The Reluctant Grandfather

Posted: September 7, 2014 in The Roper Files

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I haven’t dusted off This Ole Site in the last three months but it’s no exaggeration to say I’ve been busy. It was months in the planning; the logistics of getting him here were tough but my wife’s adorable eight-year-old grandson came down from Canada and spent the summer with us and three months later I am just now able to catch my breath and look back at it; this was a learning experience for all three of us. As a life-long bachelor and newly-married man I was slightly nervous and apprehensive about this. Never once in my fifty-plus years had I ever had any desire to have children. Now all of a sudden I had an eight-year-old in the house; I had no clue as to what I was supposed to do. He didn’t come with an Owners Manual. For the first time in my life I had to curb my bad language and otherwise watch my “Ps and Qs”

His Mom drove him over the border to Seattle and met my wife at the Seattle airport and the two of them flew here to Texas. The two of us had spoken over the phone long-distance but for various reasons we had never met face-to-face. When I picked the two of them up at our local airport he was shy and very reserved; a barely audible “Hi” was about all I could get out of him. That would soon change. He had never been to the US before and stared in silence out the window as we sped down the highway from the airport. Our first stop was at a local restaurant that specialized in seafood; the three of us ate in near silence aside from the loud Cajun music blaring from the PA although he was more than willing to talk about the flight.

When we got back I dug out a stack of DVDs of cartoons from my childhood and was pleased to see him become quickly immersed in my Rocky and Bullwinkle discs; nice to see some things hadn’t changed since I was a kid. He also liked Popeye and Felix the Cat cartoons which surprised me since he seemed to have been brought up on an appetite of Blues Clues and Spongebob Squarepants.

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Over the course of the summer we engaged in a long list of activities that we had planned in the weeks prior to his arrival: like visiting our local  zoo.

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We also took him to the local museums as well as the local tourist traps. We bought him a cowboy hat, we took him horseback riding and tried to introduce him to a variety of the local cuisine. We fed him his first fajita tacos, his first chicken-fried steak and of course lots and lots of Texas barbecue. What were his favorite two things? Mexican cokes and trips to the Dairy Queen down the street for sundaes and banana splits.

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Fortunately he was fairly easy to entertain. He loved when the three of us would pile into my car and go for trips out of town or even when I would go to nearby rural roads and he would hang out the car window like a dog laughing as the hot summer wind blew on him.  He enjoyed shopping at the various local dollar stores. We took him to the newly-opened local drive-in and watched movies under the starry Texas skies in folding chairs.

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On the Fourth of July we watched the local fireworks shows. I took him sliding down the steep grassy levees by the Trinity river on large pieces of cardboard like my parents used to take me to do when I was his age. Some evenings he and I would go for long walks around the neighborhood and just talk and get to know each other.

Besides feeding him properly I also felt an obligation as a temporary parent to set some boundaries. Since he was away from his mother he seemed to feel as if he could make his own rules during the summer and it quickly became obvious we had to step in and teach him otherwise. We took him on numerous trips to the local library where I tried to encourage him to read as opposed to being online all summer long playing video games or watching videos on YouTube. I had only myself to blame for introducing him to Mexican Cokes, but I was horrified to find out that he had a near-unquenchable thirst for Coca-cola. I had a lot of trouble getting him to drink iced tea, milk or fruit juices. Also getting him to bathe and brush his teeth on a regular basis was an uphill battle. I had to remind him on a nightly basis about doing it before he went to bed. And being very much an eight-year-old boy he ate a lot of candy if we let him and we tried to encourage him to eat healthier snacks like dried fruit. My wife bought a dehydrator so we could make dried out banana, kiwi and strawberry chips which fortunately he loved and gobbled down as fast as she could dry them out.

One of the things we did to entertain him on my pauper-level budget was Movie Nights; we would either rent a movie from the local Redbox, check out DVDs from the library or I would just dig one out of my extensive disc collection. Popcorn would be popped and the three of us would sit in front of the TV and enjoy a movie. And as much as I enjoy a good John Waters or Martin Scorcese movie, we had to keep the selection Family Friendly since we now had an eight year old with us.

I got educated on modern day children’s fare this summer. While he had seen both of the Despicable Me films they were new to me and I was forced to sit through the “Buddies” series that Air Bud had spawned but he loved them so I bit my lip and sat through them. I tried with mixed success to show him movies that I had enjoyed when I was his age: the original 1933 KING KONG for example. He seemed to enjoy DUCK SOUP, especially the scenes with Harpo. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (two of my childhood favorites) went over with varying degrees of success although he sneered at Harryhausen’s Cyclops. “That looks SO fake!” I tried showing him Japanese sci-fi movies I loved when I was his age and he laughed out loud at the special effects in MONSTER ZERO: “That rocket ship is on a string!” “Godzilla’s just a guy in a rubber suit!” I dug out my TARZAN box set and was dismayed that he didn’t really seem to enjoy the first one but he liked TARZAN AND HIS MATE and he really enjoyed TARZANS NEW YORK ADVENTURE. Out of my entire collection the one film he really seemed to enjoy from beginning to end was PEE WEES BIG ADVENTURE. He stood up and applauded when it was over and asked to see it again. He also enjoyed a copy of MARY POPPINS we borrowed from the library.

