Friday, April 9, 2010

That is the Kind of Grandfather I Want To Be

I didn’t have much direct experience with grandparents growing up. My mother was orphaned by the time she was two. My father’s mother died before I was born. That left only my paternal grandfather, whom, as far as I can remember I only saw a few times. And yet, my middle name, Alexander, comes from him and I feel some familial magnetism, some draw of the blood between my father’s father and me. For example, given that he has been dead for more than sixty years, how many other people are thinking about him at this moment? Is there anyone else searching their memories and trying to understand how he contribute to who they are?

Since my father never had much to say, what I know about Alexander Kotula comes from my mother. He was born in Poland and never learned to speak English. He could play the violin. He worked for The Ford Motor Company his whole adult life. He had fourteen children. His wife, whom my mother referred to as “that old woman,” as in “That old woman was mean as a snake,” ruled the three-bedroom house in Hamtramck where they all lived.

My mother never had anything bad to say about my grandfather. From this I assume that he also accepted her despite her twin sins of being non-Catholic and non-Polish. I imagine him meeting his son’s new twenty-year-old bride for the first time. He wouldn’t have understand a word she said, but he would have seen that she was five feet, nine inches tall, blond, and had big white teeth. I imagine him thinking, “leggy.” Was there ever a Polish girl you could describe as “leggy”? I bet he said to himself that Johnny, his cocky, second oldest surviving son, in his bell-bottom navy uniform, had done all right for himself.

Obviously, it doesn’t take a lot of direct experience with you grandfather for him to live large in your imagination.

I have nine grandchildren so far. Six live in Rhode Island and three live in Portland. Oregon. They all call me Papa John. None of them are related to me biologically, but that doesn’t seem to be part of the equation when calculating their affection for me or mine for them.

My stepdaughter, Helen, does art projects in her sons’ charter school in Portland. Sammy is in a 4th/5th split classroom and Simon is in 1st grade. Helen’s third child, Tess, is still in nursery school. During a recent visit, Helen invited me to present some of my artwork as an introduction to a unit she wants to do on faces. I chose twenty-five images to show the kids. Some were my self-portraits. Some were portraits I had done of other people and portraits others had done of me. Finally, I included, well known, iconic self-portraits: van Gogh with a bandage wrapped around his right ear, Gauguin standing in front of a yellow, crucified Christ, Max Beckman in a tuxedo looking like he just stepped out on an early Hitchcock movie, a double portrait of Frida Kahlo with her hearts exposed and dripping blood.

I projected thumbnails of the twenty-five portraits and asked the kids to choose one they’d like to talk about. To start the discussion, I asked them why they had picked that one. In the first grade I got first grade answers.

“Because the baby is bald.”

“Because he’s naked.” (Actually, it was Gregory Gillespie and he was only shirtless.)

“It’s orange.”

“It’s funny.” Everyone was having such a good time that eventually everything was funny.

Next, I said, “Sometimes a portrait is like an illustration for a story, but you have to make up the story. Lets make up a story about this one. I’ll start and any one who wants to can add on.”

The story they told involved the character in the portrait alternately growing to huge proportions then shrinking to the tiniest possible dimensions. Back and forth. Back and forth.

“He got so big he was bigger than the whole universe!”

“He got very, very small like a mouse, like a tiny baby mouse.”

“He got bigger and bigger. First he was bigger than the Empire State Building. Then he was bigger than a mountain. Then he was bigger than the moon.”

That was the whole plot, but it went on and on until every child had a turn maximizing or minimizing the hero.

Helen gave out paper and colored pencils. She instructed the kids to draw someone at their table. My grandson Simon and his buddy Jack invited me to sit at their table so they could draw me. This pair, Simon and Jack, have something of a reputation. They are active, adventuresome, and full of ideas about how to have fun. Sometimes it is said that they are a “bad combination.”

At our table the archetypical 1st grade conversation prevailed; who had wiggly teeth.

As Simon and Jack drew me, I drew both of them. I blackened out the same tooth in each of their smiles. I gave Simon a mustache and Jack a goatee. I also adorned Jack with a pirate’s gold hoop earring. I wrote at the bottom of the picture, “Jack and Simon 18 Years Old.”

I said to Helen, “Do we have time for a story.”

She said, “Always.”

This is the story I told my grandson’s 1st grade class:

This is the story of how Simon and Jack lost the same tooth on the same day when they were eighteen years old.

Simon and Jack had been friends since they were two years old. They were friends in nursery school. They were friends in elementary school. They were still friends in middle school and high school. When they graduated from high school they both wanted to be doctors so they went to college to study medicine. Jack went to The University of New Mexico and Simon went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Simon chose Brown because he wanted to be near his grandfather, Papa John. (That’s me.)

