In February 2001, an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled “The Body” aired. It was the episode in which Buffy had to deal with the fact that her mother had died, and she found the body, and it was a devastating, amazing episode.
That episode had a particular resonance for me, because I had the bad luck to be present when my maternal grandfather died in 1976. I was seven years old. Watching “The Body” made me remember Grandpa, and write the following piece.
Today is the 42nd anniversary of the day Grandpa died, and in his honor, I re-present that piece I wrote in 2001.
When I was seven years old, my grandfather died.
Grandpa was a wonderful guy. My mother’s father, he lived nearby and — since my grandmother often babysat for me after school — I got to see him quite a bit. He was a construction worker — in fact, he worked on the refurbishing of Yankee Stadium in the mid-1970s, a fact this Yankee fan has always been proud of — and a joy to be around. He always had to own a Cadillac, all his adult life. Whenever one broke down, he went out and bought another Cadillac. Nothing else would suffice.
He always used to give me Juicy Fruit gum. I was a voracious gum chewer as a child, but my mother would only let me chew sugarless gum. So whenever Grandpa gave me a Juicy Fruit, he’d always make sure that I promised not to tell my mother. I swore I wouldn’t, and I never did. (She knew, of course. Mothers always know these things.)
My grandparents lived in the upstairs of a two-family house. The downstairs part was owned by my great-uncle Cal, but they sold their half to move to Westchester, and my parents bought it. So I was living downstairs from them.
One summer afternoon, I was staying with my grandmother. She was watching soap operas, as usual, and I was either watching them with her or playing on the porch or something. Grandpa was over at their friend Palma and Emil’s house. Emil was a barber, Palma his wife — Grandpa was doing some paneling for them. Palma called Grandma and said that Freddie had fallen and hurt himself, could you come over? It didn’t sound like that big a deal, but Palma didn’t sound good, so Grandma and I walked over, concerned.
We arrived around the same time as the fire truck. Palma had called 911. I was never sure why the fire trucks came, but they worked to help Grandpa, who — I later learned — had had a heart attack. An ambulance showed up eventually, too.
Grandma made me sit on the stairs. I sat there for what seemed like days while people gathered around my grandfather. I only had the dimmest notion of what was really going on. At some point, someone asked me how to get in touch with my parents, and I gave them their numbers (conveniently, they both worked at the same place at that time), and they came up pretty quickly. It’s funny, it would’ve taken them an hour or so to get up there, but the way I remember it, they arrived within minutes of my giving out their phone number. Then again, I was probably only on the stairs for fifteen minutes or so, not the hours it felt like.
Little-kid memories are more like snapshots. I remember moments, like my earliest memory: my grandfather (the other one, my father’s father, who died in Italy when I was in college) standing in the middle of a field surrounded by pigs in cages. The moment I blew out the candles on my fifth birthday. Dancing with my uncle to the strains of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” one night when he was babysitting for me. Eating a spaghetti dinner with Grandma, Grandpa, and my aunt Monica. Sitting on the couch as people came in for my birthday party the year it and Easter were the same day. Sitting amidst the broken glass when I knocked over a standing mirror at my aunt’s house.
And sitting on those stairs wondering what was wrong with Grandpa.
I have to confess that I don’t think about Grandpa all that often. After all, he died almost twenty-five years ago. But when I do think of him, I think about his Cadillacs and the way he snuck me Juicy Fruits and how much I loved him. Actually, I always think of him whenever I hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch” (which was released four years after he died, and which I always think of as Grandpa’s song).
Tonight’s episode of Buffy was one of the finest hours of television I’ve ever viewed. Few shows have managed this accomplishment, and fewer still have pulled it off more than once.
And it made me think about my Grandpa.