This week’s question gets out of the realm of personal stories and moves into ancestry and personal history: What were your grandparents like? Well, when I was born, I had three of my four grandparents still around, as well as quite a few of my eight great-grandparents. And it wasn’t long before my paternal grandmother remarried the man who I would grow up knowing as “grandpa” and my maternal grandmother would pass from cancer.
But what were they like? That’s an interesting question. And when I answer, my caveat is that these are my memories and interpretations of handed down stories. I may (and probably will) get things wrong. I accept that and look towards the people who knew these people better to offer their own recollections. But for now, let’s start with the unknowns.
My paternal grandfather, Jack, died 70 years ago. (Just happenstance, but he died on January 10, right around the time I started writing this piece. An interesting coincidence to be sure). He died of kidney disease, something which, if he had survived just a little longer, would have been imminently treatable. He was 38 or 39 when it happened. My father was 9. Jack, as I was told, was a house painter and a violinist. I know he was a violinist for sure because the instrument is framed and hanging in my folks’ house. It is mine when the time comes, a family legacy passed down. It seems only fitting since I was named for him. Little known secret: I changed the spelling of my first name when I was 17 or so, but that’s another story for another day. I’m told he was a funny guy, maybe that’s part of where I get my sense of humor. I was also told he sang as well as played the violin – these traits I definitely did not inherit. Aside from those few tidbits, though, I know very little about Jack Greenspon.
My maternal grandmother, Anne, I did meet. She died of cancer when I was 6. The sole real memory I have of her is a trip to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and that’s a rather distorted memory to be sure. Not the memory of her, no, that’s pretty clear, although the mental images may come from the various pictures around the house while I was growing up (and to be honest, to this day – my folks have a vast collection of photographs adorning most flat surfaces, a habit I’ve also picked up). But the memory of the circus itself is a bit wibbly-wobbly. I remember clowns on stilts 20 feet high and way too much popcorn and cotton candy. I want to say I remember her from visits to Las Vegas when I was very young, but I can’t really pinpoint anything concrete. Mostly, I knew my Grandma Anne through my mother and my Aunt Beverly, Anne’s sister.
Getting older, we moved to Las Vegas, where my maternal grandfather, Bernard, lived. That’s not why we moved there, at least I don’t think it was. We moved the first time when I was 7 or so, halfway through second grade, left for LA for 3rd grade and then were back in time for 4th grade. At that point, Zayde Bernie (how I referred to him) became much closer. I will tell you my sense of where things happen in the timeline is going to get a bit screwy at this point. I know somewhere in there he was married to Nina (who ran the gift shop at the Bingo Palace – now the Palace Station – and introduced my sister and I to the concept of “Surprise Bags.”) and then, after they divorced, he married Shirley, to whom he was married until he passed. But neither of those women ever became a “grandmother” type.
But Zayde Bernie himself was a big, gruff man. Friendly, but in a rough way. I know he lived on Golden Arrow when he first moved from Canada to Las Vegas, but I can only remember spending time at his house which was just off Alta and Buffalo (if you know Vegas now, this is nothing, but back in the day, it was in the middle of nowhere). I remember him shutting the door in my face when I showed up dressed as a vampire for Halloween. Dad had done my make-up and I guess I looked so good he didn’t recognize me? He also lent me his car, a big, beautiful Thunderbird, when I needed it for a job. In fact (and isn’t it weird how when you’re writing you remember more and more?) I want to say it was through Zayde that I had a summer gig at WendCo, working in the warehouse and running deliveries and such when I was a new teenager.
Then there was Zayde Al. We weren’t blood related, but he married Bubby Sophie, my paternal grandmother, in 1971 or so. As far as I was concerned, he stepped into the role of step-grandpa admirably. I’ve been told I ran around at their wedding, drinking wine from near empty glasses, but I have no recollection of that (probably because I was drunk at the time). What I do remember about him was he was always smiling. Where Zayde Bernie was a bear of a man, tall and covered with hair, Zayde Al was smaller and bald, with just a fringe over the ears. I remember we used to spend some Saturdays together, and he would take me to the comic book shop (and I’m sure I took advantage of that – evidently, he also really enjoyed these outings as well. Seems that he’d never even heard of a comic book store!). When I was in my mid-teens, he was sick and ended up in a hospice. I remember visiting him and more specifically, I remember him remembering me. This wasn’t always the case in that he didn’t recognize many people at that point, but for some reason, he always remembered me.
When recounting this with my parents, my mom remembered that Zayde Al’s last words were to and about me. I had gone to visit him, and he looked up and said “Jackie, my boy.” He never said another word, then later that evening or the next day, he passed.
Finally, we get to Bubby Sophie, my father’s mother. I probably remember her the best since I was older when she passed. She and Zayde Al had moved to Vegas at some point, living in an apartment off Tropicana and Jones, which was close to where we lived, and the apartment complex had a pool! I know there were times we spent many afternoons there, swimming and hanging out with other kids who lived in the complex. I know there were certainly a couple of girls I met there (couldn’t remember names without some serious hypnotherapy, of course, but there are things I do remember) but I also remember family dinners and just spending time with her.
She wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with. She certainly had her ways of doing things and I can remember plenty of conversations in my immediate family in regard to her, laughing at things like her innocently casual racism and lamenting her treatment of various family members.
I remember her raspy voice, rough from smoking, and her hair, which was never a natural color as long as I knew her. Once I started driving, I was often enlisted to help her run errands or take her places (or drive her friend Evelyn home from some holiday dinner, which was a whole ‘nother story!). As I got older, she began to loosen up. She began to tell jokes which were certainly not the kind of jokes you expected to hear from your grandmother.
Ultimately, what I realize is that my memories of my grandparents are more like fleeting thoughts and images. I don’t really remember what they were actually like, at least not with any type of fidelity to the truth. I know, for example, my sister had a much more complicated relationship with Bubby Sophie than I did, but I can’t speak to that. I can only pass along the brief snippets that I recall and those snippets say that if I didn’t have a good relationship with my grandparents, I don’t recall it.