Charles 'Chuck' Fisher

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I didn’t answer my dad’s call when I saw his name on the ID. I don’t answer his calls most of the time; I let them go to voice mail and call back. We don’t have a great relationship. I listen to his voicemail during lunch and get the vague sense something has happened with Grandpa. My brother texts me immediately after I hang up on voicemail.

“Did Dad call you?”

“Yeah, I let it go to voicemail, I was about to call him back”

“You need to call him right now”

“Ok”

….

“He has congestive heart failure, he had a massive heart attack over the weekend”

 

….

Suddenly I am five years old, sitting on the couch at my paternal grandparents' house. We are waiting for my dad to wake up or get over his hangover, one of the two. We are here for the usual weekend visit that my dad resents and we don’t look forward to. At the time none of this makes any sense or is at all evident to me. Grandma and Grandpa sit in their chairs, staring down at us. They will have these same chairs for as long as I will make these visits.

“Your dad is…" starts my grandmother, a slightly severe looking old woman with a poof of wig-like hair that I will later learn is in fact three different wigs based on how she is feeling that day.

“Sleeping late” finishes my grandfather. He is also slightly stern looking, wearing only an undershirt and slacks. He has a very noticeable beer belly. Without it he would seem an athletic man. Years of drinking and chewing tobacco have taken their toll on his teeth, and I can see his crowns. He looks at us over thick glasses. “Have you eaten yet?”

My brother is only 4 and sits next to me under the strange triptych of copper ducks over the couch in the living room. We both shake our heads. We have been dropped off fairly early in the day, and Mom hasn’t cooked yet. This is part of the lean times for us; Mom is in college, Dad is doing god knows what, but not paying the child support. The child support will come in only sporadically the rest of my childhood, and when a state begins to garnish his wages, he will move. Currently he lives in my grandparents’ basement.

Grandpa gets out of his chair with an audible grunt. He spits the last of the chewing tobacco into an old stained brass spittoon that sits next to his chair. He walks into the small kitchen and makes a noise like an army rousing for breakfast. Within 20 minutes I am eating a breakfast I will never forget. A full American breakfast made by its true master, thick-cut peppered bacon before hipsters would make sure it was available in every store, eggs over easy fried in the bacon grease to a perfect consistency, hash browns fried in the remains of both bacon and eggs. The portions are far more than two children of our age should even be able to think about finishing. We eat every crumb. Grandpa sits back down in his chair and watches TV with Grandma.

I never ate a meal or a dish prepared by my grandfather that was not amazing. As children my brother and I were picky eaters. We would come up with a thousand ways to not eat all kinds of food. It did not matter what was in, what it was called, or how it was prepared, if Grandpa made it, it was good. I ate oyster stuffing at his house when no power on earth could get me to eat seafood.

His rib barbecues were legendary, taking 3 days to prepare fully, and getting an invite was a great honor among non-family. When my brother was in braces and unable to eat ribs, Grandpa specifically made a boneless version just for him--no one else was allowed to even touch them. Most of the things I carry forward into my cooking this day I learned by watching him cook when I was young; the utter reverence he carried to cooking was phenomenal. I may not have learned everything about it from him, but I learned some very important basics. It’s because of him that I never skimp on my dishes, nor do I throw things together without thinking them through first.

“He has a living will that states he does not want to be kept alive medicinally or be resuscitated. “

I am six years old we are sitting at the car dealership while Dad works. The dealership is owned by my grandfather, “Chuck’s Used Cars.” We spend most of our days with Dad here, watching them try to sell the small selection of used cars Grandpa keeps in stock. He is constantly dealing in cars around town. From this shop I learn the used car dealers tricks. I learn all the inflections and tones they use. Even at a young age I can see when they have sold a car and when they are still working on the person, even if the buyer doesn’t know it yet. There is a smell associated with some autoshops that infiltrates the place; the smell of bad coffee, sugar cubes and vehicle lubricants. We are coated with the smell while there; this may partially be due to us stealing sugar cubes when we can from the shop area. We are scolded every time, and yet, hey free sugar. We play around in cars and learn to get out of the way when customers arrive. It is a great place to spend summers.

