There are some people you come across in your life that seem larger than life, my hubby’s step-father was one of those people; a story-teller, an artist, a soldier, a builder, a world traveler, a husband, a father, a grandpop, a friend. Friday morning we learned of his passing, the time since then has been for shock, coping, crying, and, most of all, recalling the remarkable life that he led. I’ve spent a lot of time in chin-up mode, steering the children towards focusing on life instead of death but also, over and over, telling them that their grief is natural and, whatever course it takes, valid and personal. Hubby left for Baltimore to be with his mom and the rest of our family the day that we learned of Bill’s death. He needed to be with his mom as much as she needed him there and, since I could not love her more if she were my own mother, I was grateful for his going. I wish very much the children and I could have joined him, not being able to grieve with family and friends feels wrong, but not much we can do about that, we make the best of it. So I figured writing would help me sort things out a bit, we’ll see. I’m not the right person to paint a list of his accomplishments, or give a run-down of his life, but I want to put into writing some of my favorite memories of Bill.
Bill always greeted with hugs, kisses, smiles and a big “how ya doin’?!” He was one of those people I could not help but smile around, one of those people I always learned something from when I sat down and talked with him. He was famous for his shaggy dog stories and, in contrast to some other tellers of shaggy dog stories (I’m not naming names) his were masterful. Plus, he cold make his thumb “disappear,” which never ceased to fascinate the children. He had a toy parrot named Polly who, when you pressed its belly, said rude and vulgar things and made the children giggle at the naughtiness of it all, which made Bill burst into laughter. He always had something interesting and special to show the kids–a huge model city that took up an entire room, toy antique cars, a trinket he picked up on one of his travels–if grandpop was around, things were fun.
In the downstairs “powder room,” as he called it, of 2309 (the official title of the house he and my mother-in-law lived in) he painted a stunning four wall mural of the Fall of Icarus. “What I decided to do, after getting a pour of vodka and about 17 tubes of Prussian Blue …” is how he described the birth of the mural, it’s all very Bill. When the house was sold losing that room was, in the minds of many, an incredible loss. Luckily, Bill and my hubby’s brother documented the room and its creation:
One gorgeous Summer day Bill took my children into the backyard of 2309 and built a teepee from nothing but wooden sticks, rope, and a big tarp. It was pretty much the coolest teepee ever, sturdy, meticulously designed. When Liam, our oldest, asked if he could play with Bill’s hatchet in the teepee Bill, ever the indulgent grandfather, stopped and considered the request, mom and grandma Betsy quickly shouted out “NO!” in unison. Bill, shrugged and said something along the lines of “mom and grandmom have spoken, kid, sorry.”
On a cold, winter afternoon Bill brought Liam into the basement, where he had his studio, to build a birdhouse for us to hang in one of our trees once the Spring came. They were down there for hours, hammering and chatting, and I only panicked a little when I heard the electric saw start to whir.
The backyard of 2309 was also a place for making things go “BOOM!” Bill and our oldest would lovingly carry out cannons that Bill built (yes, built), along with an enormous supply of caps. I would watch them out there, placing the caps in the cannons, bracing myself when Bill shouted “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” and Liam repeated “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” BOOM! Followed by huge peals of laughter from Bill and Liam. Grandmom Betsy would smile and shake her head and I would giggle, feeling delight at the sheer joy my child was experiencing.
One of Bill’s cannons, in the process of being built
Right before we moved to Ireland we learned that we’d failed to cross a “t” with the paperwork for our cats, we had to start the incredibly arduous import process over from scratch, which resulted in a three month time gap between when we left for Ireland and when the cats could join us. Bill and Betsy welcomed our cats into their home. They had a cat door for their own cat, which proved a challenge since ours weren’t allowed out. But Bill, ever the engineer, built an enormous floor to ceiling wall that closed off an entire floor (with access for someone with thumbs) so our cats wouldn’t have to be confined to a room. We had one cat, however, who was an escape artist. No matter what Bill tweaked about the enclosure Arthur always got through, Bill started referring lovingly to him as “that son-of-a-bitch,”. Eventually, the cat door was barricaded and Arthur was set free to roam the house. I remember Bill saying to me “Say! Did you know that son-of-a-bitch likes Scotch?” No, Bill, I didn’t know that but it doesn’t surprise me.
One Spring Bill and Betsy came to visit us in Ireland. That was the Spring Bill became a local in our village, it took him about two days before he was accepted into the folds of the tribe at the village pub. The men would sit and talk for hours, I’m not quite sure about what but I’m positive, with Bill, diagrams lovingly drawn on napkins were involved. On his way home from the local he would stop off at the bakery, picking up various yummy treats for us–pies, cupcakes, muffins, he was thoughtful like that and delighted in seeing the children so happy. During that visit Bill also taught our children “perspective” in drawings. He sat with them, every morning, with his special artist pencil, patiently teaching them perspective. It was a lesson that stuck like glue and I don’t think there was a visit since then when the kids didn’t draw something for grandpop that used perspective. They would rush up to him, drawing in hand, and say “Look, Grandpa Bill! I used perspective!” He would take the drawing, look it over and say “Heeeey, kid, that’s pretty good!!”
Each time we visited Bill and Betsy we always went to Sabatino’s restaurant in Little Italy, sometimes for special occasions and sometimes just because. Bill ordered the Bookmaker’s salad every time, sharing it with Betsy. He would laugh at the children making funny faces at themselves in the mirrors of the restaurant, play peek-a-boo with them when they crawled under the table, and, when they got too rowdy, say something along the lines of “I think you’d better stop cause it looks to me like your mom might blow a gasket, kid.” He also never let the bottom of my wine glass show and always asked me, “how’s the food, kid?” Divine, as usual, Bill.
There are a lot more memories, and we will delight in them together, or with ourselves in the quiet, in the days and years to come. There will be more tears, disbelief, aching from the loss, but the nice thing about someone who was larger than life is that it’s very easy to keep them alive in your heart. Every memory I have of Bill, over the 17 years I knew him, is in technicolor–vivid, sharp, alive. Grief is a roller coaster, spinning, turning sharply, bouncing you when you least expect it. I figure I’ll hold on tight and let it take me where I am meant to go, hanging on to the fact that each slam, each twirl, each scream is only felt so strongly because of love. This morning, our daughter turned to me and said, “Momma, do you think Grandpa Bill is heaven’s artist now?” Yes, baby, I think he is. God speed, Bill, and thank you for a life well, and fully, lived.