If there was ever anyone in this world that I wanted to be when I grew up it was my grandfather.
My mother’s father, Nick Nickles, was always the host of our family functions. Easter, in my mind, is searching for eggs in his backyard. Independence day is making ice cream on his driveway. The cousins visiting was a chance to eat on his patio. He was The Convener.
I remember many a night at his house playing cards, learning the basic tactics and strategy those games are made of. I grew up around that table playing Contract and Spoons and Golf and then eating the pie my grandmother made.
It wasn’t mean-spirited; he didn’t cheat to win. Grandpa cheated to play with you. You would go to the bathroom and come back, and the next hand you got would be PERFECT, if you could just get that one card that seemed to be missing… and it’d be missing until someone else won, because Grandpa was holding it. He held it even if that meant he lost, because The Game, at that point, was watching you squirm and watching everyone else try not to give it away. He was The Ringleader.
He was very active in his church, with a group of friends that he grew old with. There was always some new adventure that they were embarking on: a trip to hither or yon, an outing to who-knows-where, an ice cream social or a movie night.
He knew everyone. And if he didn’t know them, he was as friendly as if he did. He had a way with people that I wish I pulled off half as well as he could. He would simply talk to people like they were people, and the waiters and salesmen responded in kind. In my remembrances he knew the names of the kids of the waitress, and I half-believe it even now.
He was a very emotional man, and I cannot count the number of times he cried in public when someone said something nice about him at one of the many parties he was a celebrant at. It is a trait that I have inherited, but I found it endearing from the start.
He had many names. The youngest of twelve kids, his parents had run out of names they liked and so they didn’t give him one. His siblings started calling him Billy Bob, and those who’ve known him longest still do, even though the state eventually ordered a christening and he got “Clarence Roger” out of the deal, which he despised and never used. He picked up “Nick” in the army– he is of the generation where no one used their real names– and kept it from then on.
But I always called him “Grandpa” and he seemed to like that, too. The joy that played on his face when he saw his family was a wonder, and I knew that he loved us every time I saw it. I don’t know if my kids recognized it for what it was, but they got it from him, too.
He always seemed to get the best parking spot. Anywhere he went he’d get there just as someone was pulling out, and he’d slide that great big Buick into the prime spot. He was The Lucky One.
He certainly lucked out a number of times: he knew my grandmother in high school, and used to cheat on exams by copying her answers. He served in World War II in Korea, and not, as my mother and the rest of us had thought for some years until quite recently, in the Korean War. He moved out to California to go to a trade school, then stayed when that didn’t pan out but another job did.
The job. He had some job whose outlines I only barely know; that was not the defining characteristic of him as a man. Literally the most I know about what he did was that he worked in the building that gets blown up at the start of Demolition Man. I’m not sure if his work was fulfilling and that let him be Who He Was to me, or if his work was drudgery and Who He Was was an escape from that. Either way, Who He Was was amazing, and deserving of love, and I hope that I gave him enough of it; he certainly gave enough back to me.
Tonight I got a call that I knew– long knew– had been coming. Grandpa’s not been doing well, and everyone knew it, and a bad fall this weekend hastened it. It’s not over, yet, but it’s coming and it’s close.
I will miss that joyous smile terribly, and I will miss that more-gravelly-by-the-year voice, but mostly I will miss the sense of play that he brought to the world, his sense that all this was amazing and interesting and fun.
And I’ll never get that last card that he’ll always be holding on to.