When I was a boy, I only knew one of my two Grandfathers. My Mother's father passed long before I came along.
My Dad's father was known to the kids in my extended family as Papa. Papa was quite a man. Papa was already old and bald in my first memories of him. Hunched over with a cane as the result of a life of hard work.
He had a little tin case which held his current plug of chewing tobacco. The kind that looks like a little cake. And he would take a nip off the end and sit and enjoy it.
Each time we would visit in the summer we would usually find Papa in the kitchen at the table – ears on the radio and eyes on the television – with the Tigers game on. When the game was close, he would sit with fingers crossed. Not just two fingers crossed, but all of them, trying to will the Tigers to victory.
One of my earliest memories is being a very small boy and sitting between my Dad and Papa in Tiger stadium, half way up behind the third base side dugout. That was the day Al Kaline became my hero because he hit a game winning two run homer. He also made a diving catch in right field. I don't have a clue who they were playing.
But Papa was full of stories.
Wonderful stories of going across the river to watch Ty Cobb in old Briggs field – which became Tiger Stadium.
Wonderful stories about running cross country as a boy.
Tales about running with a friend through old Detroit in the 1920s when it was a beautiful city with a friend of his named Jack. Papa was known for his long distance runs – a passion I myself nor any of my other family never really shared. On this one particular day, he and Jack came accross the event of a gangster murdering someone. As they passed, the gangster noticed they saw him and he took off after them in a car. They both speeded up to run as fast as they could to get away. As Papa looked over to see how Jack was making out, he heard a gunshot – and watched as Jack's strides go limp and he fell to the ground. Papa kept running.
As the story continues, Papa is in a Detroit courthouse, to testify against the mobster who shot down Jack. As Papa was sitting waiting, the mobster came in and walked up to the Judge. They shook hands and had an extensive conversation, smiling, laughing, and patting each other on the arm from comment to comment.
The mobster got off.
There were so many other stories, but in the twenty five years now that Papa has been gone, that is sadly the only one that I remember.
Papa loved all of us grandkids the exact same amount. I remember one family visit at my Uncle Fred's when Papa approached each and every one of us privately and slipped us each ten or twenty dollars. As he did he would grasp our arms in a hugging fashion and whisper in our ears "This is because you're my favorite." I only learned this because after he did this with me, I overheard him with the others, saying each time "This is because you're my favorite."
For most of my years knowing Papa, the family was always concerned that the next time we saw him would be the last. And yet he kept on plugging away. Through my childhood, Papa lived in a three or four story apartment building on Ouellette Avenue in downtown Windsor. The Maple Apartments. He was the building supervisor, living in a nice but small basement apartment that he shared with my Grandmother before she passed away. He kept the gardens outside rich, full and beautiful. The halls of that building were wide and shiny, and were a lot of fun for us kids to slide and play in. And across the hall was a large furnace room. Each week, a coal truck would come and drop huge piles through a coal chute into the room. So from time to time in the winter, I would accompany Papa into the furnace room to watch him shovel coal into the furnace.
As we grew to young adults, we were more and more certain that every time we saw Papa would be the last. Every time but one.
In 1983 my cousin Jenny married her husband Carter. At that event, Papa perked up into a spirited man like we hadn't seen for the last decade. And the whole week or so there with Papa was wonderful. And we were all so happy. In fact the photographer who took those wedding pictures took a special one of Papa – in his blue suite with corsage on the lapel. Eyes twinkling and a happy most contented grin. She won an award for that picture in a photo contest of some sort.
Papa passed away some three months later.
I guess he waited until everything he needed to accomplish was done.
But then I also think that in 1984, when the Tigers last won the World Series, Papa had something to do with it.
Hey Papa, we could use a little help down here this year too!