My stepmom’s dad, the grandpa who was there, he was a man of thickness, thick, heavy bones, he was built as if of iron, and insistent, wavy white hair that was thicker than the most expensive bath towel and grew twice as fast.
He picked us up from school. While he waited, he took out his dentures and set them on the dashboard.
He would say, “You gotta eat your peas, they’ll put hair on your chest.” I did not, have not ever.
My stepmom’s parents brought me Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner is lunch. Is meals, whatever the time of day and holiday, with many more dishes than necessary, eaten around a table that choked the tiny, square dining room that lay at the center of the house, everything in a special dish with its own serving utensil. A tablecloth.
During the meal, after we all sat down, to get to the kitchen, the bedrooms, the bathroom, the living room, someone would have to scoot in until she couldn’t breathe, or get up and trade places with you, puzzle style. Grandpa had built that house. Why didn’t he built the dining room just a touch bigger? I would guess because building a house is expensive.
The meals there were ridiculously bountiful. There are three vegetables. There is some kind of bread. There is a starch. There is a tray of pickles. There is a tray of olives. There is a salad. The glasses had Grecian ladies on them. Sometimes they had missionaries to dinner.
My father’s family sang the Doxology before eating. My mother’s family said “Bless us oh Lord.” My stepmom’s father prayed freeform, and addressed God personally, “we just ask you,” he would say, and then end with, “most of all we thank you for Jesus.”
The meals I knew before were the pragmatic meals of my parents, intended for nutrition and the restoration of energy, or the haphazard potlucks of either of their extended families. Those gatherings were more about talk than food.
Grandpa loved John Wayne pictures (he would always say pictures) and the 1987 film “Baby Boom.” Kansan, evangelical Christian, lover of strong women including one of a type played by Diane Keaton.
He never tired of calling one of us “Elsie” to pretend that he had forgotten our name. We were not alike in many ways, but we both made jokes intended only to please ourselves.
This was my Grandpa before him, my father’s father, my biological grandpa: he visited from wherever he lived, it was always different, he was always moving and marrying different women, and he brought presents. The presents were furniture: a woven chair from Mexico, a white iron table and chairs, the chairs curly backed with candy cane padded seats. And then he died.
So instead of knowing him in whatever brokenness and crashing he might have offered me, I was driven home in the red Eurosport where the dentures had been on the dash, until I was seventeen, and the same car was given to me. So I passed all the dishes, ate all the mashed potatoes with a whole stick of butter in the house that Grandpa had built.
So I had Grandpa who was sober, fervently religious, settled on land that had been in the family for generations, and was there, every Easter, every Christmas, many Sundays, after school, summer afternoons, more than biological Grandpa, a person who bashed around life, moving and shifting and thrilling and disappointing.
So I have a grandpa impossible to find, though I know his story of a bar fight in Casablanca, and a grandpa who I could easily find, in the land he built the house on, in movies, in jokes he thought were funny, and so did I.