This column originally appeared as a special to the Kenosha News, Sunday Mornings With Basil Willis, May, 21, 2011.
I come from a long line of strong, progressive women who live to old age, but the men in my family don’t fare so well. Both of my grandfathers died before I knew them. My maternal grandmother remarried a delightful man, who took me fishing and told corny jokes and did magic tricks, but I was too young to appreciate his charm and he died before I really got to know him. My father died when he was 62. As an adult I have never had a relationship with an elderly male.
Beth’s grandfather, Richard (“call me Dick”), moved in with us at the end of 2010. He needed some extra family support, which would have been nearly impossible for us had he stayed in his home in Milwaukee.
Despite his initial perception of being a burden, there was never a question of us offering our home to him. When people you care about need help, you help. He has been far from a burden; he has been a source of wisdom, nurturing and inspiration. Dick is a true patriarch who personifies my ideal of a real man; a mentor.
Dick cooks gourmet dinners many nights and it is a treat. He insists that we sit down and eat together as a family every night. It is a ritual Beth and I remember from childhood but have never practiced as adults. Like many working couples, we eat wherever it is convenient, usually watching TV or hunched over a laptop, something quickly microwaved or handed to us at the drive-through window. Now our nightly dinners are a time to unwind and talk about our days and family; past, present and future. We have lively political discussions and Dick is never short of good stories. I return the favor by making the world’s best blueberry pancakes and Belgian waffles on weekends.
Becoming an elder statesman has its privileges, including being able to say whatever you want, but Dick uses his judiciously and is the consummate diplomat, walking the fine line between giving us advice and not taking sides during “matrimonial debates.” Instead of saying “no” he will often say, “We’ll see.” If someone says something crazy, he will offer a careful, “Ohhh?” This is his way of saying “WTF?”
He is a huge hit with the ladies wherever he goes, and if I were single he would certainly be my wingman. We are both smitten with a certain technician at Aurora who treated me a year ago and who just finished treating him, (he calls her Miss Bubbles). We compare strategies about how we would woo her if I was single and he was 30 or 40 years younger.
Dick was born in 1921 and turns 90 in May. He grew up during the Depression and served as a medic in WW II. He has lived through world wars, cold wars and culture wars. He beat cancer but lost two wives to the disease.
When Dick was born, the US population odometer had just rolled over 100 million. The free market had never been freer, nor had the financial industry been more unregulated. Government stayed out of the way of businesses and, as is happening now, money rose from the middle class and collected with the few. Dick was eight years old when a top-heavy economy collapsed under its own weight and was 19 before it starting getting better.
Most people never get to appreciate the perspective Dick has, a view that spans almost a century. I am half Dick’s age and am only starting to get an inkling of the power of that perspective. Patterns begin to form, truisms begin to emerge, and often times more knowledge leads to more questions. We realize that when we were 20 and thought we had it all figured out that we really knew nothing. It is fascinating to see the world with the eyes of someone who has lived through, and can truly appreciate, how far we have come. And in many regards, how some things never change.
Dick is a realist, but also an optimist, which I find refreshing and somewhat amazing, especially given how the elderly are treated in our society. At times, I am discouraged and jaded, but Dick encourages me to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch onto the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-between. Sometimes he’ll even sing it to me. His hearty laugh and positive outlook are infectious. Dick is an avid fan of Old Time Radio, Big Band Music, NPR and The Nation, and is well versed in current affairs. He is fascinated with the world and is fond of saying, “I just want to see how it all turns out.”
Having played my fair share of roommate roulette during college and winding up with some real doozies, Dick has turned out to be the best one ever! I have thoroughly enjoyed more time getting to know Dick beyond just holiday gatherings. I treasure the time we have together and feel lucky to know him. He will be moving to his new apartment at St. Catherine Commons on the lakefront in June, but I am thrilled that he will still be so close.
I usually call him Dick, but he doesn’t seem to mind when I call him Grandpa, or Grampy, Gramps, G-Pa, or my personal favorite, The G-Unit. Just don’t call him late for dinner. I am now fortunate, and honored, to call him my friend.