Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Grandpa’s Great Adventures

Posted on: March 7, 2011

I thought of my grandfather as a brainiac scientist.  He was, in fact, a doctor of chemistry.  He was one of three chemists who, together, developed a pesticide so powerful that FDR thought it unsafe.  So Grandpa went to the White House and ate a spoonful of the stuff in front of the president.  That was good enough for Roosevelt, and he signed off on it.  After World War 2, the same compound was widely used as a herbicide.

As family matters go, I remember Grandpa holding forth at Christmas dinners,  and making a kids’ favorite wilted lettuce concoction dubbed ‘Grandpa Salad’, but I recall very little else.  Grandma seemed the dominant presence in our lives.  Today, I learned the rest of the story.

Mom seemed quite sharp today and, unsolicited, she told the story of my grandparents.  Their names aren’t revealed in this post to protect the innocent living progeny.

In her late teens, Catholic Charities sponsored Mom to the United States from war-torn Europe.  The organization was in the habit of placing female refugees in menial jobs at dirt-for-wages.  Mom asserted that she wanted to become proficient in the English language and wanted to learn a skill.  Catholic Charities relented, and sent Mom to secretarial school.

In the course of time, Mom was introduced to the couple who would take her under wing and nurture her into American society.  This means that my “grandparents” weren’t, really, and I’ve always known that.

Grandpa had made lots of money from his chemical exploits, and Grandma came from money.  They owned a Tudor mansion at the highest elevation of Ridgewood, New Jersey, about 20 miles due west of New York City.  On a clear day, you could see the Manhattan skyline in all of its magnificence.  Grandpa invited Mom to occupy a room in their home.  Grandma, believing Mom was Jewish, almost kicked her out.  It took a while to convince Grandma that Mom was a Christian and, even then, Mom was treated with some distance.

Mom eventually met and married my father, a sergeant and musician in the  famed Marine Corps band.  They rented a fifth-floor walk-up in the south Bronx for forty dollars a month.  This was my first home.  My baby sister, Elizabeth, was born two years later.  She came home from the hospital unable to consume sufficient nutrition and was, as a result, in poor health.

Grandpa came to the apartment to be introduced to Elizabeth.  After assessing her situation, he told Mom to pack a bag, call my father at the office and inform him that she and the kids were going to Ridgewood on Grandpa’s orders.  Once there, Grandpa’s personal physician was summoned for an evaluation of my sister.  The good doctor would then pay us a house call every morning before going to his office until Elizabeth was healthy.

Grandpa ultimately demanded that my family move to Ridgewood.  He got my father a job at his company and fronted sixteen thousand dollars with which a house was purchased on Northern Parkway.  He was soon paid back.

Grandma was a staunch Catholic and, oddly, an early proponent of the decidedly non-Catholic Reverend Billy Graham.  It seemed that her energies were consumed by daily mass and the marketing of Dr. Graham.  As we kids grew, it was Grandma who took a frequent role in our lives.  She had us enrolled in Catholic school (then vastly inferior to public schools), helped us with school work, and was a major source of encouragement in the face of the dysfunction between my parents and their child-rearing skills.

While Grandma was a positive influence in our lives, she was quite something else in her own home life.  She didn’t have time to clean house, so there was a maid who didn’t do a very good job; the place was always a mess.  She didn’t have time to cook, so there was a cook who, in a day, prepared meals for the entire week.  She didn’t have time to execute her own correspondence, so there was a secretary.

Grandma also didn’t have time for Grandpa.  This I had never considered.  Grandpa, being young and vital, ran off to Atlantic City with his secretary.  Grandma hired five private detectives to find him, and he was returned home.

That circumstance aside, my grandparents owned four smaller houses including lake homes in north-central New Jersey, and one on Fire Island in New York.  My family was privileged to visit and vacation quite frequently at these fun places.

The fourth house was a big log cabin high atop a mountain in the Swiss Alps.  Grandpa met me at the train station in Bern.  Driving his tiny European car, he careened through the tiny city streets and eventually out into the country.  Then came the mountain road.

Do you remember the B-side of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant album?  Maybe you recall The Motorcycle Song.  In it, Guthrie describes a drive on a mountain road.  “On one side of the mountain road there was a mountain.  And on the other side, there was nuthin’.”  Like Arlo, Grandpa delighted in driving up his private mountain road at what seemed 150 mph, sometimes on two wheels, causing 17-year-old city boy to almost pee my pants.

Grandpa atop the Matterhorn

I’d flown the coop by then, and had lost touch with my grandparents.  This, my only visit to “The Mischeg,” was my own little adventure, a reuniting with my grandfather, and an opportunity to view the majesty of mother earth.  When Grandma died, she was literally packed on ice for six months because the mountain road could not be traveled in winter.  When it could be cleared, she was transported to the top where she was buried.

Ever the adventurer, Grandpa climbed the Matterhorn every year since he was a young boy.  The Matterhorn is 14,692 feet high.  Grandpa lived to the age of eighty-eight.

%d bloggers like this: