Today is Grandpa’s birthday. He would have been a hundred and something. Remember when we’d go over there on this day? Grandma always made ham sandwiches and Grandpa gave the presents. He’d bring out shopping bags full of his bargain basement finds – costume jewelry and ice skates and celebrity-themed knick-knacks.
Grandpa was a retired El train conductor who then took a job at Cannonball Messenger Service. This is back when they used foot messengers in addition to bikers, mostly for Loop runs. His retiree’s CTA pass was a bonus for Cannonball because they didn’t have to reimburse his travel, but he warned them, “My mind is made up. When I turn 80, I’m retiring for good.” His 80th birthday came and he kept his word. He couldn’t believe they didn’t put up a fight. It kind of hurt his feelings.
From 80 on, Grandpa left the house each morning with empty shopping bags, and travelled the city filling them up. He’d ride downtown to the Marshall Field’s basement, to the D’Amatos on Grand and May for his favorite bread, to Woolworths in Oak Park, to Maxwell Street, to some bakery in Belmont-Central for Grandma’s favorite pound cake. He knew all the El and bus routes, and knew people in every neighborhood. Years later, at his wake, the strangest people showed up.
Grandma would wait for him at home. She didn’t like to go out much, and she was nervous about having people over. Her medium was the telephone. She talked to each of her kids every day, transmitting family news through the filter of her particular world view. My brother used to say, “I make so much more money when it goes through Grandma Sue.” She only visited once or twice a year, and on Grandpa’s birthday my mom had to warn her we were coming. “It’s my father’s birthday, Ma. I want to see him.” “You don’t have to come,” Gram would tell her over the phone, “We still look the same.”
But once we got there, Grandma would relax. “How ’bout a sandwich,” she’d say, “I’ve got some nice ham.” I hated ham, so I always got straight to the pound cake. Then Grandpa would open the hall closet and bring out the shopping bags, with multiples of any really good buys. One year it was fake seed pearls and Brook Shields clocks. “You don’t have to keep her face in there,” he advised, “You could put any photo if you cut it right.”
I reached my hands into the bag, pulling out fistfuls of necklaces and bracelets. All mine, as many as I could hold. It was a very, very good birthday.