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Saturday, September 19, 2009

THE GIFT OF GRANDPARENTS

This past week I observed several precious moments of grandparents and grandchildren in our coffee shops. I just wanted to share a chapter out of my new book the Chicken Whisperer as an encouragement for all these wonderful older people to keep making this investment of time.

FRANKIE & FLOSSIE

Most people do not recognize the name Larry Walters. And even fewer people witnessed the event that made him famous. On July 2, 1982 he took forty-five weather balloons; filled them with helium; tied them to a lawn chair; and with a pellet gun in his hand, soared three miles up into history as an American adventurer. After about forty-five minutes he descended safely into power lines causing a temporary blackout in Long Beach. When asked by a reporter why he did it, he replied, “A man can’t just sit around.”

Larry Walters reminds me of my grandfather, a man who didn’t believe in sitting around but believed in making sure everyone else did. My grandfather repaired lawn chairs.

Frank Silkwood’s typical day started with an electric razor shave, a little splash of Old Spice, and buttered toast with jelly. From there, he walked out to his leaning garage; picked out a few aluminum lawn chairs in need of repair; gathered up a few rolls of nylon ribbon; and, under a canopy of plastic flowers, he mended the broken.

Why he collected plastic flowers I’m not sure. It looked like he had robbed a graveyard, but more than likely he was saving the ones that had been discarded. I guess I should have wondered more about where he got all those broken lawn chairs. Maybe he had a secret wrestling fetish?

Going to visit my grandparents in Illinois was the equivalent of the Pilgrim’s Mayflower voyage. My parents believed the eleventh commandment was “Thou shalt not break the speed limit.” The speed limit was 30, 45, and 55mph in the early seventies. I could have ridden my bike faster. I think we left the day after Thanksgiving to arrive on Christmas. My mother packed fresh fruit to fend off scurvy. But the voyage was worth it.

Frank and Flossie’s hearts were softened on the hard anvil of mental illness. Two of their children were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Their relentless love for these children took them on a journey that transformed them into powerful loving people. Not until I was much older did I discover that my uncle Kyle’s disease was often a public affair. He once ran nude through the local cemetery with a butcher knife claiming God had called him to castrate himself. Never once did I detect regret or anger in my loving grandparents about having adult children who in a way never grew up. Actually, their love and treatment of Kyle allowed him to become a talented storyteller medicated with sweet tea and cigarettes. He entertained me for hours with tales about the world, interrupted only by smoke rings.

While I was visiting, Frank would fiddle with a few chairs and then peek into the kitchen to tell Flossie he was taking the “Grands” to get some candy. She would respond by saying, “It’s awfully close to lunch time” or “You’re going to rot their teeth out.” By the time she got the words out of her mouth we were already a block away.

He took us a short distance to a little grocery store called Spontak’s where the best selling items were loaf bologna, cartons of cigarettes, and nickel candy. I didn’t smoke and ate more bologna than a kid in the great depression so I gravitated toward the candy. With a quarter Frank gave me, I tapped on the thick glass case to indicate my choices. Usually I got a handful of Sixlets, a few Now & Laters, a couple of Laffy Taffy, and a Chick-A-Stick. I felt like my transaction was the most important event that would ever take place in my lifetime, kind of like buying a house. The neat thing was Mr. Spontak acted the same way.

On the way back we usually took a different route home and crossed a few bridges where we ran from trolls and the Loch Ness monster. Skipping, we made a few wishes, threw a few rocks, and ate all our candy. Our time was always wrapped in laughter.

Another great thing about visiting Frank was late at night when Flossie turned in he would take us to the kitchen, pull out a loaf of bread, and make us all buttered toast and jelly. Before we destroyed the evidence, a disappointed Flossie would appear in a pink housecoat and say, “Frank you’re going to spoil these kids.” Frank would say, “That’s the plan.”

I still remember hearing Frank was sick. A few weeks later, we got into the van and headed north for his funeral. I was only six. I knew my colors, my numbers, and my alphabet, but I remember being scared, scared of what I didn’t know. Death was something that happened to flowers, mosquitoes and fish. It never really occurred to me that it would happen to all of us.

I remember walking into the funeral home and seeing a bunch of dressed up people, half smiling, half crying, reminiscing and struggling to accept there would be no new stories. It felt like a birthday party with bad cake. Frank was lying in a casket with his arms folded across his chest, his face turned toward Heaven. He was cradled in gray silk against a background of pink roses. I was too scared, but I wanted to touch him as I thought back to the garage where he mended chairs under a canopy of flowers, to the bridge where he made me laugh, and to the kitchen were he spoiled me. I cried not only because I lost somebody I loved, but even more because I lost somebody who loved me.

He was born before the airplane but lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. He was born before the Model-T Ford but lived long enough to own a Lincoln Continental. He weathered the great depression and two world wars. He survived the Orient No. 2 coalmine disaster and the Tri-state tornado of 1925. He appears to have been here at a great period in history, yet he made me feel like I was the only thing he was ever really waiting for.

During these seven years of my life this seventy year old man taught me hundreds of things about being a kid, and one important thing about childhood: when we lose someone we love, we cry; and when we lose someone who loves us, we learn to weep.

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