Did grandpa love me? Was grandpa excited when I came home? Did grandpa scoop me up when I was a little baby? Did I have a dress on when I met grandpa? He did think I was cute? My grandpa would never abandon me. My grandpa is handsome.
During breakfast, I was checking Facebook and Julia spied a picture of her grandfather, David’s father, that one of her cousins posted on Veterans Day. It unleashed a torrent of questions and ideas that must have been bottled up for sometime.
It was a candid picture of Bob Schanker during his air force days. A half smile, jaunty tilt of the head and obviously happy. He was a navigator during the Second World War and, if his stories were to be believed, he lived some of the best years of his life during that time. He thrived in the company of men from all over the country. He explored outside of his Jersey roots. He was no longer under his mother’s thumb. He saw a little action — I’m not sure how much. Most of his time was spent state side, first learning and honing his skills, and later teaching those navigators who came in behind him. Much later, he would become a favorite and beloved high school business teacher and so I do not doubt that his gifts were put to good use in the service. There are many pictures of the girls and/or women he met during his service time. He had no special girl at home, at least the way he told it, and so flirted and socialized (and took pictures) as he moved from base to base.
He was not a particularly good parent, although he seemed pretty typical for his generation. His loving and tender relationship with David did not develop until David was an adult and his first wife, David’s mother, had died. He was, however, a dotting grandfather, and although I did not always agree with his ideas of child raising or appropriate child activities, I never questioned his devotion. He saw in his grandchildren brilliant stars to be encouraged, and on meeting his friends in Florida, I always had the feeling that everyone had heard of Cheshire, Wendy and Michael’s report cards, talents and adventures. After David told him of Julia’s diagnoses during one of their regular Sunday morning phone calls, Dad/Grandpa/Bob sent NYTimes clippings about autism research, book suggestions and therapy options regularly.
I am very grateful that Julia has some memories of her grandparents, but they are precious few. My father died three months after Julia came home. It was he who was the avid follower of our China journey. By the time we travelled, he was no longer able to go down the stairs to the computer desk and to my blog entries. My mother printed them all out for him. He was the one who was truly excited when I told him about our plans to add to our family during one of our rare phone calls. It was he who coaxed my mother into interest about this last grandchild. My mother had little choice but to follow his lead. Much later my mother, who thought the adoption a folly, was nonetheless won over by Julia. When Julia was understanding very little English, was melting down as regularly as she was eating, refused to say much to anyone, she would chatter away on the phone to her Babja (Ukrainian for grandma). Babja’s presents — Julia’s first winter parka, a child-sized easter babka, and books — were especially cherished and remembered. There was one summer vacation trip to the Jersey Shore, the boardwalk at Sea Side, when we were out east from Indiana. Julia rode as many kiddie rides as she could, stared at the ocean but was not ready to enter, all in the company of her Babja. Julia and I were in Jersey the next year when my mother died. Julia had been home for two years and the death touched her. My mother’s death would be just the first loss with David’s death coming the next year and her paternal grandparents dying the following year.
By the time that Grandpa died, grieving was a presence in our home. Even after the hardest grieving years were over, I did not take out pictures or tell stories. Julia’s questions today give me reason to find pictures and share stories, and have a good time doing it.
I have always imagined that there must have been some grandparent-type person in her life before she came home. Julia loves old people, and notwithstanding her mother, there are are not many elders in her life. Still, she is always interested, sometimes inappropriately so — “Are you old? Why?” has not been welcomed questions at all times. She is curious and concerned when people use canes or wheel chairs or are bandaged. Her curiosity is not polite and easy to misinterpret for a stranger but kind friends who take the time to explain have been touched by her concern.
But elders in her life in China? I have no idea. Some orphanages in China share grounds with elder homes and sometimes the elders spend time with the children but I have no idea of that was true where Julia lived. In my imagination, I believe that there was some older person who leaned over her crib and occasionally lifted her out for a hug. Of course, it may be less imagination and more the pleading insistence that someone cared for my girl before I met her. Her lack of normal physical, linguist and cognitive development when we met attests to the lack of regular loving care. Could there have been as occasional visit? Someone who imprinted a wrinkled smile and lined eyes? Her special attraction to elders might just be a natural proclivity and not the wisps of some long ago memory, but I hold on to my imaginings.
When I was little girl, my paternal grandparents and my family lived in a two-family house, and I was constantly up and down the stairs. My grandfather took my brother and I on long walks in the park whose entrance was the dead end of our block. He pushed me on swings and caught me when I rolled down the big grassy hill. Although not schooled and hardly literate, there was nothing that my grandpa could not figure out and do. He could find things like cars and toys, and draw. When he and my father painted the tall house every few years, he would climb the very tall ladder up to the top of the second story with brush and bucket in hand. When it was time to move the ladder over to paint the next section, he would not come down but, with my father standing on the bottom of the ladder, they would jump the ladder over a foot or so a few times before settling back to work. The thought of it now makes me shiver, but I saw it as a kid and I marveled. It was almost magic. It was crazy!
He spent hours teaching me how make Ukrainian easter eggs, writing pysanka. He made the early styli (pl stylus?) that I used — I still have one that he made. He wrote on the eggs free hand without guiding elastic bands and did not copy patterns. His hands were steady and his drawings sure. When I was in first or second grade, Grandpa discovered the marvelous taste of peanut butter. The memory is so sweet and happy that I can still giggle at the thought of it.
When I watch Julia draw and paint and work with clay, I hurt for the grandpa that I imagine may still live in China because he cannot teach her these things. Her unique talent must come from her first family. She might be the best artist of her generation of that family and there might be a grandpa missing it all. Because of my grandpa, I imagine that her grandpa mourns.
Of all that I know and so much that I don’t, I wonder at the stories I tell Julia. I can’t tell her of her biological family. We talk sometimes in terms of what might be — her mother was pretty. Well probably, Julia is pretty. Someone or perhaps many of her relatives are artist. She comes from a province known for painted pottery. What I imagine of her Chinese grandpa, I keep to myself. It is after all only imaginings. And now, I will tell her more stories about our family. I have many stories of my parents and siblings, my grandparents and cousins. There are stories of the old country that my grandmother told me when we baked Easter bread together, and stories of cousins from first wives that were secrets. And I have a few stories of David’s growing up. He told me many but I always imagined that he would be around to tell them. There are stories of his extended family that I only half know. I fear that some of the stories tumbling around in my brain are half made up from snippets of stories and old pictures.
I don’t really know if Julia will be interested in hearing stories and looking at old pictures. This morning’s interest could have been momentary and Julia still struggles to understand time, the past and the present. But then, we have winter and hours inside, to light fires and tell stories. Perhaps if I tell her the stories and show her the pictures, it will help her find a bit more of the past and anchor herself more firmly in our present.