My grandfather, my mother's father, was 94 years old when he died. He was born in 1908 before the advent of the automobile, before the telephone, before movies had either picture or sound, and before airplanes had become commercial, private, or military. He had colossal ears like Dumbo, eyes the color of frosted pewter, and saggy neck skin that looked like a pelican or the goblet of a wild turkey. He bagged groceries at the Piggly Wiggly, delivered bread door to door, and later became a district manager for the Coca-Cola Company. I had been told that he used to smoke cigars, but, by the time I came around, he had given up smoking and preferred instead to chew on their moist leathery ends.
Several weeks after his death, my mother, my father, my sister and I traveled to Florida for his burial. It was the middle of May and the weather was typical for that time of year. The air was thick, spongy, and the Bermudagrass was stocky and potently green. Not much had changed in the thirty-eight years since my mother had left Jacksonville. Just to make sure, after the service had ended, my family gathered in a rented Pontiac for an impromptu tour of the neighborhood she grew up in. We drove by her schoolhouse with its red bricks and clouded windows. The state flag outside laid slack with the absence of wind. I pictured the students inside; impatient, sweaty, and ready for the school bell to ring. I thought of my mom as a young girl walking to school, a yellow sundress dancing across her ankles. She probably sat in that same boiler room, just like the children do now. I wondered if she ever thought that she would return so many years later in this Grand Am with her adopted children and her former husband? I wondered if she ever thought her father would live in two centuries?
We made a series of right turns and arrived at 22nd Street. This was the street she grew up on, where her mother perfected chicken dumplings, where her brother was bullied, and where her father stubbed out his cigars. With some difficulty, she was able to find the precise location of her house and quickly commented that it didn’t look as decrepit as it did now. I did take note of the fencing that extended from the backyard to the very edge of the curb. A chain link fence that once shone like silver had now turned to a blackish rust. Every house on the street had one of these fences, and they were all in various stages of freshness and disrepair. The fences were very short, no more than three feet high, and I wondered what, if anything, these fences could keep out? I felt pretty confident I could leap over the fence with ease, like a pole vaulter but without the pole.
We rounded a corner that took us back to the main stretch of road and stopped for lunch at Krystal, a hamburger chain that offers miniature hamburgers about the size of a sea shell. The hamburgers come adorned with only ketchup, and are served in little pouches that resemble the pockets of jeans. I ordered a Coca-Cola to wash down my half dozen burgers. Coca-Cola was something that always bound my grandfather and I together. We were both strict Coke loyalists. He had been a delivery driver for the brand, and had passed down his partisanship to my mother, who, in turn, passed it down to me. “We got a free case every week, and you could buy a Coca-Cola for a nickel. A cherry Coke cost six cents,” she said. ”One time, poor thing, he had his foot run over by his own truck, but he never swore,” she added. I kind of wish he had.
Growing up, our family summers were divided equally between visits to my father’s family, who lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, and between my mother’s father, who spent several weekends every summer in Ormond Beach, Florida. I remember these summers fondly, sitting on rubbery lounge chairs by the stucco encased pool. It was here that I learned about the ocean, about outside showers, white wicker furniture, balconies, and doormats made of AstroTurf and decorated with plastic flowers. In pictures from this time you can see my grandfather, always fashionably dressed in a Lacoste polo shirt, neatly pressed slacks, slip-on white loafers, wide-eyed circular squared glasses, and a newsboy style cap. This ensemble was topped off by a custom made wooden cane which had the brass beak of an eagle attached to the top where you rest your hand.
A year and a half after his second wife Lucille died, my grandfather boarded a plane and traveled as far north as he had been in nearly forty years. He was placed in an assisted-living facility in Annandale, Virginia, about a five minute drive from the town house my mother lived in following her divorce from my father. I had just graduated from college, and had moved home while I worked on a short film I had written and planned to direct later that fall. I was happy to have my grandfather in such close proximity to me, and I became a regular visitor to the facility.
People say that clothes make the man, which isn’t really true, but when a man turns into an elderly man clothing can serve as a type of barometer to measure a person's decline. I watched as his beloved cane was retired for a plastic gray walker. The kind with tennis balls fastened to the ends. Shoes went from slip-on to Velcro, shaving went from straight razor to electric, and the bladder went from something you owned to something that owned you. My grandfather lost weight. His pants, which had always sat comfortably just below his nipples, had begun to win their fight against his suspenders. Similarly, his belt, after years of constant adjusting, had eventually run out of holes. I remember my mother taking an ice pick to his leather belt in an effort to produce more holes. I wasn’t sure if wielding sharp metal into cowhide was the best way to remedy this problem? Why not just buy a smaller belt I thought? But it was her father, and I guess she needed to feel like she was in control of things, even if the only thing that she could control was this goddamn belt. I have learned it's best to choose your battles, even if the point of contention involves something as wholesome as leather work. My mother did the best she could for her father, but nursing homes have a way of turning the brightest days into dull ones. They are places where the stories of someone's life are whitewashed into the linoleum floors, and where happiness is measured by an extra dollop of ice cream. Nursing homes, after all, are the places we people are sent to die. And no matter how hard one may try to create a perfect situation, nursing homes always find a way to dampen your mood.
My grandfather and I did what we could given our situations. I got answers to questions of things that only people in their ninth decade of life would know, and he answered questions about my mother that only a father would know. I could just be with him, surrounded by his century of living, and feel fully content and fascinated. I made friends with his neighbors, and snuck cigarettes to one particular gentleman who sat on the bench in front of the building. He never had any visitors, and it made me happy to see him sitting in the sun smoking my tobacco. I made a point to learn the names and the schedules of the caretakers at the facility, and they, in turn, learned my name and my schedule. I think my grandfather got better care because of this. I was happy to give back what he had given me.
It was also good for my mother to be afforded these extra years with her father although at the time I knew she felt much different. There is nothing wrong with father and daughter sharing another basket of jumbo fried shrimp. Nothing wrong with enjoying one more glass of iced tea, or one last goodnight kiss. We were all able to have three more Christmases together, a couple more birthdays, and several more Thanksgiving dinners. The latter being particularly nice since grandpa was the only one who ate the dark meat.
If you factor everything together everyone did alright, I guess. But it’s hard for me to figure out who suffered more: the daughter or the father? The person who cares for someone who is 94 years old, or the person who is 94 years old? Those questions don’t really have answers though. The only way to know is to keep on living. Which is what Morgan did for nearly 100 years.