When I think of my grandfather, I think of his deep, melodic voice, like a chord reverberating on a bass. I can’t recall him ever raising it – in my memory, he is a solid presence, a tall, strong man who didn’t need to shout to make it clear that he was in charge, that his word was the final one. My dad claims our tempers come from him, but to me – overly indulged, perhaps – he always seemed gentle and in control, the kind of person you could depend on to keep his head in any situation, who could summon smiles at any moment with an unexpected joke.
I have to wonder if he was this way before the war, or if these are traits he learned navigating 50 bombing missions over Italy between 1941 and 1945, twice landing precariously with both engines out. I imagine falling from the sky in a pressurized metal tube packed with explosives would give you a different perspective on panic.
When I think of my grandfather, I think of waffles and pancakes.
For as long as I can remember, visiting my grandparents meant arriving from the airport late at night, and waking early next to my sister in the cozy alcove at the top of the stairs at their house in Annapolis. In that moment, as the light from the wall of windows overlooking the creek opened my eyes, I would realize that I’d gone to sleep in one world and woken up in another.
I always hoped that I would wake up before Tess, to be the first one downstairs and into the sun-filled kitchen, where, without a doubt, Grandfather would be waiting with the coffee pot on and the waffle-iron hot. I’d bound in, sleep still in my eyes, and go straight for the big bear hug I knew awaited me. And then, he’d say casually, as if neither of us knew this was part of the ritual, “Do you want some waffles?”
Sometimes it was pancakes, but I always remember breathlessly waiting for the whistling tweet that signaled a finished waffle.
When I think of my grandfather, I think of Georgetown. His Georgetown was not the same as mine; men only, a collection of old brick buildings surrounded by acres of land, streetcars running up P and O streets, many of the surrounding townhouses not yet renovated, housing staff instead of students and senators.
To me, this was a Georgetown far more magical than that of our 1970’s monolith, Lauinger Library, and the concrete block dorms to which we were relegated. But because of Grandfather’s stories, from before I even stepped onto campus, I always saw another Georgetown, overlaying the one in which I lived.
Whenever I went to visit my English professors in Old North, one of the campus’ original buildings, I wondered whose office had been my grandfather’s dorm room, and whose had been the soda fountain in which he wanted to work. Every day as I walked up P Street to campus, I saw the now-unused streetcar tracks and saw him being woken by the conductor on his first day in DC, at age 16, when he’d gone out to explore the city on his own and fallen asleep on the streetcar on the way home.
When I think of my grandfather, I think of adventure. Before I even understood the layout of the world, I proudly told my playmates that my grandfather grew up in China and had had to escape when Chiang Kai Shek’s army took over. This, of course, elicited cries of, “But you don’t look Chinese!” Even now, the accurate story — less dramatic but equally exotic — still inspires awe in anyone I tell.
My first time leaving the country was at his instigation, so, really, we can blame him for my travel bug. Our three weeks in Italy were inspired, as far as I know, by his desires both to celebrate 50 years of marriage with the whole family and to spend time in the country he had helped bomb during the war. For me, though, they were an entry into a world I had previously only known in stories, many from my grandparents, who seemed to always be getting back from somewhere new.
Every day that week in Liliano, I woke up early, before everyone else, and sat out on the villa’s front steps, looking out over the Tuscan vineyards, the towers of San Gimingnano in the distance. On the second or third morning, I wasn’t the only one awake – Grandfather and my aunt Jan were up, too, and we were going into the village of Castellina in Chianti for coffee. At 11 years old, my first taste was a decaf cappuccino – filled with sugar until the coffee was hardly a flavor – at the bar in the town’s tiny local caffe, just the three of us and a handful of locals.
From then on, Grandfather and I were always comparing notes on our adventures. He was one of the most avid readers of my travel blog, both when I was in Paris and when I traveled around the world. Whenever I came to visit, we would compare notes on places we’d both been. Just a few weeks ago, I saw him right after I returned from Cuba, a place he’d never been but, he told me, would have loved to have visited. I hope my stories of decaying colonial architecture and Cubans who have a better understanding of the US government than most Americans were able to paint a good enough picture for him.
And so, I have to think that he’s off on his next adventure. He wouldn’t have left for anything else. I’m just sorry I won’t get to hear his stories, or tell him any more of mine.