Thursday, June 12, 2014

Pop Pop’s Bank Vault (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

I have dim memories of my father’s father, my Pop Pop. I knew my mother’s father well into my adulthood, but Pop Pop died when I was fourteen, so I didn’t get as many years with him, and especially the years where I could hold a reasonable conversation on topics more broad-ranging than Barbie Dolls and the finer moves needed to win a game of Jacks. Pop Pop didn’t interact much with my sister or me when we visited the Victorian style house with the wrap around porch at 155 Euclid Avenue in Hackensack, New Jersey. Mostly I remember him sitting in his armchair surrounded by stacks of the New York Times.

Pop Pop’s chair could have been Archie Bunker’s chair had the producers of that television show known of it and traveled the 14 miles across the Hudson River to see it, sagged, golden, a matching dust ruffle tacked along the bottom. The chair didn’t recline, but years of use had molded Pop Pop’s form into the back and seat until it fit him like a glove whether he napped or watched Lawrence Welk from the 14” black and white television glowing in the corner across the room. Worn, frayed chair arms betrayed decades of hands rubbing, gripping, and pounding. No one other than Pop Pop sat in the chair. No. One. (I had the audacity to try once, and he yelled at me when he caught me. After that, I waited until I was sure he was out of the house.)

Stacks – and I mean stacks – of back issues of the New York Times surrounded the golden armchair, which sat angled feng shui style in the corner of the living room. He had filled the open space behind his chair with newspapers, neatly piled, column-like, and they rose above his head. The sides were also surrounded, the stacks descending as they approached the windowsill so as not to obscure the window, which years of nicotine and dust had grimed into dysfunction. Smaller piles of recent issues lay at Pop Pop’s feet like reticent lapdogs.

Pop Pop once caught me using the newspapers for a jungle gym. I was old enough to like jungle gyms and young enough – lightweight enough – to climb the stacks without toppling them. Pop Pop, livid, screamed incoherently at me, shaking a finger. I scrambled down and fled the room. Mom and Nanny Bob (Dad’s Mom) consoled me later.

“Why does he keep all those newspapers, anyway?” I asked. No one provided a satisfying explanation. Only the vague, “he just likes them” from Nanny Bob. Mom probably answered along some other lines regarding overall cleanliness. Housekeeping did not concern my father’s parents. (Truthfully, Dad never bothered with it either. I get the “clean gene” from my mother, whose father instilled it in her as well as my aunts and uncle.)

While my parents were still married, we usually traveled to Hackensack at Christmastime. Dad would take us into New York City to watch the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center or drive through snowy Central Park. One year, we rode several elevators to the top of the Empire State Building where I discovered I have a fear of heights. When Mom got Christmas in the divorce, Dad, I, Sis, and (eventually) our stepmother visited Nanny Bob and Pop Pop at Easter. On our first spring visit, I was surprised to see the usual Christmas decorations still up (a two-foot, pre-lit tree with ornaments, and two strings of colored lights that crisscrossed the living room ceiling, sagging just below the central light fixture).

“At their age, it’s easier,” Dad explained. “Safer, too. No ladders.”

Years passed, but little changed at the house on Euclid Avenue. Like my sister and I, the stacks of newspapers grew taller, archives of wars ending and beginning, the deaths of presidents, and marches for equality that, from what I can surmise, my Pop Pop did not support. I suspect his bigotry created conflict with my father (my Dad held no prejudices that I know of – if he did, he never articulated them to me). No visit to Hackensack that I recall omits a shouting match between the two men. Pop Pop could be charming when dining out, though. He donned a tie and jacket, Nanny Bob put on her wig of carefully coiffed curls and a slinky satin dress, and we all piled into the blue 4-door sedan (some American make, I don’t recall which). The waitstaff at Pop Pop’s favorite steakhouse knew my grandparents by name, and I always felt like a VIP when they ushered us to “the usual table.”

On casual outings, we headed to Packard-Bambergers, the grocery store with wooden floors, which seemed like a destination adventure compared to the boring A&P my family shopped at in Virginia Beach. Pop Pop preferred to use the liquor department entrance, which had a green carpeted ramp that passed through a faux wine cellar – stacks of open barrels piled with dark green bottles of wine from every country lined both sides as it inclined into the store. Dad insisted we stop by the snack counter at least once each visit for what he called a “proper hotdog.” The smell of grilled sausage made our mouths water, and the dog casings had a perfect snap. Served on a poppy seed roll with mustard, onions, and sauerkraut, Dad relished every bite. I loved the unusual dining arrangements, standing at a counter, eating with just napkins and a thin paper tray for a plate.

I was in the midst of a highly charged, emotional teenage drama when I learned that Pop Pop had died. My sister found me pounding on the front door of my junior high school BFF’s house, begging her insane mother to return my tape player. The witch refused to answer the door even though we made eye contact through the window – I never got the tape player back, and I really don’t like the woman to this day. Thirty-four years later, I can recall my anguish at the loss of both; Pop Pop’s death was my first, and it terrified me.

When the time came to clean out the old house and sell it (Nanny Bob had dementia, and she moved to Virginia Beach so Dad could take care of her) the stacks of newspapers lost their sanctity and became trash in need of hauling off. I was not present at the time, so I don’t know how many column inches Dad and my stepmother had stuffed into Hefty bags before the first twenty dollar bill fluttered out onto the floor. I only know all the bags had to be upended and sorted carefully; they extracted around $3,000 from between the pages of decades worth of the New York Times. We marveled at the nuttiness of it, and it became one of my “family stories.” (In fact, I wrote a story about that house two decades ago so that I would never forget. I published it here, in tandem with this non-fiction piece, to console myself for not having to buy a Father’s Day card again this year.)

Only in the process of cogitating on this blog piece for the past month or so have I realized the significance of my grandfather’s newsprint stacks. They were not the product of a lazy slob or a hoarder with mental problems. They were not something Pop Pop “just liked.” They were his piggy bank.

A young man during the Great Depression (his only child was born in 1938) I can easily believe my grandfather distrusted banks. From there, I understand how he might be unwilling to lose his money in another crash, so my Pop Pop built a bank vault using stacks of the New York Times. All those hours spent forming that old golden chair to his posterior had, in reality, been hours spent guarding his fortune. No wonder he screamed at us children whenever we got near them. Had we toppled a stack and money fell out, his cash stash would have been revealed. He couldn’t risk it.

After all these years, I feel grateful for this insight. I can forgive the grumpiness he showed me as a child. I can easily access the happier memories – his rare flash of humor and the unexpected warm smile, my amazement that he created the lovely, if overgrown, backyard flower garden, and not my grandmother. I can visualize the calmness that overtook his face as he napped in his chair, surrounded by the New York Times.

A photo of my father (left) and my mother's father (right), and a wooden bear with two paws broken off.

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