My grandfather's name was Poppy. Actually it was Ferdinand, and Fred to his friends, but it was Grandpops to the kids. And I, the youngest of four grandkids, couldn't figure out how to say that when I was small, I guess. So to me, he was Poppy.
My earliest memories of my grandfather are snorkeling at beach at Kahalu'u. My grandparents moved to the Big Island of Hawaii when I was three, I think. When I would visit--sometimes just me taking long flight out there from California--we'd go snorkeling, Poppy and me. I'm sure there were many times it was all of us -- my sister and my dad and my mom too. The family photos of that era are full of cousins and Auntie Margie and Grandma and chicken salad sandwiches at the beach. But in the amalgam that lives in my mind, it's just me and Poppy. The smell of wet flippers and snorkel gear in the back of his old rusty station wagon. The overcast skies, and the acrid smell of salt water on lava rock, and the chunk of soggy bread or handful of frozen peas clutched my fists to feed the fish, trying not to let any escape too soon. The sound it makes when you breathe through a snorkel underwater and always being a little afraid when Poppy'd start letting the bread go and fish would appear in mass out of nowhere. When we would come out of the water, Poppy always had a couple of dollars in the pocket of his swim trunks so we could buy ice cream. The bills would be soggy, and we would be soggy, and it would hot, and the ice cream would be perfect.
When I was a kid, my grandparents would phone on Sunday mornings. Hawaii time is two or three hours earlier than California time, but they never seemed to notice this. If I was the one to answer the phone, my grandma would say, "Sugarplum!" and Poppy, from another line somewhere in their house, would laugh and say, "Nah, she's full of lemons!" Birthday cards and packages from my grandparents always came addressed to "Sugarplum" on one side, and to "The Lemon Kid" on the other, and often came attached to a bag of lemon drops. Now that I think about it, he hadn't called me The Lemon Kid in a long time. Maybe not since we lost Grandma and he didn't have a Sugarplum label to contradict. He'd been calling me Shannie for more than ten years, I think. The Lemon Kid is still my name though.
Visiting family, looking at photos on the wall, I came upon this one of my cousin, pictured younger than I ever knew her, sitting n my grandfather's lap. She's looking and him and he's looking at her and they're smiling. My cousin came up behind me while I was looking at the picture. She said, "He used to play this game with me, where he'd point to my nose and say 'Big Nose' and point to his nose and say 'Little Nose' and I'd argue with him and we'd laugh and laugh." A frown creased my brow. "Wait a minute!" I said. "I have the big nose!" When confronted, my grandfather smiled and looked a little sheepish and told us we both have such big noses it must run in the family. "Mine's the only small one," he added.
Once when I was in late high school or maybe my first year of college, there was a family feud brewing, a big one that starts with yelling or worse and leads to years of the silent treatment between two or more parties. We do that on that side of the family. I wish we didn't. I think we all wish we didn't, but there it is. In the midst of this one, which was doozy, I wrote a long email to Poppy, frustrated with the lack of communication, with adults not acting their age, with the whole situation. "Why does this happen?" I asked him. "When we were kids this would never have been permitted. We would have been forced to work it out and get along," I said. He didn't respond. Poppy read every email I ever sent him but didn't like to type. The next time I saw him in person, he said, "I read your email, honey. That was very personal." That was all he said.
Poppy loved jazz. Old stuff from the 30s and 40s, which isn't old stuff if you were born in 1919. I remember a car trip into the Bay Area (where? to my sister's house maybe?) where I was driving and Poppy was in the passenger seat. I was piping Ella Fitzgerald into the stereo from my iPod and he was singing along in the way he always did, that call-and-response a little after the singer way. (Everyone in the family will remember exactly that way.) He'd sing like that to anything. I'm not even sure he knew he was doing it half the time. I once heard him sing along with Madonna like that. But this time was me and Poppy in the car, singing along to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong together. It's very clear that our love is here to stay.
I also remember sitting at a table in a restaurant in downtown Napa (my hometown) with my folks, and my grandfather, and my boyfriend (who would in the future become my husband). I was eating a salad with bleu cheese and candied walnuts and we were listening to live jazz band that we'd all come to hear. My grandfather pointed to me and pointed to my boyfriend and pointed to the dance floor and smiled. Go and dance. We did.
Poppy died just after midnight on Friday night in a hospital in Napa, He was just days short of 96 years old. He was kind, and quiet, loving of and beloved by every cat and dog he ever met, and dedicated to his family. I miss him already. We will all miss him. I'm sad that he's gone. I'm glad that he'd not in pain anymore. It hurts that my family hurts. I was privileged to know him and love him. I hope that we will all continue to try to take as good care of each other as he always tried to take care of us.
Thanks for listening.
- The Lemon Kid