Last Father’s Day I wrote about my father. This year I thought I’d do the same for my grandfather. I never knew my father’s father but my mother’s lived with us for a couple of years or so when I was very young. He emigrated from Austria along with his wife, four daughter’s and their husbands. Some of his grandkids (my older cousins and 10 month old brother) were also in tow. Earlier on, his son had moved further west to settle in Ohio. Like a lot of immigrants back then, they crossed the ocean via ship. To this day my mother hates boats. Everyone was apparently very seasick for the whole of the journey. Lady Liberty held her torch high over the stench of vomit with one hand while holding her nose with the other. Everyone was very happy to see her in spite of her unusual pose.
Back in his homeland, my grandfather was a forest ranger by trade. By the time he moved to the states however, he was already retired. But his love of animals stayed with him and carried over in his day to day life. From my earliest recollection I can see him feeding the squirrels; they’d always eat right out of his outstretched palm. He was never once bitten. He even got my aunt into the act but she only went so far as to leave peanuts on the kitchen windowsill and then close the window as we’d watch “Hansi” eat them from the safety of the glass between us. This went on for several weeks until one day Hansi peed on the window ledge and that was that.
One day my grandfather won a pig at one of the family events we always seemed to be going to. We all thought it was a great big side of ham or something until we were informed that we had to go and pick it up at a farm in New Jersey. While there, a certain little fox terrier took a shine to my grandfather and the farmer told him he could take the dog along with the pig. “Tiny”, as she was called, never left my grandfather’s lap for the remainder of her life. When he removed his pants at night she was always stuck to them until the next morning when he’d put them on again. Occasionally, they’d have to be washed so she was included in the wash, rinse, spin cycle. She adored him and would always yip yip yip any time someone tried to get near him. She didn’t even mind his cigars or that pipe he smoked.
That pipe. That’s another very early memory. When we were quite small, we celebrated the Feast Day of St. Nicholas on the sixth of December. On the evening before, my mom would place our shoes outside the front door and Lo and Behold, the next morning they’d be filled with chocolate, oranges and maybe even a coloring book along with a brand new box of crayons. We either had very large feet or somehow my mother had a real sense of ingenuity and managed to stuff them all in with the aid of a shoe horn. Anyway, on one particular December 6th, mom told us to “Run to the window and look outside!” It was already dark, and our window, two flights up, faced the backyard. She was screaming “It’s Saint Nicholas! It’s Saint Nicholas!” I hadn’t a clue what she was yelling about. All I could see was the glowing embers of my grandfather’s pipe and called out to him wondering what in the world was he doing out there in the dark with Saint Nicholas? This was followed by his deep raspy laugh which meant “Don’t I feel silly”.
Once when I was about 4 or 5, he gave me a tiny gold ring with the initial “M” engraved on the top of it. I was totally amazed. Where did you get it? I naively asked, still too young to know you could go out and purchase these things and they didn’t just magically appear. I found it, he replied. Wow! Imagaine that. He found a ring perfectly sized to my finger that just happens to have my initial on it! It was my prized possession, which I didn’t have too many of at the time, that lasted for about two days. On that second day, I was washing my hands with soap at the bathroom sink when it slipped off my finger and tinkled down the drain! I was horrified! I can still hear the delicate tune it played all the way down “tink-a-tink-alee-tink-a-tink-tink” translated to “aren’t-you-a-stupid-little-girl”. My heart sank. I didn’t tell anyone. I was too ashamed. I was hoping he’d never ask what happened to it and he never did. But looking back, had I said something, they could have removed the J pipe where it probably sat for a bit until it was washed out to sea. The same sea they journeyed over on all those years ago. Any chance it may have slipped onto Lady Liberty’s little toe? No, her feet are definitely too big. Her shoe may have been the boat they came over on.