The Odd and Unusual: My Grandfathers

2 02 2011

A few years ago my friend Wendy told me that a well-known psychic, host of a nationally syndicated radio show, was planning to be in the area for a week and was taking appointments.  We were both curious to check it out, and set up appointments at the AmericInn in Coralville.  I had no idea what to expect, but the psychic turned out to be not the least bit intimidating. We had just settled in to the appointment when she asked, “Is your grandfather still with us?” I must have looked at her dumbly, because she rephrased her question. “Has your grandfather passed?” I quickly indicated that yes, both of my grandfathers had ‘passed’.

B., the psychic, then said, “Well, one of them is in the room with us right now. I don’t know which one, but he says you love the odd and unusual. That you take after him in this, so maybe that helps you know which one it is.”  Clearly, B. had never met either of my grandfathers this side of the veil, or she would have known that wasn’t much of a clue. My mother claims it must have been my dad’s father who showed up, since he once visited a psychic during his corporeal life. By contrast, her father, she claims, “wouldn’t be caught dead at a séance”.

However, my Grandpa Postel was definitely into the odd and unusual. When my grandmother died, our family moved into their home, and Grandpa moved into an apartment in the basement. He decorated the apartment with items from the Lillian Vernon catalogue: dogs with jewel eyes and bobbing heads, a fake parrot, a psychedelic lamp and various items from the “Surprise Grab-bag” offer. He worked at the Dubuque packing house, stamping meat. His closest work companions were the rabbis hired to certify the kosher meats, and often at the dinner table he shared stories about them. This seemed exotic to me, given that we lived in a town that was more than 90% Catholic at the time. No one else I knew had ever met a Jewish person. Grandpa had a drawer full of treats in his kitchen…if you consider Smith Brother’s cough drops a treat (which he did. Also, grape jelly by the spoonful.) In the summer, he and his friends would sit in the sun on lawn chairs in the neighbor’s yard, drinking beer. I would always hang out with them, the only kid among the old folks, listening to their stories and drinking the warm dregs left in their bottles.

Grandpa Joe was another kettle of fish altogether. He wore a crew cut, had green tattoos all over his arms from his years in the Navy, and tended to swear up a storm. He lived in Texas, then Florida, and his visits always occasioned at least mild panic in our house. He liked good food, and was an excellent cook. He taught my mother, his daughter-in-law, how to bake bread and she taught me – albeit via telephone many years later. Joe was a bourbon and water man (which I tasted at each visit and hated every time). He also handcrafted model steam engines – miniature working versions the craftsmanship of which, at the time, I didn’t comprehend. Now, though, I am in awe of what I remember of his work. He had an international following of collectors. Late in his life, he wrote down some interesting recollections from the Depression, including his time riding the rails and staying in the “jungles” with other men looking for work.

Ed and Joe. You couldn’t find more normal or unassuming names, yet the men who possessed them were out-of-the-ordinary in many ways. They were so unlike one another, that I am lucky no teacher assigned a descriptive essay on “Grandfathers”. Mine would have been full of contradictory adjectives. And yet, I loved them both and like to think that I carry a few of their traits – other than the whole liquor thing (surprisingly, I have become a whiskey drinker…in moderation, of course).

Grandpa Postel, Ed, died when I was in 7th grade, in the early 1970s. It was a sad and difficult time for all of us. I will never forget standing outside my junior high school in Hastings, Minnesota, on that cold, gray day, waiting for my dad. Or, after the funeral, talking with Grandpa’s brother Merle, who started to cry and didn’t even care that saliva was running from his mouth in a stream to the floor.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Friday, October 13 (I never remember which year because it was overshadowed by Friday the 13th). I was sitting at my desk in my current job when the phone rang. It was my parents, calling to tell me that Grandpa Joe had died (in his mid-80s,he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger). My brother, Jeff, and I drove to Dubuque that evening to be with my folks. The four of us reminisced, and drank a toast – bourbon of course – to the old man.

The week before Grandpa Joe died, I had a dream. I remember I told my friends about the dream, at lunch the next day, because it had been such a powerful one.  In the dream, my family was gathering across a green lawn toward a table laden with food. We were all dressed in white, and the furniture and linens were white also.  The table sat under a massive tree, with sheltering branches that provided cool shade under the hot sun. There were peacocks wandering on the lawn as we took seats at the table, drinking iced tea and lemonade and chatting the way families do. Suddenly, from out of some bushes off to the side, there wandered a bird with striking plumage. Its body was white, but it had a giant tail fan all in shades of reds and oranges. It was beautiful. I asked, “What is that?” And someone answered, “It’s a quetzalcoatl. They’re fire-eating birds.” Suddenly, I felt that something unusual was taking place, and I turned to my dream-mother and asked, “What’s really going on here?” She said, “We’re visiting your grandfathers. Grandpa Postel is this sheltering tree, and Grandpa Joe is the quetzalcoatl. Both of them are here with us.”

The night of Grandpa Joe’s death that dream was with me on the dark drive home. And now, every time I think of either Joe or Ed, the memory of that dream returns to me, still powerful. And I am comforted to know two things: that my grandfathers are watching over us, and that in my love for the odd and unusual I carry them with me, always in my heart.

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