Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Man In the Picture and Green Gumdrops

At the time, I never considered it fun. It was always more of an obligation and at eight years old, I'm not sure I even knew what that was. We would pile in the car on the weekend after the Christmas holiday and drive over to the nursing home where my great grandfather lived. I never remember my great grandfather Victor being anyplace but in his room, mostly in a leather chair next to the bed where he could look out the window. The bed was always crisply made and he usually had a knitted blanket of my great grandmothers thrown over his shoulders. The room always smelled with the odor of what I have come to symbolize as old people in any mass living arrangement. I'm not fond of that smell.

My parents, grandparents, and great grandmother would immediately set into searching the room to make sure Victor has everything he needed like plenty of clothes that weren't stained or torn, lotions, lip balm, glass cleaner, etc. They also replenished his supply of snacks including my great grandfather's favorite snack, green gumdrops. While the adults were talking to Victor, my brother and I would stand quietly in the corner, sucking on a few of the sugary green gumdrops and looking around the room.

On the nightstand, there was a picture of a strapping young man full of life and energy holding up perhaps one of the largest fish I had ever seen at the time next to a beautiful young lady in a boat. The background was full of mountains and trees and seemed like a far off place to the northern plains of Iowa. It was only after seeing this picture that I would ever remember that my great grandparents were once young. Although my great grandmother was in good shape and would go on to live another four years, my great grandfather Victor shared no resemblance to the man in the photograph. Victor was old, muscles withered, stooped and his eyes were vacant and had been since my earliest memory. He had advanced Alzheimer's.

He never knew who I was, couldn't remember my mother, his son or his wife. In fact, he rarely even said anything that I can remember and mostly just stared out the window. They would talk to him about who was here to see him, about how his week must have been going and commenting on how a nurse hadn't combed his hair properly. After about an hour, we would tell him goodbye and leave him behind to munch on the occasional green gumdrop. I can only remember seeing him a few more times before 1985 when on a cold January day, he passed on.

Two decades later, I would get the genealogy bug and started doing some research on my ancestors and like any genealogist, I started with who I knew and worked into the past. One of the items that I borrowed from a relative was a book full of articles about my grandfather and some of my other relatives. The articles were about him or ones that he himself had written while he was in Europe fighting World War I. For the first time, I started really understanding the man in the nightstand photograph at the nursing home and how he eventually turned into the old man with Alzheimer's.

I wish I could go back in time and meet my great-grandfather Victor again, now that I understand. Back then, he was just another old person whom didn't know me from anybody else. Now, he is my great grandfather Victor who fought in a world war, was second generation from his immigrant grandfather who was a saddle maker by trade and was the husband of my great grandmother Grace who taught me how to gamble for nickels playing 'Thirty-One'. Now he is that strapping young man in the old black and white photograph sitting on the nursing home nightstand holding a huge fish next to a beautiful young woman with love for sugary green gumdrops.

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