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For fear of sounding judgmental and also because it’s none of my business (nor anyone elses) I don’t care to discuss the kid’s life story here but I will say he’s never really had a father figure before in his life. He would hold my hand while we walked through parking lots or parking garages.

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He sat in my lap and we would watch old Warner Brothers cartoons together on my computer monitor. Over the course of three months we began to bond and I’ve got to admit it was touching to come home after work and find WELCOME HOME BRIAN scrawled on the driveway in colored chalk. Or a hand-printed WELCOME HOME 8X11 sheet of paper taped to my computer monitor. In fact the kid would go absolutely bonkers when I came home. My wife told me: “He’s so good for me during the day; then when you come home he gets hyper!” For years when I was a bachelor I would open the door to a stone-cold silence that was in and of itself almost deafening. Now I had an eight-year-old dancing around like a mini-Pee Wee Herman: “Brian’s home! Brian’s home!” And I had to admit I liked it.

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It’s been a week now since the inevitable time when we had to drive back out to the airport and re-unite him with his Mom. Three months is a long time for an eight-year-old to be separated from his mother; we had to do it. It was the right thing to do. She has sent us photos via e-mail and SnapChat of the two of them together grinning for the camera and it’s nice to see those. But the silence that hangs over the house now is deafening. I miss hearing his little voice from the back seat of my car. I miss watching cartoons with him, or going for walks to the convenience store down the street with him. I miss buying him banana splits at the Dairy Queen down the street. For that matter there’s very little I do or very few places I go that don’t remind me of him. When I see parents with their kids in public I see the kids in a whole different light now. And sometimes I wistfully regret never having any children of my own.

I spent a sweaty couple of hours this week cleaning out the back seat of my car, perhaps an attempt to exorcise a certain part of that. He drug his little sandals through every oil puddle in every parking lot we went to and tracked oil on the carpet of my car. The back of the drivers seat was black where he jammed his feet into my back while we were driving. I wiped the seats with Formula 409 and dish soap. I vacuumed up bits of potato chips, cookie crumbs and Willy Wonka’s Nerds from the seat and scrubbed the floor mats with a solution of carpet cleaner, Oxyclean, dish soap and hot water and laid them out in the hot 100-degree Texas sun to dry, then swept them with trusty Shop Vac. I pulled an empty Mexican Coke bottle out from underneath the passenger seat. The wife and I picked up the room he slept in and gathered souvenirs he forgot to pack in his suitcase so we could mail them to him later. Piece by piece, step by step we are getting life as we know it back to normal. But everywhere I look I still see signs of his time here with us.

I think of him when I go to the dollar store, or when I drive past the Dairy Queen. I think of him when I go to the library, the grocery store or even when I step out in the back yard and his swimming pool that was there for three months isn’t there anymore. It made me sad when I drained it, folded it up and put it in storage. Last Labor Day weekend I cleaned out the refrigerator of the leftover popsicles and other snacks we bought for him that he didn’t eat and I walked from door to door with them knocking on doors (“Excuse me do you have children?”) until I found someone to take them off my hands. I’m even still buying Lotto tickets with the six numbers I let him pick out ( he couldn’t do any worse than I have so far I figured) Look at me; I taught an eight-year-old child how to gamble. Would WC Fields be proud of me or what?

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For someone who never had or wanted children I have to ruefully admit that the little guy has left a heart-shaped hole in the soul of this old curmudgeon. The last week he was here we drove him and our new chihuahua puppy down to South Texas and stayed in a rented cabin for three days before returning home and then having to drive him back to the airport. We fed him more barbecue, took him to a ranch where he was given a formal lesson in horseback riding and then we had him here for a brief and final 36 hours before we had to return him to his Mom.

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I teasingly suggested to my wife a RAISING ARIZONA-ish thought about simply not returning him and just adopting him as our own but that was foolish and we knew it. For better or for worse he belonged with his mother and the smiles on their faces in the photos she sent us confirmed that.

It’s been a week now since we drove him to the airport and I’m still trying to sort it all out.; I’m having a hard time accepting he’s gone. I miss the little guy and the wife and I hug each other and try to reconcile each other over his absence. Even our new puppy seems to know something’s changed; there’s no more of the little rascal here in her face and he’s not here to hold her and talk to her the way he was for the two weeks prior. When I sit in my car and start the engine, I still expect to hear his little voice reminding me to put on my safety belt. And sometimes I do….

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