Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Step-Grandpa

From the time when my mother married my stepfather when I was seven to when I was nine years old, the three of us lived in the company of my stepfather's dad. Not wanting to disrespect my "true" grandparents by implying that he was as influential in my life as they were, he and my parents told me to address him by his first name, Bob.

Aside #1: I don't know if this was actually their reason for this, but it was what I believed while growing up and what I will continue to assume unless told otherwise.

As most seven year-olds would be when thrown into living with a senior citizen they hadn't grown up around, I was incredibly apprehensive about the situation at first. After all, he didn't only live with us, he actually lived with us. I'd never seen anything like it before. He watched TV. He took showers. He ate dinner with us. He even lived in the bedroom next to mine. It was as if they had adopted another child, except this one swore a lot and didn't have regular bowel movements.

Aside #2: Because I can't find a way to coherently incorporate it into the above paragraph, I'll just mention it here: Bob lived with my stepfather before he married my mom. That is all.

But after a few weeks, I became accustomed to having him around. Usually, I'd arrive home from school to find him sitting on the couch watching the news or reading his Bible. Once I'd become completely comfortable around him, we'd go on walks together, where he would explain how the colorful Southwestern Bell telephone line-marker flags I was pulling up and collecting were actually placed there by a kid around my age who had gone on a walk alone and left a trail so he didn't get lost, and that he wouldn't be able to find his way home if I continued to take them.

Basically, he completely fabricated a story that was tailored to my adolescent mindset to give me an actual reason to stop taking the flags, rather than just telling me "don't do that" like a normal adult would have.

Aside #3: One of my favorite things I ever asked him on one of these walks was how cigarette filters tasted if you continued to smoke past the tobacco. His answer? "Burning paper. Don't try it if you ever smoke."

Because of his demonstrative way of passing down wisdom, Bob would teach me three of the most important things I've ever learned in my life over the course of the next two years; through things he did, not things he said.

Lesson #1 - The world around you is important, always keep up with current events.

There was a woman that lived across the street from us with her husband and three kids that Bob would talk to regularly, named Jane. She was notorious for getting her news updates through Bob, because she didn't read the newspaper or own a television.

Aside #4: It's sort of implied, but I'll say it anyways: This was in an age before the internet was most peoples' primary source for news.

One evening, Bob realized how dependent she was on him for this, and decided to play a prank on Jane, telling her that there was supposed to be a massive solar eclipse the following morning around 7 AM (when Jane would be waking up, and in her windowed kitchen making coffee). After explaining that the eclipse would make it pitch black outside around this time, he told her not to open her blinds during the few minutes the eclipse would last because she might unintentionally look into the sun and be blinded. Taking his word as truth, she believed him implicitly.

Late that night, long after Jane and the rest of her family had gone to sleep, Bob walked across the street with a handful of thick black trash bags and a roll of duct tape, affixing them over the few windows Jane would walk by on her way to the kitchen the next morning.

It worked perfectly. The way she told it, she woke up in her dark room and walked down a dark hallway into her dark kitchen, where no sunlight was shining through any window. She became suspicious and went outside, she explained, after the "eclipse" hadn't ended by the time her pot of coffee was done brewing.

Lesson #2 - Work can be entertaining, if you make it.

Sometime during the first six months of my mother and stepfather's marriage, they decided to paint the entire interior of our house peach. I don't know why, but it happened. Naturally, Bob and I were enlisted to help, with me taking on most non-painting duties (like watching!) as he worked on painting the living room.

Watching him work was infinitely more entertaining than watching either of my parents work. He would paint shapes and simple little drawings to entertain me as I valiantly tried to stop myself from dipping my Hot Wheels in the paint. He joked that he would paint a mural while I was at school one day, even though he only had the single color.

Lo and behold, he did. Sort of. You see, this story happens to take place the same week as Halloween, and Bob apparently realized that peach isn't so far from the fall season's head color, orange. So he painted a giant, smiling jack-'o-lantern on one of the walls in the hallway that lead to our kitchen. Upon my arrival home, I nearly shit myself with happiness when I saw that an adult had done something so cool. He had even left it out for me to see, meaning that it dried completely before he painted over it later that day.

That also means that every time I would walk by that wall, and look at it from a certain angle in the right light, I could see the faintest outline of a grinning pumpkin, years after it was painted.

Lesson #3 - Learn to make fun of yourself, before others do.

I don't know or remember what planted the seed of the idea that I was obsessed with the then-ridiculously popular Britney Spears into Bob's head, but after about a year of knowing me, he suddenly would not stop hassling me about it, teasing me every time she was on TV or in the newspaper.

Aside #5: He even left a Britney Spears poster for me to find in my room one day, suspiciously signed "To Tyler, Love Britney S. XOXO" in Bob's all-caps handwriting. That's how bad it got.

Being a hotheaded child that hated being made fun of even a little bit (like I still am), I chose not to ignore him and was subsequently driven mad by his constant success in pissing me off.

Like one earthquake triggering another, my anger turned into nonchalance over time, and soon I was reacting to her appearances in media faster than he was, with mock excitement. I don't he was ever as proud of me as he was the few times I did that.

But unfortunately, as I mentioned above, my time spent with Bob didn't last more than two years. He moved out to live with his brother and other family members in Rochester, New York, on an alpaca farm. From there, he would send us letters and photos every month or two, either of the crazy weather they were having or members of his family in the crazy weather they were having. They had a photo printer and loved to use it.

Aside #6: Seriously, if you went through my photo collection, you would wonder why half of it is comprised of unidentifiable blurry people in snow gear waving at the camera from off in the middle-distance.

One of my favorites was not of either of these things, though. It was of Bob and a young alpaca named Don Diego, standing outside of a veterinary office where the animal was to get some shots that day (as explained on the back of the photo). Along the bottom, a caption reads "This won't hurt?" which was for me at the time, the pinnacle of all things humorous. I put it up on my wall immediately.

A few weeks after sending this last picture, in apropos of nothing, Bob had a stroke in his sleep and passed away. From the moment I found out until the moment I saw him lying in his casket after flying out to Rochester with my parents for the funeral, I didn't believe it was possible for him to be gone. But he was.

It rained on the day of his funeral, which is always fitting. I was in shock for most of the evening afterwards, not really talking to anyone or getting to know these family members I'd never met before. Seeing this, Bob's brother and his wife offered to take me out to the stable to meet a few alpacas, an offer I gloomily accepted.

After meeting the half-dozen they owned and posing for a few obligatory pictures with each one, we returned to the house to print said pictures out to take home with us.

Immediately after plugging the camera in and turning the printer on, a sheet started running through it without having the order to do so. Curious, everyone in the room watched as the printer spit out a sheet of four identical pictures of Bob standing next to Don Diego, caption and all. No one said a word. Then Bob's brother started laughing, followed by everyone else.

It was then that I realized that he'd once again inadvertently taught me a life lesson, one that I value most of all: always keep 'em laughing.

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