Today is June 24. It holds great weight for me. Not because tomorrow is my birthday, and thus, June 24 is always my last day of a certain age. Today has weight for me because on this day years ago, the day before my 14th birthday, my mom woke me up that morning to tell me that my grandfather had died earlier that morning, and that, within a few hours, we would be making the long, 16 hour drive from Phoenix to their home north of Sacramento, to the house in Cameron Park that sat on a hill, where my grandfather would run his trains in the small workshop he’d built on the property, just opposite of the greenhouse in the yard, near the birdbath he’d installed out of cast concrete, where his favorite cat, Rover, used to lay in wait for birds to alight.
It was the last day of the 13th year of my life, an unlucky number, for what would become an unlucky year, though, until that moment, it hadn’t been. I’d had my first boyfriend that year. His name was Chris, and he had dark hair and eyes, and a funny scar from chicken pox on the side of his face. He played baseball, and sometimes he was mean to me, in that way that sort of harmless but cutting way 13 year old boys often are. I’d had a pretty dress for 8th grade graduation, I’d taken Spanish, and had a best friend named Traci who had signed my yearbook that year, “We will be friends forever.” But on the last day of what had been a lucky 13th year, all the good faded into a battleship gray that I am not sure ever fully dissipated.
My grandfather was my favorite person in the world. He was my step-father’s step-father, an only child like me, the same sort of odd, unrelated duck that I was at family gatherings. Neither of us looked like anyone, and so I liked to pretend that we looked alike in some funny twist of fate, that maybe, somewhere, we were actually related, and through a series of strange occurrences, had come together, never knowing we really were the same blood.
We could not have looked less alike, but we were alike in other, more important ways. We were both writers, a lifelong passion of his that had been somewhat fruitless in terms of publication. For me, writing had begun at age 7, when, unprompted, I wrote my first short story about a teddy bear.
We also both loved history, and travel, which for him had been a realization, his passport stamped with countries like Japan, Egypt, Britain, Morrocco, France, Switzerland…I could go on. For me, travel was the thing I was going to do when I grew up and got out of Maryvale, in West Phoenix, and he would buy me picture books of all of the places he thought I should go.
My grandfather was the first man who loved me, not because he had to, but because he liked who I was. We wrote weekly letters to each other. He taught me to play poker using foreign coins left over from trips he’d taken years before. He pasted wildlife stamps in his letters, not of cute animals, but the scary ones of insects and strange larvae-like creatures that subsisted on tree bark, and wrote funny comments under each one. I sent him pictures I drew of characters I’d thought up, including a reoccurring glasses-wearing librarian named Agnes. When he visited Phoenix, we went to Long John Silver’s and shared a lemon merengue pie afterward, his second favorite (pecan was his actual favorite), and I interviewed my stuffed animals, a hard-hitting journalistic approach where I demanded that each admit their involvement in a conspiracy to steal cookies, and Grandpa was my sole studio audience.
When I visited him, we went to Sutter’s Mill and saw where gold had been discovered. He took me to Marine World Africa USA and we patted the heads of dolphins and shared a souvenir mug of Pepsi. He took me to the train museum in Sacramento, imparted his love of trains to me, and he and I would stand together in his workshop and get his own model trains moving through a perfect, placid town of his design, and for a moment, in his lined and creased face, I imagined I could see what he’d looked like as a child.
He told me stories of growing up in Los Angeles, of having a summer cottage next door to one owned by William Jennings Bryant, and, as a small child, visiting the former presidential candidate and dynamic, history-making litigator every day, never fully realizing until his mother told him who the man was. He talked about running down to the pier with his friends after school and seeing a man on the pier extricating himself from chains wound around him, the name Harry Houdini meaningless at the time, until he would recall it years later.
He would show me photos from his extensive scrapbooks of World War II, where he’d fought in the European theatre, where he’d been a part of the Timberwolves, the 104th Infantry Division, which had taken part in the liberation of the Nordhausen concentration camp. He did not talk about what he’d seen when I was little, but later, not long before he died, he began to send me photocopied clippings from letters he and his friends had written back and forth to each other, or we would look at photos of himself in uniform with his widowed mother, sending her only child off to war, or pictures of he and his fellow soldiers, sitting in the remains of a shelled-out building, laughing at a joke that had been told moments before the click and whir of the camera. He lived the width and length of his life, in every way.
When my step-dad shouted at me, was harsh or mean, as he invariably was, my grandfather, when he was there, held me as I cried into his chest, and later told my step-dad he was ashamed of his behavior, that there was never any reason for a man to shout at a child.
I got to know him for exactly 9 years. From 5 until 14. We had become fast friends from the first moment I met him. It was the most natural thing in the world to me, the five year old, meeting my new step-father’s parents, to immediately call him grandpa, but now, as an adult, I wonder what it had been to him. Here was he, a childless man, who had raised his two step-sons, a man who had seen war and extreme human suffering, a man who then had to adapt to normal society again afterward, who had traveled the world, and now, here, was a five year old dishwater blonde with no family of her own outside of a single, anxious mother marrying a man twenty years her senior. The first time I met him, I put my hand in his and called him Grandpa. I do not know what he thought of that. I was too young to have thought of such a question when he was alive, and now, it is one of just hundreds of questions I wish I could ask him now.
I think of him almost every single day of my life. Any piece I write that is sent off and read and selected for an award or for publication or for inclusion in a theatre festival or a night of solo performances, I think of him. Of the box of saved rejection letters found in the garage upon his death. I think of all the ways that he never stopped writing, still tinkering away at the same short story about his Aunt Lutie that had been rejected dozens of times, right up until his death, also still sending out letters to his fellow Timberwolves organizing reunions, keeping in touch, staying connected. He cared about those tenuous connections we have with those we love, with whom we have shared such significant experiences.
He loved me more than any man had ever loved me at the time, loved me in ways my own father and later my own step-father had been unable to. He saved every letter and drawing I’d ever sent them, and had all of them carefully pressed into an album, which he kept in the nightstand by his bed. Among framed photos of his wife in front of major world locales– standing on a balcony over looking Cairo, or in front of the Eiffel Tower, or somewhere near Picadilly Circus in London, he had a framed photo, in the center, of me, interviewing a Teddy Ruxpin with Fisher Price microphone.
Years later, when I would finally grow up and be lucky enough to learn to like certain things about myself, they were the things my grandfather had loved about me since I was a kid. Somehow, he could see something in me that no one else could see in me, and I think, through what would become very rough years without him, he gave me something to hold on to. He had loved me, and thus, there was something in me worth loving. I have never let go of that; I hope I never will.
On this day, years ago, I was thirteen and I was unlucky enough to lose my grandfather, Harold Joseph Fraulob. But on this day, in 2013, I know I was lucky enough to have loved him, to keep on loving him, lucky enough to have ever found him.