Today is the ninth anniversary of my grandfather’s death.
Reggie was my mother’s father, but he was more than a grandfather to me. I am not sure quite how to describe our relationship: if I say he was my second father, it sounds disrespectful to my stepfather, but in all honesty he was the most consistent father relationship I had in my life. My mother separated from my biological father, George, when I was only 11 months old, and he had very little to do with me or my sister from then on.
But Reggie is a big part of my memory bank. My mother was quite young when she married and had children; she was only 22, with two kids, when she left my dad. We moved in with my grandparents for a while, a pattern which continued throughout my life. I honestly can’t remember how many times we moved in and out of their house, but the precedent was so firmly established that after one particularly nasty fight with my stepfather when I was away at college, my sister moved in with my grandparents permanently. At any rate, even when we weren’t living there, we were at my grandparents’ house every weekend. It was clean, and quiet, and the fridge was full, and hugs were plentiful.
I remember helping Reggie rake leaves, shovel snow, wash the car. He made snowmen with us in the backyard. He took us around the neighborhood and hovered at the ends of driveways while we trick or treated. He taught me how to ride a bike. He taught me how to drive a car. He insisted we go to summer camp. He paid for braces, and bikes, and ice skates, and God knows how many other things. When he peeled an orange, he would peel it in one glorious long peel and then cut teeth into it with a paring knife. He would then put the orange teeth into his mouth, bare his teeth in a horrible grin and chase us shrieking through the house.
He was very reserved but then would turn unexpectedly goofy; he liked to joke a lot. While he was nowhere near as demonstrative as my grandmother, who was very loud in her loving of us, we never held back with him. My sister and I would fling ourselves at him and squeeze him with our skinny little arms and screech how much we loved him until he finally said, “Ditto,” laughing almost bashfully at letting us pull it out of him.
Reggie was the grandson of slaves, and impressed upon me early the importance of education and of getting good grades, of working hard and doing the right thing. He graduated from college during the Depression, and recounted how there were no jobs back then, especially if you were a black man. He went back to school and got a Master’s in Education because he wanted to be a teacher. He served in the Navy in World War II, and as a light-skinned black man was accidentally assigned to a white unit. In retelling the story, he said he believed they thought he was Italian, but as the military was still segregated, as soon as it was discovered he was summarily reassigned to the “Negro” unit. As he described it, it was a humiliating experience.
He met my grandmother on shore leave in Virginia in 1944. She said he was “soooooooooooo handsome” she couldn’t even understand why he was talking to her (which is ridiculous, because she was gorgeous). “In that uniform, oh! He was soooooooo handsome,” and of course he was. (Throughout my childhood, he was always beautifully groomed and dapper, even in his pajamas.) They were married in 1945 and settled in his hometown, Boston; and welcomed their first and only child, Cynthia, in 1947. He worked for the government for 40 years, retiring at 70.
He had very high expectations of me and would examine each report card with care. He was always trying to teach me something, and those lessons stuck, but I would say the greatest lesson was his example. He was hard working and thrifty, and he took care of everything he loved. He was fiercely proud of his lawn – having not been able to afford a house until he was in his 50s, he was extremely house proud. He was financially savvy but cautious. He did not live beyond his means, he chose his words and his friends carefully, and he always put family first.
When he was alive, life made sense. And after he passed, the family was flung into chaos. All along, I believed my grandmother was the rock, the hub around which we all revolved – but after Reggie died, I realized that the hub was the two of them working in tandem, as a team. She was devastated when he died – we had to take her to the funeral in a wheelchair, she was that overcome – and honestly never recovered.
I really miss him today. I’ve had a lump in my throat all day. I hope he and my grandma are together, cracking jokes and sitting comfortably side by side, reading the paper or watching baseball. I hope he occasionally peeks down here and smiles at what he sees.
Some of us have great runways already built for us. If you have one, take off! But if you don’t have one, realize it is your responsibility to grab a shovel and build one for yourself and for those who will follow after you.
- Amelia Earhart