The two friends had a lot of fun their first year in college and got very good grades, but they couldn’t wait to get back to Portland and see each other. The first day of summer vacation they met downtown and gave each other a big hug…

(As I told this, Simon and Jack were standing beside me acting it out. They gave each other a big hug.)

… then they looked at each other.

“You changed,” said Simon. “What’s that thing in your ear?”

Jack said, “You know I always wanted to get my ear pierced.”

“And what is the stuff on your chin?”

“I grew a goatee. You can’t talk. What is that thing on your lip?”

Simon said, “I grew a mustache.”

Jack said, “Well it looks like a caterpillar crawling across your face.”

Simon said, “Yeah. My dad said the same thing.”

The two friends started walking down the block trying to decide what they were going to do on their first day home in Portland. They hadn’t gone too far when two men in ski masks ran out of a bank and almost knocked them down. The two masked men jumped into a car at the curb.

Without thinking, Jack yelled, “Hey! You can’t get away with that!”

He yanked open the passenger door and threw one of the robbers to the ground. Still wearing his mask, the bad guy pulled a gun out of the waistband of his pants and pointed it at Jack. Simon saw that his friend was in danger and sprang into action. He charged the robber and kicked the gun out of his hand. Unfortunately the guy was bigger and stronger than Simon. He punched Simon right in the mouth. Simon spit out his tooth and fell to the ground bleeding.

Jack ran to his friend and said, “Are you all right?”

“Yeth,” Simon said. “But they are getting away.”

“Jack said, “Don’t worry I got their license plate number.”

Just then a police car pulled up and the boys told the policemen what had happened. Jack gave them the license plate number.”

One of the cops said, “Thanks, boys, but from now on leave fighting criminals up to the professionals.”

The police took off with their sirens wailing in pursuit of the bad guys.

Simon said, “I got an idea lets follow them.”

“Yeah,” said Jack. ‘I want to see how this story ends.”

Simon had barrowed Helen’s car for the day, so the two friends jumped into the van and took off after the cop. They didn’t have to go far. Just a few blocks away, the cops had the robbers at gunpoint, down on their knees in the grass with their hands behind their heads.

One of the officers was saying, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you. You have the right to a lawyer…”

The boys opened the car door and got out. At the sound of the door slamming, both officers turned their heads to see who was behind them. This gave the bad guys all the opportunity they needed. They leaped on the policemen, knocking them off their feet and causing them to drop their guns. They were all rolling on the ground throwing punches, kicking and butting heads. Simon and Jack jumped on the pile to help the policemen. Simon drew back his fist and shot it forward with all his might aiming straight for the mouth of robber who had knocked out his tooth. Unfortunately, the bad guy ducked and Simon’s fist connected with Jack’s face instead of the bad guy’s. Jack went over backwards, did a summersault and jumped to his feet bleeding from a split lip. He stuck his fingers in his mouth and withdrew his tooth.

Eventually, the police retrieved their guns, the robbers gave up, were handcuffed, and taken away in the squad car.

The boys were declared heroes and had their picture in the paper.

(“This picture,” I said, holding up my drawing of Simon and Jack.)

The two friends had a great summer. At the end of August they went to the airport together.

When Simon’s flight to Providence was staring to board, he said to Jack, “I don’t think I’m going to get this tooth fixed. I’m just going to leave the gap, because then every time I look in the mirror, I’ll think of you and how much fun we had this summer.”

“Great idea,” said Jack. “I’m going to stick with the gap, too, but please shave that mustache.”

The two friends hugged goodbye.

(The seven-year-old versions of Simon and Jack hugged too and took a bow.)

What if after I’ve been dead a long, long time, Simon, now a grandfather himself, remembers this story? What if he calls up his brother or sister and says, “The other day, I was thinking about Papa John” and Samson or Tess says, “Yeah. He was a great grandfather.”

God, that’d be so sweet.

That is the kind of grandfather I want to be.


  1. Love this. I just spoke with a woman at the Y yesterday about her desire to be an important grandmother to her grandkids who live on the West Coast closer to their other grandparents. It's a whole different kind of relationship than parenting isn't it? My children's grandparents are totally different people than the parents who raised me, that's for sure, and it's a wonderful thing. It lets me experience them in a completely different dimension.

  2. Love the post and love the sentiment, but most of all I love Simon's portrait of Papa John.

  3. You're right, I really love this. I really love being a grandmother and think a lot about what memories our six grandkids will have. Sometimes I think it'll be the big moments, other times I think it'll be the daily rummycub games with breakfast, sometimes I think it'll just be the silly times when we're all laughing about something to do with the toilet, or farting or you know....but I want for each of them to have places in them that they remember and smile. Thanks for writing this. Mariellen