An unknown birthday

By the

January 18, 2001

Monday was my grandfather’s birthday. I never met him; he passed away before I was born. I hear bits and pieces about him from my dad and grandma, but when I think about it, I don’t really know much about him at all. I suppose I’m lucky to still have my other three grandparents, but I still wish I’d gotten to know him. Call me greedy, I guess.

The first time I remember seeing a photo of my grandpa, there was no need for anyone to point out which one he was. The striking resemblance to my dad notwithstanding, I was pretty sure that he was not the one holding a spear, wearing a loincloth and sporting a bone through his nose. It seems I had stumbled upon a picture of my grandpa taken while he was stationed in New Guinea during World War II. I’ve seen a few other pictures of him since then, but that’s the image that has stuck in my mind. His pale, Polish complexion contrasted with the sun-ripened skin of the islander, the khaki shirt and pants I would normally associate with Ernest Hemingway and the dark frames of his Buddy Holly eyeglasses: These are the details that I will forever associate with him, no matter how many other pictures I may see.

Only one other photo was equally striking: the portrait of him and my grandma on their wedding day. They both looked so young, so hopeful, so … much like me. It’s a little disconcerting to think of your grandparents at your age, without the gray hair and endearing wrinkles you’ve grown used to. They seemed to be different people, although I suppose they were then.

While I was growing up, my grandma (I call her Cago) told me nostalgically how Papa Cago went flying all the time and how he would have taken me with him if he were still around. I relished that idea. I could just imagine getting a call on a Saturday afternoon and jumping in the car with him as we headed for the airfield. After dodging in and out of the clouds, we would spend a few hours just hanging around the airport. My grandpa would joke around with his friends, brag about teaching his granddaughter how to fly (along with everything else grandparents seem compelled to boast about) and share a root beer float with me before we headed home. My fantasies always seem to have a movie-like sense to them, and this one has all the makings of a feel-good family flick.

In more recent years, Cago has made her and Papa Cago’s first date the anecdote of choice. It was New Year’s Eve and they went to a dance or a party together (that part was never quite clear, but I don’t suppose it really matters); something clicked between them that night; and despite the hearing the same story repeatedly, it’s still intriguing to imagine this person?my grandfather?having such an effect on her.

I was raised in a Catholic family, so I’ve always been taught to believe in heaven and that, someday, I will see everyone who has died before me. Upon first thinking about it, I felt comforted by the notion. But the more I thought about it, the more I always wondered: How would my grandpa look in heaven?as he did in the photographs, youthful and happy to be alive, or as he did when he succumbed to the leukemia, older and pained? Would he be anything like the ideal I’ve concocted in my mind? Would I recognize him? Would he recognize me?

  • * *

So that’s it; that’s all I know. When I started writing this piece I intended it to be a summary of my grandfather’s life. I didn’t get too far before I realized that I could probably only fill one paragraph if a summary was all this was going to consist of. I’m still disappointed that I missed the chance to grow up knowing my grandpa; but with the fragments of his life that I do know, I’m looking forward to meeting him someday. Happy birthday Papa Cago!

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