worthy of his name (though not a junior, different middle name). Their last child would be born just as they were able to get my mom off to college.

My Mom doesn’t tell many stories of her father. The ones she does tell do not paint a happy picture. He was gruff and angry most of the time, and he drank a lot. She never thought he loved her until she went off to college, when he couldn’t get out of the car because he was crying, and men don’t cry in public. I can’t imagine going eighteen years thinking my father didn’t love me. I have always known that my father loves me. I can’t imagine not having a father to talk to and laugh with. But that was my mom’s vision of her father. To her, he was a hard man, a loveless man. He was a man who was hard to reach. Even after she had a sense of the man beneath the course exterior, it never made the relationship any easier for her or her siblings. You can still see some of the emotional scars they all carry to this day.

My grandfather was abrasive and tactless. When my eldest cousin was born, my aunt proudly brought her to my grandparents. My grandmother doted and fawned, but my grandfather just stared at her for a while. He finally looked up at my aunt and asked, “Are you sure this baby isn’t retarded?” The same thing happened when my aunt brought her second child to visit. Once again, my grandmother made a big deal out of it, and once again my grandfather asked, “Are you sure this one isn’t retarded?” This happened a third time with my aunt and her third child.

My parents had tried for years to have a child naturally, but after no success turned to adoption to start a family. They both wrote letters to their families, not exactly asking permission, but adoption wasn’t as open an affair then as it is now. So they just wanted to make sure their parents were okay with it. My paternal grandfather, Omer, was excited by the prospect and could not wait to welcome a new child into the family, adopted or not. My mother was a little less sure about the response form her parents. You see, years prior, her elder sister had given up a child for adoption. He would have been the first grandchild, but she was not ready to have a kid at that point and was no longer with the father. It was a bit of a family secret, in that everybody knew about it and nobody talked about it (a fact that would only some to light years later when he contacted us, but that’s a story for another time). So, she was worried that her family would frown upon the idea of adoption. She received a glowing endorsement of the idea from her mother, but silence from her father. They went ahead with the process, the result being me. It was a tense journey up to New Hampshire a couple of months later for my mom to, like her younger sister before her, show me off to her parents. No one knew how my grandfather would react. My grandmother, predictably, doted and fawned over me. My grandfather kept his distance for a long time, sizing three-month old me up. After a long time of this, he looked at my mom and said, “I think this baby might be retarded,” to which my aunt, who had come down and brought her three kids for the occasion responded “He’s accepted him!”

I didn’t end up having a lot of time with my grandfather. My parents lived eight hours away, so I saw him at most once or twice a year. I remember somethings about him very vividly, though. I remember that he didn’t believe in seat belts, and had cut them out of every car he ever owned. I remember he always wore a white undershirt and work pants when he was home. I remember his favorite chair, a dark green leather recliner in the kitchen of their tenement apartment that looked out down the alley. I remember he was almost always smoking, and that he always had a glass of vodka, straight and without ice, on the table next to him. He didn’t say a lot when we visited. We would sit in the kitchen with him, and my grandmother and my mom would do most of the talking. Most times, I would be playing with toys in the other room or fidgeting at the kitchen table while the grown-ups talked. Eventually, though, my grandmother would go to make dinner and my mom would help her or follow her around and continue talking. My dad would call his brother and schedule some time for us to visit with him and his wife. And I’d be left alone with my grandfather. I don’t know how the tradition started. I’ve asked my mom, and she can’t remember either. But I would go change so that I was wearing a white undershirt like my grandfather. Then I would stand behind that creaky old recliner, and I would comb his hair. And he would tell me stories. I loved it when people told me stories, and his were always interesting. He would tell me about growing up during the depression. He would tell me about my mom when she was my age. He would even tell me about his time during the war. He would talk, a smoke, and sip his vodka, and I would comb his wispy gray hair. I loved his stories.

My grandfather used to call me “his little tadpole.” This comes from the fact that my dad came from a French-Canadian family, and in New Hampshire, “frog” is a derogatory term for the French-Canadians. But he never said it with malice, he would call me “his little tadpole” and chuckle to himself. My mom says it was the only time she ever heard him laugh.

He passed away when I was seven years old, just before Christmas. I remember being at the funeral, and all four of my cousins brushing off the event with a “who cares” attitude. They were more upset that they might miss Christmas than that their grandfather died. It was then that I realized that I had a unique relationship. My cousins all hated my grandfather. They thought he was mean and angry all the time. I thought he was kind and gentle and interesting. I drew a picture of Santa Claus to be buried with him. I remember not knowing how to react. This was the first time I knew someone who died, and it was someone I cared about. I don’t think I cried, but I can’t quite remember. After the funeral, we all went back to the tenement apartment. My cousins ran around and played, but I just sat there, staring at the big empty recliner by the window. I couldn’t stare at it any longer, not knowing how to feel, so I went into the living room. It was then that I noticed the pictures. My grandparents had pictures of all of the grandchildren, me and my four cousins, lined up on a table by the wall. They were always there, but not something I had ever paid attention to. I realized that all of my cousins’ pictures were 5×7 portraits, but mine was an 8×10. I realized that I had a very different relationship than they had had.

I wish I knew why. I wish I could ask my grandfather was still around so that I could ask him. But he’s not and I can’t. Maybe it was the infrequency of seeing him that made it more special each time. I mean, he saw me at least once a year, twice if there was a special occasion. He saw my cousins, who only lived four hours away in Maine, three to four times a year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. That might have been it, but it seems too thin of an argument for why we knew my grandfather as such different people. It also plays off the idea that he would get sick of me and annoyed if I had been around more, and that’s not the man I knew. My mom and I talked about it a few times. She thinks it has something to do with the adoption, and the fact that I completed a circle started when my aunt gave her child up for adoption. She theorizes that my grandfather was hurt and disappointed by that act, and that my parents had unintentionally made up for it by adopting me into the family. That seems plausible, and I can see my grandfather being that secretly emotional about “losing” a grandchild and then “gaining” one in the same manner.

I have my own theories, of course. Partially, I think it has a lot to do with my mom. I think my grandfather loved my mom more than she will ever know. I think she may have been his favorite. And I think because he realized that he never showed her how much he cared, he tried to make up for it with me. I also think that he saw a lot of his younger self in me. I’ve always been a dreamer, I’ve always made big unrealistic plans and goals. I’ve always been bright and inquisitive. And, from the few stories I’ve heard of my grandfather before the war, so was he. The war changed him a lot, but somewhere inside him there still existed the remnants of that young man who was hopeful and inquisitive. I think he wanted to nurture those things in me, hoping I wouldn’t end up losing those things like he did.

But I’ll still never know. Maybe I’ve glorified an awful man because I’ve idealized childhood memories. Maybe he was the man that everyone tells me he was. Maybe he was the impolite, angry, prejudiced, abrasive man that they all remember. I don’t think so. I think I was lucky enough to see another side of him, and am better for it.

On a more recent note, I am coming off of a six month stint of unemployment. There were a lot of times during it that I lost hope. I have never experienced that level of rejection in my life. My parents were naturally worried about me. My mom had a prayer candle that she would light for me every day. I’m not a religious person, but I do believe in the power of prayer. Directed positive energy can be a powerful thing, even if you don’t subscribe to any particular theology. I don’t personally pray, but I’m not about to tell my mom that I don’t want her prayers. She prayed every day for me to find something. A few weeks ago, she made a direct appeal to my grandfather, saying that “his little tadpole” needed a hand. The very next week, I had three job offers. Who knows if the two things are connected, but I don’t want to be cynical enough to think they’re not.


Mr. Tooduloo

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