Grandpa was already quite old by the time I was born. His face was wrinkled and his knees bowed. The veins stood out of his hands and his hair was thin. Even so, I didn't think of him as old. I thought of him as Grandpa. He was ageless. He was always there and always would be. I did not understand why he was teary when we had to leave him for any length of time. He was often afraid he would die before we came home to him again. His parents and five of his seven brothers and sisters had all died young, and he was always preparing us for his own early death. Always planning ahead, Grandpa was.
More than anything, he wanted to make sure my grandmother would be well cared for after he passed away. They were a funny couple, my grandparents. He was long-limbed and blond while she was a tiny woman with waves of dark brown hair. He was gentle and shy, struggled with a speech impediment and knew what it felt like to be different. He was careful with other people's feelings, slow to anger, quick to tears, and more comfortable with children than with adults.
Grandma, on the other hand, had an abundance of confidence. She had been both smart and pretty as a girl and was smart and beautiful as an adult. She was powerful too, and had a commanding presence with a biting wit. She could be intimidating despite her diminutive form. I think, despite the fact that Grandma frequently gave my grandfather hell, that he adored her. I can remember him looking at her with a slight smile playing across his lips and that twinkle in his eye like he couldn't believe, even after decades of marriage, how lucky he was to have her. He was a shy, orphaned farmer boy with a stutter and he had married an acknowledged beauty with a biting wit.
Grandma knew she was beautiful too. When I was a child, a photograph of her from the 1930s hung above her dressing table. "You were beautiful," I said in admiration. "Yes. I suppose I was," she said without vanity. It was just a fact. I grew up hearing about her dates with various boys in town including Chet G___., who was athletic, handsome, and popular. I loved to hear about car rides on the rumble seats or the time she kept popping hoarhound candy in one obnoxious fellow's mouth just to keep him from kissing her. Grandma did not have a difficult time finding men to court her, but she wasn't going to settle on just anyone. The man who married my grandmother had to be strong enough to handle her. Or nearly strong enough to handle her anyhow. As an old man, my grandfather marveled at a rather large nurse who was looking after him. My father joked with Grandpa, "Got a thing for her, do you?" My grandfather smiled. "Nah," he said, "I've got five feet more woman than I can handle right now."
He really never could handle my grandmother, not in the old-fashioned patriarchal sense. It is difficult to imagine that he ever tried. What would be the point? In the 1940s and 1950s when other men were trying to fit into the hyper-masculine, man in the gray flannel suit, post-war model of manhood, my grandfather must have seemed like some kind of alien. The son of a suffragist, he seemed to subscribe to the idea that a man's job is to support his wife in the care of the family. We have stories about him cooking on weekends so Grandma could rest, of him helping with the arduous task of cleaning diapers before they had heated water or washing machines, of him taking the children on long hikes to give her some free time, and of him honoring her decisions and taking pride in her accomplishments.
Grandpa was a loyal, protective, and adoring husband in the 59 years they were together before he passed away. I never heard her tell him that she loved him and she didn't cry for him at his funeral or in the days following unless she did so when no one could see her. But on the day he died, she wore one of his old shirts and she looked lost and bewildered. After I spoke at his funeral, she said to me in a tone that comes as close as she ever comes to affectionate, "That was well done." And that was that.
But she must have loved him. On the few occasions when he was cross with her, I can recall her climbing onto his lap and stroking his hair. She didn't have to say a thing. He couldn't resist her, and his anger just seemed to melt away with her touch. I also remember how she called him when he was at work to tell him about her day. She'd call him on that old black telephone, sit right on the edge of her seat, and chatter to him about this happening or that, this friend or another with as much enthusiasm as a teenager. Though I couldn't see him where he sat across town in the old paint shop, I knew he was listening closely, and I could imagine how his eyes twinkled with appreciation for his clever, pretty little wife.
I bet Chet.G.,, Grandma's old flame, thought she was pretty too. I'd heard about him, but had never seen a photo of him until recently when old village sports team photographs went on display in one of the downtown storefront windows. My mother, sister, and I located him among the other ballplayers and agreed immediately that he was, without a doubt, a good-looking young man. He was big man on campus and graduated to become a big man in the community. He stood out among the other boys with his roguishly handsome face and his easy confidence. I could imagine my grandmother at his side with her dark curls, rosy cheeks, and blue eyes. Grandma always had a gorgeous figure too. She was slender, but she had great curves. They must have been a great-looking couple. But she didn't choose Chet.G. She chose the orphaned son of a dairy farmer.
I'll never know just why my grandmother settled on the shy farmboy with a speech impediment and the bad knees although I think it was the right choice. As I've said, she was smart as well as pretty, and she wasn't about to sacrifice herself on the altar of romantic love. Not that my grandfather didn't love her or that theirs was not a relationship rich in romance. They could be spicy and racy at times and there are plenty of stories about them that are designed to make children and grandchildren blush and protest in mock horror. But they had more than a lusty relationship. My grandfather honored and respected her. For me, one story says it all. When it came time for them to buy a house together, my grandmother found one she liked. She told Grandpa about it and he said they should buy it.
"Don't you want to see it first?" Grandma asked.
"Can you raise a family there?" Grandpa asked in return. When Grandma answered in the affirmative, my grandfather told her that was all he needed to know.
If she said the house was good enough for their family, then it was so. He bought the house on her word alone. He believed in her intelligence, in her goodness, and in her capabilities. I never saw him behave rudely or harshly toward her. I never heard him raise his voice to her or try to run her down. Whenever he looked at her, I'd swear he thought the sun rose and set on her. Like all the other boys, he probably thought she was a sweet young thing when he first saw her, but every day he knew her, she grew more cherished and more remarkable in his sight. More than that, he honored her as a woman, as a human being, and as his beloved partner. He trusted her and she trusted him right back. I'd like to see old Chet.G. compete with that.