My Grumps, my grandfather on my mother’s side, left this world too soon. I know there is a big plan—a master plan—and it’s not for us to question or doubt there is a reason for how it all comes together and works out. But I stand by my statement: Grumps left this world too soon.
Grumps was a gentle and kind man. He loved to drive. He drove an old, beat-up, yellow Vega, but he didn’t care. Back when the price of gasoline was a non-issue, he loved to drive over to Palm Beach on Sunday afternoons after church and lunch. Even during the gas crisis of the seventies, when you had to wait in line for hours to get gas and hope that the station didn’t run out before you got to the pump, he still liked to drive over to Palm Beach. Inside that little yellow car, with the windows down, we would wind back and forth along the road that travels along that stretch of beach, and we would slow down and stare at all the big mansions, peering through the gates and the tall bushes. All you could see of the Kennedy compound was a weathered wooden door. Grumps also liked to stop and park at the beach, and we would get out and sit on the sea wall and, well, just sit.
Grumps was a terrific grandpa who attended school performances and plays and back-to-school nights and occasionally stopped by the house to mow the lawn for Mom. We lived about two miles away. He got me and Scotty a dog—Louie, the deaf poodle—when he decided we needed something to take care of and love and to learn to be responsible for. He was always there, in the way children take for granted that people will always be there. He was a faithful member of the Catholic Church, and on Sundays he would reward Scotty and me for attending Mass with the occasional trip to Dunkin’ Donuts. We would sit at the pink terrazzo counter and eat our glazed donuts and drink chocolate milk while Grumps had a “dunker” with his coffee. On one occasion, Scotty tried to order chili. Poor kid, he got teased about that one for a long time.
Grumps died at the end of June 1976. He was only sixty-three years old. It seemed sad to me that he would not see the bicentennial celebration on July 4th. The bicentennial was huge; it took over the U.S. and everyone was patriotic and all red, white, and blue. I still get a tiny thrill when I come across one of those bicentennial quarters in circulation. Officially, Grumps died from pancreatic cancer. However, his treatment was complicated by emphysema, caused by years of smoking. It’s odd, but I don’t recall ever seeing him smoke. I’m sure he did, and I vaguely remember a pipe, but I can’t recall ever seeing him with a cigarette.
The day he died was tragic. Grumps would be the first person in my life I would lose. At twelve years old, I didn’t really know how much that was going to affect me. My uncle came to tell my mom, and I knew it had happened even before Uncle Tommy started to talk. It was so hard for my mom. She had been divorced for five years, and I think Grumps had been helpful, caring, and supportive. I say “I think” because my mom’s a pretty private person. She doesn’t talk much about such things. Although it was more than thirty-five years ago, I remember she seemed to be pretty close to her dad.
On the day Grumps died, I had previously promised to babysit the neighbor’s baby. When the neighbor heard the news about Grumps, she offered to cancel, but for reasons I don’t quite recall, I still wanted to babysit. Maybe I simply needed something normal to do. Maybe Mom was too sad. Maybe I was twelve years old and didn’t fully understand the circumstances.
The neighbor’s baby was named Bunky. Now, I am sure that was not his real name, but that’s the only name I can remember. Babysitting Bunky was easy. Basically, you fed him a bottle, changed the diaper, put on the night shirt, and then rocked him ‘til he fell asleep. He was a good baby that way; he didn’t fuss much, and he was a snuggler. For a twelve-year-old, it was easy money, and I could walk to work.
The rocking chair was on the back porch, which was a sort of an enclosed Florida room with white walls and blue and green furniture. Sitting there, rocking Bunky, I started to feel sad. I recall the TV was turned off, and it was quiet as I listened to Bunky make baby noises and drift off to sleep. Here was this little baby who had his whole life ahead of him, falling asleep in my arms, and it made me think of Grumps and his time with us being over. I started to cry and realized I wouldn’t see him again, and I wondered what our lives were going to be like with him gone.
And then, right then, I felt him in the room. I can’t say I saw Grumps, but I felt him, his presence, there next to me, around me, like a warm, soft blanket. I felt really peaceful and not exactly happy but kind of calm and reassured. It was like somehow knowing things were going to turn out OK. At that moment, I knew Grumps was saying goodbye and I needed to be OK with his moving on. I felt love, a real spiritual love, in the briefest of moments. I still know that feeling, even today. I looked down at Bunky, and then Grumps was gone.
That was the last time I ever saw Grumps. I never told anyone this story, not until right now. Nearly forty years have gone by, and I sometimes wonder how our lives might have been different if he had stayed here with us a little bit longer. I think he would have liked how I turned out. I know he would love his great-grandson, Jimmy, and my husband, Greg. I think he would have really enjoyed retirement with my grandma who lived on for another twenty-five years. I picture them vacationing and driving, always driving. Sometimes, when I’m sitting at the beach, I think about him leaning up against the sea wall. He was a good man. You would have liked him. Everybody did.
This essay was previously published in “I Was In Love With a Short Man Once” an essay collection by Kimberly J. Dalferes. Reprinted here with permissions.
Kimberly “Kimba” Dalferes is a native Floridian who pretends to be a Virginian. She’s an accomplished king salmon slayer, estate sale junkie, and sometimes writes books, including I Was In Love With a Short Man Once and Magic Fishing Panties. Dalferes’ essays have been featured in diverse publications, such as The Roanoke Times, Feisty After 45, Reflections On Smith Mountain Lake, BonBon Break, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Better After 50, and Midlife Boulevard. Dalferes’ humor column, Dock Tale Hour, has been featured in Laker Magazine since 2014. She’s also had a limerick published in The Washington Post, which she emphatically claims as a legitimate publication cred. You can find her hanging out in The Middle-Aged Cheap Seats—her blog, http://kimdalferes.com/blog or visit her at www.kimdalferes.com.