Grandma was married, her whole life, to Grandpa Harold. He died 25 years ago, but she remained bound to him, always. Theirs was a real love affair—she was swept away by this dashing east coast gentlemen and he never let her down. I can picture him in his blue and white seersucker suit, his polka dot bow tie, holding it with one hand and giving me a little smile. Bow ties and seersucker were not effete or precious on him, but somehow just right. He had the black horn-rimmed glasses that Kissinger wore, but the resemblance was not intentional.
I loved to hear Grandma’s stories about his work; he rarely discussed them with me when he was alive. Instead he’d sit patiently and read with me, going over cartoons with me in his morning robe and pipe, or reading to me on the living room couch, me sunken down in the big pillows with my legs bent, knees up, and Grandpa happily reading beside me.
Grandpa Harold was one of the Boulder Boys during WWII; in naval intelligence, he learned Japanese in an intensive language course in Boulder and interrogated Japanese prisoners, and was part of the first American delegation to visit Nagasaki after the bomb dropped. It was a horror he could never discuss, Grandma said. While working for the state department, he was stationed at the embassy in Paris in the late 50’s and later the US Ambassador to NATO. Once Grandpa sat next to President Kennedy at a dinner and complained about his brother, the attorney general, who was giving him trouble on something. Bobby can be a real pain in the ass, Grandma said the President told him.
When Grandpa died, my Grandma found a black box in his office. The black box had a note attached with instructions, to the effect of “if you find this box, after I die, then don’t open it— destroy it.” Well, this is one of those crossroads in life—if it were you, would you open it? Grandma destroyed it, just like he asked; after all, she trusted him, he knew what was best. She was overwhelmed, too, with the task of sorting through his papers, and that week, miraculously, she received a call from the President of the University of Wyoming. He’d heard that her husband had recently passed away, sent his condolences, and said they’re building up their international policy department. Would she consider donating his papers to the University of Wyoming? She thought about this—his schools, NYU, the University of Denver, Georgetown, they must have nicely stocked departments already, and besides, they hadn’t called, had they? And do you know, she’d say later, they sent two of the nicest kids in from Wyoming? They spent days going through and packing up all his papers for her, and now, if you go to the library there, you will be sure to read about my Grandfather and his foreign exploits. Grandpa once showed me once his entry in “Who’s Who in America” and he said “when I die, I’ll be in Who was Who in America” and I remember laughing with him at that, Who Was Who in America.
She still drove, late into her eighties, blind in one eye, but not on the beltway (which was better for everyone, I think). When I was visiting one summer some college kids drove by and rolled down their window, signaling they had a question for her. “Yes?” She asked politely.
“Avez vous du Grey Poupon?” they said cheekily, to which she replied, without skipping a beat “Oui, mais absolutement.”
Life was one big lark with her, and I’m lucky for having known her. Grandma once told me whenever I’m sad or worried about something it’s very important to remember that everything is temporary—her own version of this too shall pass. It’s true, and it’s been a great comfort to me at times. I felt loved by her, and her affection for me, and the time I shared with her, every summer, made such a difference to me during those long cold winters in Colorado. To paraphrase Pablo Neruda (something she’d approve of, I think) loving is so short, forgetting is so long.