Throwback Thursday – Grandpa’s Hats

For a good many years now, at the urging/request of my grandmother, my mom’s side of the family has created personalized calendars that are given out at Christmas. In addition to the usual calendar fare, Shutterfly allows us to place photos on any dates we’d like, meaning that each family member’s face triumphantly appears on his or her birthday.

While I’ve always enjoyed the calendar, Ella and Annie took a particular shine to it this year, delighting in each person’s photo and commenting on which months receive the heaviest birthday traffic. (I printed off photos for the members of Nick’s family, too, and stuck them on the corresponding squares; June, December, and January are particularly heavily-birthdayed months.)

They were particularly smitten with the weeks when several people have birthdays in a row (and the coincidental dates when people actually share birthdays, something you’d think wouldn’t happen all that often in a relatively small family because there are 365 days on which to have been born), with these last two weeks in January being the first of the clusters.

“Mom – Alex’s (their cousin) birthday was Tuesday, Grandma’s birthday was yesterday, and Lisa’s (my aunt) and Adam’s (my cousin) birthdays are next week! That’s crazy!”

It is! But it’s actually even crazier.

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My grandfather loved hats. He would have laughed mischievously at the thought of me calling him a connoisseur of hats – that’s a bit of a stretch – but he certainly enjoyed them. Baseball caps, cowboy hats, visors, woven ones with wide floppy brims, straw hats, light-up headpieces with glowing lettering across the front… you name it, he had one.

Ever true to his creative, do-it-yourself-but-kind-of-on-the-cheap nature, he had nailed flat pieces of wood to the dining room walls at the lake, on top of which he’d attached clothespins – each of which held a member of the hat collection. Although this newfangled storage system appeared in the later years of his life, the hats themselves were around for much longer. I remember playing with them as a little girl, fascinated with their feel on my head and the way they smelled like him. (Not an Old Spice kind of smell – more musty and fisherman-y and turpentine-y — but grandpa through and through.)

grandpa and me
Summer 1977; one of my all-time favorite photos of anything, ever.
Would that every child could be looked at by their grandparent like this.

In the summers before the old lake house was razed and the new one was constructed – the last two summers of my grandfather’s life – Ella and Annie, too, became unofficial members of Great‘s Hat Club. It gave me such a kick to see them wearing his caps and seeing them all enjoy one another’s company so much. I only wish that they remembered it – remembered him – as clearly as I do.

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 Ella, at the same age I was in the above photo, wearing one of Great’s hats.
His avant-garde hat holder is clearly visible in the background…
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hat
Annie – seven months – with my aunt Lisa, joining in on the hat convention.

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While sorting through things in the basement (let us all share a moment of silence for this miraculous occasion, shall we….?), I came across the hat my grandfather had worn when he was in the Navy. He didn’t talk with me much about his days in the service – then again, I hadn’t really asked (something I regret deeply now) – so I don’t really have much of a frame of reference for this regal topper, but it makes me smile each time I see it, imagining bygone days when my grandfather piloted planes that scanned the ocean for German U-boats, when he and my grandmother exchanged letters and television hadn’t been invented. Plus, all these years and miles later, that hat still smells like my grandpa.

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See, it wasn’t just Grandma and her sister who have birthdays in January – Great did, too.

“He did? I can’t believe it!”

Yep. HIs birthday was today, actually. January 22nd, 1921.

“So how old would he be?”

I see that you don’t get along so well with The Math either.

“What?”

Never mind. He would have turned 94 today.

“We should put his picture on the calendar!”

Long before Photoshop became popular, my grandfather loved toying with photos on his computer, swapping family faces and chuckling at his exploits. As soon as I get the chance, I’m definitely going to print out his photo and put it on the calendar. It’s kind of creepy… but Great would totally have approved.

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Throwback Thursday: Grandpa’s voice

I don’t believe in reincarnation. I’ve never seen a ghost. I’m not so sure about angels. But I absolutely believe that people who have left us can communicate with those of us who are still here – not necessarily because it’s true, but because it makes me feel better to think so.

(Kind of like how I believe that Starbucks is a panacea for any number of ills. Can this be proven true in a science lab or a court of law? Doubtful. But it makes me feel awfully damn good, so does it really matter? I THINK NOT.)

