Friday, November 13, 2009

A Quietly Remarkable Man

My beloved grandfather, James Edwin Bennett, was born on this day in 1904 in Port Chester, New York.

His parents were young but his father was already a successful plumbing contractor with a business in Manhattan. Grandpa had a younger sister, Victoria. But his mother died giving birth to his brother Joseph. He was six at the time. Within the next year, Victoria died of diphtheria. My grandfather told me his father never recovered from those losses, although he did marry again and had four more children.

They ended up moving to the townhouse where my great grandfather’s business was based on East 65th Street. They were prosperous and happy.

My grandmother emigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1923 and met my grandfather a few years later (although he always told us, with a wink, that he met her at the boat with her first pair of shoes; she did not find this amusing). She told me she was working as a nanny for a wealthy family in Connecticut. My grandfather was at the estate on a job with his father and he threw a snowball at her. They were married in 1930.

But with the Depression, large building jobs disappeared and, gradually, with them went my great grandfather’s business. My grandfather took the most secure job you could get in those days and became a New York City policeman.

His step-mother passed away after a long illness and he ended up supporting his father, his youngest siblings and his own new family.

He told stories of that time with humor and nostalgia, never complaining, never implying that going from relative wealth to relative impoverishment was a devastating fall. Or that watching his father drink himself to death was a crushing tragedy.

I was the second grandchild, the first girl, indeed the only girl for the next fourteen years, in a family that teemed with boy cousins. And my grandfather frankly adored me in his quiet, understated way. It wasn’t until I was older I realized what a gift that had been. My self-centered little self took it for granted.

I spent much time with my grandparents as a child. My grandfather would take me with him everywhere.

We went to the park almost every day. Granted, it was usually after my grandmother snapped from some chore “Edwin! Take that child to the park!” And he would, cheerfully, holding my hand, pushing me endlessly on the swings.

We lived in northern Manhattan. If he was driving downtown, I would hop up and down in the car. “The boats, Grandpa, the boats!” And, although I know now it had to be out of the way sometimes, he would dutifully take Twelfth Avenue, where in the 1950’s you would see prow after prow of cargo ships and cruise ships. I don’t know why I found it so thrilling, but he always accommodated me.

In those days there were still many cobbled streets in Manhattan. Again, I would hop up and down on the front seat, “Grandpa, could we take the bumpy roads?” And he would wind his way through Manhattan driving on all the cobble streets he knew. As a native New Yorker, and someone who loved the city, he knew where they all were.

I had an accident when I was four and lost my right eye. My aunt has told me that she knew something was terribly wrong when she got home from school and my grandfather was not at work. He worked the 3 to 11 shift his entire career. And he was crying. She said she never saw him cry except for that moment. It breaks my heart that my grandfather wept for me.

We named our second son James for my grandfather. After my husband died, Grandpa never failed to tell me how much he admired me, how strong and brave I was raising four children on my own. I didn’t feel strong and brave, but his words, his love were a gift.

As the years passed, my grandfather aged, but both my grandparents stayed strong and independent until their early 90’s, when they agreed to move in with my aunt. They were frail by that time and my grandfather, tall, handsome, so, so smart, was increasingly struggling with dementia.

Every time I visited him, he acted overjoyed to see me, even when he couldn’t pull up my name anymore. He would shake his head sadly and say “I’ve become terribly stupid.” I would hold his hand and simply say “You are not stupid, you’re just having a bad day.” He would perk up, but he knew the truth.

However, he was clever to the end. In the ER, several days before he died, the doctor was doing a quick mental status assessment. The president at the time was Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal had been in full swing over the previous year. The doctor asked my elegant, die-hard Republican grandfather if he knew who the president was. Grandpa paused and pondered. He finally said slowly, “Well doctor, his name is eluding me at the moment. But I can tell you he is very disreputable fellow.” The doctor was delighted by his response. “There is nothing wrong with you, Mr. Bennett!” he sweetly said.

My grandfather’s fragile, loving, generous heart failed on April 29, 1999, just days after my grandparent’s 69 wedding anniversary.

I know my siblings and my cousins can all tell similar stories of his affection, caring and sense of fun. We were so, so lucky. I still miss him and think of him every day. He provided me with so much love, it sustains me still. Happy birthday, Grandpa. Till we meet again.



zoomdoggies said...

What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing these memories.

Marie said...

Thank you! Thanks for stopping by.

Jane Turley said...

Grandparents have a special role to fill - yours sound like he was extra special Marie:)

A Lawyer Mom's Musings said...

Marie, that was gorgeous. And I loved the stories. What a man your grandfather was, and so witty. I bet he adored Reagan.

Marie said...

Hi Jane!!! He was extra special. And Lawyer Mom you are so right, he was incredibly witty. And what always cracked me up was that he cracked himself up, so he couldn't keep a straight face when he was kidding around.

He told me so, so many stories about growing up and being on the police force. I would love to write a book about him someday.