Due to the shop, Grandpa will have a rotating cast of cars, always large sedans of one type or another. It’s almost a habit to look at the car in the driveway before entering the house. Often there will be something for a day or two that he is holding for a friend. The most memorable was a classic fire engine red Chevy convertible from the late ‘50s. Don’t ask me for the year, I don’t do cars. Much of what I learned at that shop I apply to both shopping for cars (used car salesmen fear me) and daily life. I can read most people like I read those buyers. I learned a lot about treating people well, but not rolling over to please someone. Grandpa used to make it clear he would treat the customers right, but he didn’t suffer a lot of bullshit from them either. I didn’t realize how deeply seated that smell of the shop was until I went to a body shop to have an estimate done on my car recently. The instant I opened the door and the same smell hit me, I had to pause to look around for Grandpa again.

The dealership has been closed for years (almost 20 now), but I can still picture it in my head (in fact while writing this I looked up the location on Google earth. It’s still there, and has not changed aside from name). Grandpa sold the shop while I was still young, but he kept a private party auto-sales part-time job going on the side for years. Usually one or two cars at a time, snapping up deals and selling them cheaper to others. He had an uncanny ability to memorize the Kelly Blue Book very quickly when a new addition came out. He could also perform the entire depreciation math in his head. I’ve always been a quick study for memorization, and had a head for math. These have served me very well over the years, and can almost certainly be traced right back to him.

“They said there is nothing they can do at the hospital, and he is in hospice care…”

….

I am seven years old, we are working on the tree fort that has existed in the tree on the hill across from my grandparents' house since my dad was a kid. The tree is big enough around that 5 of my cousins and I cannot put our arms around it. There is a board in the highest branches that apocryphally was put there by any of our fathers/mothers depending on who you ask. I will later find out it was actually my dad. There is a large collection of boards and nails on the ground, we each have a hammer. All of the supplies were pilfered from Grandpa’s well-stocked garage. Every tool you could ever need for a tree fort, or repairing any American car ever made. Could be found in the myriad coffee tins, toolboxes, and shelves of that garage. We raid it anytime we want to be outside working on the tree house. The only constant part of the tree house is a swing: a piece of plywood with a hole in it, through which passes a rope that loops over a tall hanging branch. We all take turns jumping out of the tree onto that swing and feel gravity fall away on either side of the arc. Given enough height, you will swing out far enough that you’re over a small gully and feel like you are miles over the ground. I am not brave enough to jump from the height necessary for this. Twice in 12 years that swing is cut down by some older jerks in the neighborhood. Twice my grandpa buys the necessary components to put it back up. At least one of these times he climb the tree himself and re-hangs the swing.

Seeing several grandchildren out the front window, he comes to the front door.

“Are you using my good hammers?” Somehow his voice carries across all the distance. The sternness coming through even at the distance, “If you leave them out there I’ll whoop ya!”. This is the constant threat at the grandparents’ house. Grandpa will whoop ya. It’s delivered in a stern tone to almost any possible irresponsibility. Grandma rolls her eyes every time and informs us he wouldn’t whoop anybody. Upon hearing this, Grandpa will look you in the eye and give you a wry little wink.

I’ve never seen a man make so puckish a face as Grandpa did in those moments. He was constantly looking at the grandkids and giving us a look that implied that he and we were in on some joke that no one else got. His eyes would brighten and you couldn’t help but smile back to let him know you understood. Even as he got older and had to have oxygen tanks and walk with a walker, that brightness and wink were still there, ready to undermine any serious thing said. The day I went to visit them and the senility had stolen those from him, my heart broke into a million pieces. The formerly puckish old man in the corner looked confused, and unsure of himself. His eyes changed to a dull confusion.

“It could be days, it could be weeks”

….

I am eight, we are home for the fourth of July. If we are home that means we get to go with Grandma and Grandpa out to “shostein’s place” for fireworks. It will be another 5 years before I realize Shostein is a person, specifically a long-time friend of my grandfather’s. He owns a small patch of land outside of city limits where we can light off any fireworks we damn well please. The adults sit back and eat peppered watermelon slices and watch the displays. Every year we light a small piece of Shostein’s property on fire accidently and spend a panicked few minutes putting out grass fires. I’m not sure how Grandpa convinces him to let us come back year after year, but I know they are very good friends.

….

“They don’t know exactly, but eventually...”