My grandfather passed away seven years ago this September. We’d just moved to the Rochester area, and I’m pretty sure that I spent more time with him (and my grandmother) in those few months before he died than I had during my previous 31 years. It was delightful.

This is not to say that my grandfather was “delightful.” I’m not saying he was the opposite of delightful, but “delightful” really isn’t a word that anyone would have used to describe him. He wasn’t exactly the pull-you-on-his-lap, tussle-your-hair, call-you-“Squirt” kind of grandpa. (My extended family, and everyone who knew my grandpa well, have all spit out their beverages at the mere thought of this.)

gloriousheyilikeyourhat
My grandfather with Ella, who has “borrowed” one of his many hats.

He was a good many other things, though – wickedly clever, music-loving, handy, creative, gruff and grumpy, witty, smart, difficult, funny – and that 2007 summer was delightful. He loved technology and kept abreast of any number of “modern” conventions that eluded so many other octogenarians; after becoming an early American Idol devotee and watching Ryan Seacrest close each show with a hip, “Seacrest out!”, Grandpa began signing emails to me with “Taylor out!” Likewise, the very last communication he had with all of us – a brief email – ended with “TTYL”.

I can’t begin to summarize him here; he and his personality and my relationship with him don’t fit into tiny, tidy boxes. I will say that, when Ella was born, we originally started off referring to him as “Great Gramp,” but after only a few months, he requested that it be shortened to simply “Great… because that’s appropriate, don’t you think?” Simply put, I miss him.

We routinely take the back route to the lake, a road that brings us past a well-stocked, open-air fruit and vegetable store. Last weekend, I’d been asked to stop by the store on our way down to see if there were fresh peaches. As I sorted through the quarts and pints, an elderly gentleman — easily in his eighties or nineties – approached and began talking to me. At first, I thought he was just making conversation (“Have you got everything you need?”) but when he began talking to me as though he knew me (“Will we be paying for the peaches up front? Did you get them all? How many do we need for dessert?”), I realized that something wasn’t quite right.

I’m still not sure what exactly was going on – whether he had some form of dementia, whether he was just confused, or whether he merely had mistaken me for the girl working behind the register (she was a gorgeous young brunette, so it’s entirely possible) – and I didn’t want to be rude, so I cheerily answered his questions as kindly but vaguely as I could (so as not to further confuse him)… but it was so freakin’ hard because he sounded just like my grandpa.

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Great with Annie, summer 2007.

Yes, he looked vaguely like him too – the square-ish face, the familiar jowls, the wrinkles around his eyes – but it was his voice that nearly did me in. It wasn’t bad, really – it was just completely unexpected, because, aside from videos, the last time I’d heard my grandfather speak was when Annie was nine months old.

And it wasn’t just a close facsimile; this gentleman sounded exactly like him. The nuances, the cadence… For the first time in forever, I was hearing my grandfather’s voice. It was strange and startling and completely overwhelming. I paid for the peaches, bid the man goodbye, got back into the car, and promptly burst into tears (which my children totally appreciated).

Nick was wonderfully supportive of my little breakdown, telling me he’d be weirded out, too, and that I wasn’t an utter nutball. There was a pause before he added, “That was totally your grandpa saying hi, you know.” I looked at him as though he’d lost his mind – um, I don’t know how to break it to you, but grandpa’s been gone for, like, a long time now – but he simply smiled and continued. “We’re on the way to the lake. He and Phoofsy stopped by here a lot. So it’s the perfect place for him to just pop by – not literally, of course – and let you know that he’s still thinking about you. “

This cannot be proven, but I have no doubt that Nick is right. Of all the traits my grandfather possessed, being complimentary wasn’t one of them; not to your face, anyway. Instead, he would regale his friends with tales of your accomplishments and they, in turn, would come to you and say, “Wow – your art opening was really something incredible. Your grandfather told me all about it.” (Okay, so I never had an art opening – don’t be absurd – but if I did, I’m sure he wouldn’t have told me that he liked it. Everyone else would have on his behalf.)

So it makes perfect sense that my grandpa would be checking in through someone else, even if it was just to say hi. Or to talk about peaches.

And if it wasn’t him reaching out from the great beyond? Well, that’s okay, too. I grinned from ear to ear for the rest of the ride (after I’d stopped crying and assured the girls that I wasn’t insane) at the mere thought that it could be, and that’s all that really matters.

greatsgonnauhoh
One of my favorite photos of Great and Ella – he’s “threatening” to take a drink out of her sippy cup. The look on his face pretty much sums him up.

