My grandfather gave me my first car. It was 1990, and the car was a 1970 Ford Custom 500 Galaxie. It was seventeen feet long, and it had fins. It had over 200,000 miles on it. It was in pretty much perfect condition.
That was my grandfather. When you spend money on things, he believed, you take care of them. He had a truck that was older than my car. His car, the one he preferred to drive, was their “last new car” when my grandparents bought it in the eighties. It still looked in great shape when I parked in his driveway last month, paying what would be my last visit to a 94-year-old man.
My grandfather stormed the beach at Normandy. I can’t tell you much about that–I am learning now, as I knew I would one day but I was always meaning to do something about it “soon,” that I did not pay enough attention.
Grandpa worked at the Joy manufacturing plant in my hometown, building huge orange mining machines until he retired. He and Grammy ran a farm too, and raised four kids. Grammy worked sometimes, when it was convenient, so she would be able to get Social Security too. Then they moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona, and ran a four-trailer mobile home park in their retirement.
Historians call them “the Greatest Generation.” For my family at least, I know they certainly rose to the challenges of their lives.
I was there when my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. I think–I told you I didn’t pay enough attention–they made it to 64 years married before my grandmother passed on.
Grammy didn’t top five feet to Grandpa’s six foot two, but Grandpa would joke that if he wanted to get somewhere in a crowd, all he had to do was put his arm through Grammy’s. She was unstoppable like that.
In 1988, I graduated high school. Without a driver’s license, without a car to drive if I knew how, and living some twenty miles out of town, I didn’t have a lot of options. I’d planned to go to college, but the debt scared me off. I stayed home. I worked as a companion to the elderly, trading my care and cleaning skills for room and board and $50 a week if I was lucky. (My negotiating skills were as good as my driving skills–nonexistent.)
After a year of watching me waste my time and get nowhere, my grandparents wrote me. Come to Arizona, they said, live with us and get a job and go to school. My dad (finally!) taught me to drive because that was a condition of their offer.
I had a license. I had a new home. I had a future.
Though I had my license, I had very little driving experience, so Grandpa took me out a few times before letting me go alone. The first time, we were driving bumpy roads out by the mission (so on the reservation) and he wanted me to make steadier stops, instead of getting up to stop signs and jumping on the brakes. So I tried it, and instead slowed down way before the sign, creeping up at 10mph. Exasperated, he told me as we approached the next sign, “now don’t slow down!”
So I didn’t. At all. As I rounded the corner at thirty, in the mirror I saw my grandmother go rolling across the back seat.
That was the end of the lesson that day.
Grandpa taught me to change the oil in my car. One hot summer morning, he taught me that one should periodically check the air pressure in their spare tire. Or one might come out to their car to find someone had let all the air out of their tire to teach them to how to change their tires–and that someone might have let all the air out of the spare a month before to see if one would notice.
I was addicted to an old show called Airwolf at the time, and I missed it that Saturday, changing a tire for the first time.
After a year I moved out. I had a job, a car, and $500 in the bank. I knew what I was doing.
Grandpa thought I’d last six months. He was very proud that I never had to move back in. He didn’t tell me that, but Grammy did. He was proud of me two months ago too, when he learned as a single parent I had gotten to where I could buy my first house.
He never stopped teaching me. Years and cars later, I’d go for a visit and after a while he’d want to go out and have a look at my car. Once he came to rescue me when I locked my keys in my car and also left the lights on before hurrying across a rain-swept parking lot to work for the next eight hours. After a jump he followed me home, and explained when we arrived that the engine charges the battery, and if I’m going to fly home at “ninety miles an hour or so” then the car runs less time, charges the battery less, might not start tomorrow… Another time my muffler literally fell off my car, and the next day he and I were crawling under a tiny Toyota Corolla to fix it.
Three months ago, after a long life full of good things and challenges surmounted, my grandfather went into renal failure. At ninety-four years old and having lived seven years without my grandmother, losing his hearing and sight and unable to play cards, one of the great joys of his life, he felt it was time, and refused dialysis. My aunt came from Florida, my uncle from northern Arizona. My other uncle from across town. My brother and I, also in town. My little brother, in Illinois, called often. His friends from the Golden Agers club where he’d been president alternating years for most of the last thirty, came around frequently.
That proud, stubborn, strong man lived weeks longer than his doctors thought he possibly could. He remained smart and funny and the man I’ve known all my life, and then he went to sleep for a few days and then he passed on.
This week I got a check–my inheritance. It’s about two month’s pay, in one lump sum. So my car is in the shop, getting new brakes and a new battery and some other maintenance issues caught up, because my grandfather is fixing my car for me one last time.
I love you, Grandpa. Give Grammy and Mom a big hug for me.