I am nine. There have always been baskets of pamphlets in the basement, but I have never really looked at them. While playing around downstairs we knock over a basket and look at the contents. AA? Alanon? What the hell do those mean? My grandparents ran the longest-running and largest AA and Alanon meetings in my hometown. From the 70s through the 90s they had a large collection of alcoholics and the family members of alcoholics in their house once a week. This seems strange, knowing that several of my aunts and uncles are heavy drinkers. One of my uncles even owns a bar. I recall that I have not seen any alcohol at any event in my grandparents' house. Looking back from that day it all made sense.

My grandfather has been a recovering alcoholic for almost 40 years now. He has not had a drop of liquor since the 80s to my knowledge. I have met people in my hometown who tell me that either themselves or their parents are alive because of things my grandfather told them and taught them. As an adult I have some serious doubts about how the AA program actually presents itself, and its overall effectiveness. I do know, however, that it worked for him, and he made it work for others.

“… he’ll have a stroke or a heart attack that kills him”

I am 10, family dynamics are starting to make sense to me, and both sets of my grandparents and a lot of my aunts and uncles live in the same town. They take sides in the fight my mom and dad have over the various issues of raising us. We never really see any of this; they all care enough to keep it hidden around us. Things become very strange around Christmas though. My maternal great-grandmother has a Christmas Eve party every year. We are now old enough to attend. We have always spent Christmas Eve at our paternal grandparents' house in the past, as that is when they open gifts. We come to an agreement to spend the early evening at the party, and then go to gift openings.

When we arrive to open gifts the arrangements are the same as they are every year. A small fake tree that has all of the decorations glued on sits on an end table, a massive pile of presents beneath. My grandparents have many children, 3 sons and 3 daughters, and have a large circle of friends. We enjoy watching them opening gifts and snacking on treats Grandpa has prepared as much as we enjoy opening our own gifts. Often it is only the four of us and a single aunt or uncle. We rarely see Dad at this event. On the years we come, they make sure my brother and I have a selection of gifts to open since we rarely receive anything from Dad on Christmas. Grandpa is a bit of a rogue even here--stuffing a box full of the socks Grandma insists he buy us and hiding small toys underneath them.

Family was always an important thing to me, which made talking about family on the paternal side very odd. My maternal grandfather has always been a genealogy nut. From him we know a lot about our ancestors. I know some thing about my paternal grandmother’s family: where they are from, names, and histories. Stories she tells let us know who she is and where she came from. I know almost nothing about my grandfather’s family. I don’t know if he had siblings, I don’t know where he grew up, I don’t even know his hereditary ancestry (I believe German). All I know is that during the depression, at the ripe old age of 15 he left his family behind and struck out on his own. I’ve heard the stories of him eating sandwiches composed of a slice of bread, a thin slice of lard, and another slice of bread. I also know that he survived the depression in good enough shape to join the navy the instant WW II started. I’ve often wondered what that past looks like, but I never asked.

“He’s back at the VA in hospice care.”

….

I am 16 years old; I am recently driving and have gotten my eyebrow pierced to seem cool (said piercing would be ripped out at a concert in college, not cool). Due to my latest body modification we are sitting at Grandpa’s house comparing piercings, tattoos, and discussing further modifications. One of my aunts shows us her new tattoo on her shoulder blade. Grandpa rumbles in his chair

“Bunch of damned hippies”

“Grandpa, there haven’t been any hippies in this family, and tattoos aren’t really a hippie thing”

“Anyone getting a tattoo in my family is a hippy.”

Grandpa doesn’t hold with hippies, and anyone with a different worldview is a hippy. He was raised in a very different time from the rest of us. Having been a member of the navy in WW II, Grandpa has some odd ideas about both the Germans and Japanese. This is slightly odd as he never got any closer to war than being the chef for admirals in San Diego. He doesn’t like the idea of any of his grandkids dating minorities. He doesn’t hold with certain people going into government. He wasn’t a perfect man, and I can make no excuses for his extreme distaste for those different than himself. I will say that he was never overtly mean to anyone I saw him interact with. Imagine the harmless old grandpa with a different worldview from countless movies, stories, TV Shows, etc. He seemed to embody that spirit perfectly. Kind of a harmless good old boy from Wyoming who never expanded his world view.

“You don’t have to come home or anything. Sorry to have to tell you this at Thanksgiving, I hope you still have a good time”

“Yeah, Dad, wow, thanks for calling please keep in touch.”

“Bye kid, I love you”

“I love you too Dad” (this is the first time I’ve said this in 15 years)

I hang up the phone, I am 30 years old, and I cry.

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