 

It’s been a (very) sweet trip

I came by my love of recorded media – movies, television, music – honestly. My great-grandfather, whose stage name was Colonel Stoopnagle, was something of a radio star back in the 1930s. He considered himself a wordsmith, and often did bits (and wrote books) showcasing the cleverness of the English language.

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He also did print ads, like this (copy of) one that hangs in our bathroom. I’d like to think he would have gotten a kick out of looking over us on the loo. I imagine he also got a kick out of the apostrophe erroneously place in the word PROs; oh, the irony.

Stoopnagle’s son – my grandfather – spent his working career with a local Rochester television affiliate. A tinkerer who couldn’t stand to sit idle, he built a television set for the family (including my mom) in the days before you could easily go out and buy one. As I understand it, there wasn’t much to watch on said television, but hey – they were ready when things changed.

My mother, a theater major in college, loved all recorded media, and she shared that love with my brother and me. Her record collection was (is?) extensive, and although I know we had a car that played eight-tracks, the memory is distant, because we always ventured into new media technology as soon as it became available. When I was in the third grade, my mom picked up a friend and me from school (I was having the friend over – back then, there was no such thing as a “play date;” friends just “came over”), and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was playing from the stereo. Impressed (rock on, Mom!), I told her that I loved that song… and POP! she ejected the brand new “Thriller” cassette from the player on the dashboard. How funky and strong is my fight now?!

Similarly, while I imagine that we must have had Beta tapes, I don’t have specific memories of them because as soon as VHS became available, we were in. Not just for playing, either – for recording, too… except that independent hand-held VHS video cameras hadn’t come into play yet (although, the moment they did, you can bet we had them) – you had to tether the video camera to the VCR in order to record. For movies taken, say, in the living room where the television was, this wasn’t so bad. The recordings were live-streamed to the TV, which meant that our home movies feature the profiles of all of the video participants (i.e. me, my brother, our unwitting friends who’d come over for a birthday celebration) because we were enthralled with seeing ourselves on the TV screen – looking toward the camera was so not fun – but they were relatively easy to do, technically speaking. For anything more than, like, twenty feet from the TV, however, my dad would strap the VCR to his shoulder – yes, really, the entire VCR machine – and follow us around, video camera in-hand, tethered to the recorder.

Those were the days.

Having just one VCR was lovely – and I think, for a little while, that’s what we did – but it was limiting; all you could do was record from a single source and put it right on the tape. It didn’t take long, then, for us to acquire two VCRs, and for my mom to put them to good use. Sure, you could record things from two different televisions at the same time (which my mom continued to do right up until DVDs became the rage; more than once, I remember calling her from college – frantic – and asking her to please tape a crucial episode of Friends for me). But, more importantly, you could record from one VHS tape to another.

This was handy for creating home movies. No longer did we have to save entire school plays when all that my parents really wanted were the thirty seconds that my brother and I were visible from behind the towering third-graders; instead, the play was recorded onto one VHS tape and then – through the magic of more tethering – the crucial thirty seconds were recorded onto a second VHS tape. In this way, we were able to winnow down entire years’ worth of footage into bite-sized clips.

What I really remember, though, are the collections of show tunes that my mom culled together. I grew up in the era of mix tapes, but I think my mother may have invented the mix VHS. She would record a favorite movie musical off of the TV – The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, or Singin’ in the Rain – and then transfer just a snippet, maybe “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Make ‘Em Laugh”, onto another VHS tape, so that it contained clip after clip after clip of her most beloved songs and dances.

It wasn’t just movies, either. Any time there was music on the TV that was worthy of watching again, from songs performed at the Tony Awards to orchestral selections from Fourth of July celebrations (complete with fireworks) to bits and pieces from talk shows or even commercials, it went on the mix VHS collections. And this is how I so vividly remember Shirley Temple being a part of our lives.

I was introduced to Shirley so long ago that I don’t remember life without her; she came into our living room, beaming her dimpled smile at us and boing-ing her perfect curls, and dancing – oh, the dancing! – up a storm. She was adorable and sweet, sure, but it was really the dancing that had me hooked. How was it possible for someone that tiny to tap dance like that? I was in awe.

