Charles Richard Fesenmeyer, 1920-2011

My grandpa passed away tonight. He was 91.

Baby Jenn

This is how I’ll always remember him: comfortable in his chair, whether it was with a book and a grandchild (that’s my sister in the photo) or falling asleep watching The Frugal Gourmet while home for lunch. That chair is the hottest commodity in their house, followed closely by his chair at the kitchen table.

Fesenmeyers

At some point he stopped being the one behind the camera at all the family occasions. At some point he stopped driving – they stopped driving. They didn’t come to Jenn’s wedding, or to my second. Travel was too difficult. I can’t imagine the feeling of losing yourself by inches over a tremendous amount of time. Hands no longer steady enough for surgery or woodwork. Retirement, finally, at 79. Walking with a cane. No longer having a garden. Pride compromised by infirmity.

Gram and Gramp

My grandparents had more than a lifetime together. If we’re lucky, most of us get 75-80 years on this planet. My grandparents were married close to 70. Seventy years with another person. Can you even imagine? The home nurse is staying with Grandma tonight, and Tom will be there soon, if he’s not there already.

With Grandpa!

Mom called while we were bowling, then texted me to ask me to call. I tried to go outside, then stopped in the foyer in my rented shoes. It was like a physical blow, then a literal lump in my throat, then kicking off the bowling shoes and standing outside, doubled over, sobbing. I had just been talking with my friend about plans for the weekend – whether I should go to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, whether I should cancel my plans just in case – so they knew what had happened and surrounded me with hugs. We came home and sat on the step and smoked pink and blue cigarettes and I drank a bourbon and told stories.

The time that Grandpa tried to convince me to eat disgusting cabbage rolls by making them talk to me in funny voices.

His old man pajamas, bow ties, and slippers.

His poached eggs and tea in the morning. How many eggs must Grandma have made for him in a lifetime? 10,000? More?

His shampoo – Herbal Essence something in a green bottle – which I would always use when I visited.

That photo of him on his pony.

The way he would always make sure that we had money and gas before we hit the road.

His wood shop in the basement.

His “office girls” that would still take him to lunch more than a decade after retirement.

The y-shaped scar from his heart surgery in 1999.

And, in my drawer, a delicate bracelet brought home from the Philippines, where he was stationed as an Army (?) doctor during World War II.

IMG_6926

I love you, Grandpa. I hope that wherever you are tonight, you’re at peace.

Waiting for the inevitable

My grandpa isn’t doing well. He’s been declining for a while, but this morning his doctor – a long term family friend, best man (I think) in my parents’ wedding, and my brother’s namesake – called my dad at work to tell him how bad things have gotten.

My grandparents still live in the split-level house they built in the 50s, when my mom was a little girl. Most days Grandpa, age 91, doesn’t get down the stairs – and Grandma, age 93, brings food to him, helps him bathe, and changes his diapers. After six decades as a housewife, she is a nurse again.

For years we’ve tried to convince them to move out of this house that is really too much for them to manage. For years my parents have tried to convince them to hire a caretaker instead of relying on a (miraculous, wonderful) neighbor and a series of college-aged girls that help with the cleaning and yardwork. Mom is going over for the weekend to make another attempt at this argument.

Four years ago, when we were in the midst of our nation-wide job search, Grandpa took a fall. I remember locking myself in the studio and crying and wondering if I really wanted to move to, say, Boone, where getting home in case of emergency would require a full day of travel. We live 7 hours away, but we might as well be on the other side of the world for all the good I can do right now.

In this way, old age is cruel: there’s little more to do that sit and wait, knowing that he won’t be with us sooner rather than later, but knowing there’s nothing we can do to forestall this inevitability. There are interventions for injury and disease. There are no interventions for just being OAD, as Grandma puts it: Old And Decrepit.

I am so thankful for having my grandparents in my life for all of my life. My dad’s parents are barely a memory at this point – I met my grandma once when I was a small child, and my grandpa passed away when I was in high school – but my mom’s parents have always been there for holidays and birthdays and long visits in the summer time – and, of late, for rambling conversations about Detroit. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that they won’t always be there.

With Grandpa!
1980

Jen and Grandpa
2006

Things I Know About Detroit Circa 1948

My grandparents lived in Detroit after the war, and every time I talk to my grandma on the phone, she tells me stories about Detroit. More often than not, they’re the same stories I’ve already heard, but she’s 91 and has earned the right to repeat herself. It occurred to me this weekend that I should probably write some of this stuff down, if only so that I can remember it for future trips to Detroit:

  • There used to be a buttermilk bar in Eastern Market, where you could go have a glass of cold buttermilk, just like you might go to a soda fountain for an chocolate milkshake.
  • They lived on a street called Orchestra Place, which no longer seems to exist, and both worked at Harper Hospital.  One of their neighbors was Hawaiian.
  • I think Grandpa was doing his residency at Harper.  Occasionally they would get to go to the theater or the opera because in those days, they always had to have a doctor in the house.  They once sat behind the heir to one of the major auto companies.  Said heir had just married the heiress to a major tire company.  That was one of my grandparents’ brushes with famous people in Detroit.
  • Grandma was the head nurse on the ward where famous people were treated.  Said famous people would bring their own food and linens, and occasionally the nurses would catch a famous person in bed with a lover.
  • There was only one washing machine in their apartment building, and each household got it for one hour per week.  With two kids in cloth diapers, that one hour was precious.
  • Grandma would take the trolley downtown to do her grocery shopping.
  • Living in a big, diverse city was a big shock for two kids from Iowa, but no one bothered my Grandma when she walked to and from work in her white nurse’s uniform.
  • One time there was a knock at the door of their apartment, and it was a big African-American guy.  He had heard that my grandparents had gone to the University of Iowa and wanted to meet them, as he’d gone to school there as well.
  • There was a place where you could go pick out your chicken, and they’d do all of the cleaning and other stuff for you.

These are some things I know about post-war Detroit.  My grandparents lived there until around 1950, when they moved to Davenport, Iowa, where they still live.

inspired

I’m newly inspired to write by The Orwell Prize’s real-time blogging of the Orwell Diaries.  Orwell’s small observations of life in 1938 England, coupled with the letters from my grandfather that I reread this morning, have me thinking about blogging as a way of capturing every day life rather than just trying to say something meaningful, you know?

Saw a white owl two nights ago – the first in about two years. Also in the distance another bird probably a little owl.

(An excerpt from August 16, 1938)

Since the 70s (at least), my grandfather has kept a diary, recording small events, what they had for dinner, etc.  To most people, reading these diaries would be boring as sin, but to those of us who love him and will miss him terribly when he’s gone, it’s a way to connect with his life and understand the things that were important to him.

Over the 6 1/2 years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve gone back and forth between recording the day-to-day, musing on bigger things (or attempting to do so), and not posting at all because I didn’t feel like I had anything to say.  In the last week, however, two of my friends have posted about small things and the need to post more, even if it’s about less.  I think I’ll try to do the same.