We watched her movies (which my mom had recorded from the TV onto VHS tapes) – The Little Colonel, Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Littlest Rebel, Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, The Blue Bird – and I loved them… but I was more interested in seeing the musical numbers – which was convenient, because my mom had them cued up on her VHS mixes.

Shirley Temple was just so stinkin’ fabulous, wasn’t she? Admonishing the kids in “Animal Crackers in my Soup” or bopping along the train in “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. She was charming and cute, an exuberantly dynamite little powerhouse who held her own against her adult co-stars. They held their own against her, too, simultaneously talking to her like a child (because, um, she was one) and treating her as their equal, undoubtedly fully aware that this ringleted moppet was the real reason so many people would flock to the theater.

I could have watched for hours (and probably did) as Shirley swished alongside Buddy Ebson in “At the Codfish Ball”, nimbly hopping on and off wooden crates while, you know, tap dancing – but not cutesy kid tap dancing, where you go Awwww, she’s pretty good for her age! but real tap dancing, where you go, DAMN! She holds her own against other hoofers! My very favorite, though, was whenever she would dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a man for whom a special place is reserved in the tap dancing pantheon. Here was this little – and I mean little, like seven year-old – girl, dancing brilliantly alongside a seasoned veteran… who happened to be Black. Yes, he played stereotypical roles for a Black man in the 1930s (in this case, most often a butler for white folks), but Shirley and Bojangles broke that color barrier (as the first white female and black male to dance onscreen together, fo’ real) and it was awesome.

Just try to watch the two of them dance up the stairs and not smile. No, really. Try it.

shirley and bojangles
I found this at this site and, even though it’s not from a movie set, I love it. Actually, I think I love it more because it’s not from a movie set – they’re just buds.

As soon as my girls were old enough (by which I mean as soon as they could sit still and watch a television screen for ten minutes at a clip… which, for Annie, was around 4 months old; that’s what having an older sister will do for you), I began introducing them to Shirley Temple’s songs and dances – only this time, we used the modern-day version of my mom’s old VHS mixes: YouTube. I’d plug in the song that was in my head and up would pop a clip, instantly available, for the girls and me to enjoy and laugh and gasp about, just as I did sitting beside my mom on the living room couch while the VCR whirred away.

True to my mother and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, we have embraced technology, especially when it comes to recorded media. While I am far from a fan of all modern technology, and while Nick and I impose pretty strict screen time limits, I will forever be grateful to the likes of YouTube for enabling me to share those bits of my childhood, of my own story, with Ella and Annie. Heck, I can even show them clips of Colonel Stoopnagle on Youtube – which is pretty damn incredible, if you ask me.

Which you didn’t. But I’m telling you anyway.

I was really bummed to learn of Shirley Temple’s passing today… but her legacy will live on. For one thing, my children (and my cousins – howdy, Andrew and Brian!) are unlikely to stop ordering ginger ale and grenadine any time soon, so Shirley is here to stay. For another, Annie’s perpetual washing-of-her-face using only her forefingers a la the song “Early Bird” from Captain January makes me wring my hands each time I see it.

shirley
USE ALL OF YOUR FINGERS! YOUR FACE ISN’T CLEAN!!
(Seriously, this part of the song has bugged me since I was a kid. STILL DIRTY!)

And, of course, we have Shirley’s body of work to entertain, enthrall, and enlighten us from now until, well, forever. I plan to purchase some of her movies on DVD to show the girls (in addition to the couple that I already own, courtesy of my mom, naturally), but in the meantime, YouTube clips will happily tide us over. She is a part of our lives, ingrained, woven in, and I can’t imagine it any other way.

As the girls came home from school, I was in the middle of writing this and had the various YouTube clips playing so that I could link to them properly. Without even being in the room, Ella heard three bars of “At the Codfish Ball” and said, “Is that Shirley Temple?” Yes, honey. It is. She made our lives richer and more colorful, and I’m sad that she’s gone – but I can’t wait to watch her with you tonight.

Nor can I wait to see how you share her with your own children; it’s in your genes – I know you will. And they will laugh and roll their eyes at the thought of us using something as antiquated as YouTube to watch her – but I’m good with that, because I know that I’ll have embraced that kind of media, too. Right after my mom does.