For much of the first 10 years of my life, Grandpa was a mystery to me. As opposed to Grandma, who was flamboyant, opinionated, talkative and unforgettable, Grandpa seemed unapproachable, stoic, unemotional and quiet. When Grandpa did speak, it was in a low growl my young ears had difficulty deciphering. Mom and I spent nearly every holiday at my grandparents’ house in Queens Village – two subways and a bus away from our apartment in the Bronx – where Grandpa usually stayed anchored to his chair, eyes glued to the television which, during baseball season, was always showing the New York Mets game. Sometimes, Grandpa read the Daily News in his chair, sometimes he napped. But, he rarely spoke unless spoken to and didn’t rise out of the chair until it was time to carve the Thanksgiving turkey or lead the family in a pre-dinner prayer.
I wasn’t too enthusiastic when Mom suggested I interview Grandpa for a fifth-grade genealogy project that required an interview with an older relative. But, off we went to Queens Village one Saturday, my blue loose-leaf binder and my mini, green and white boom box (so I could record the interview) in tow. All I knew about Grandpa was that he liked – no, loved – baseball. I was just starting to take an interest baseball and the majority of my brief conversations with Grandpa involved the Mets in some way, shape or form. It seemed the only time Grandpa would get animated is when he discussed the Mets or some of the great, black ballplayers of the past. Grandpa was particularly fond of Willie Mays. Mom told me a story once that, when she was a child, Grandpa took the family – Mom is the oldest of four – to a game at Shea Stadium when Mays was playing for the Mets at the end of his career. Every time Mays batted, Mom said, Grandpa stood up and removed his hat.
For the interview, Grandpa sat in his chair and I sat on the couch, my mini boom box between us on the glass coffee table. My nervousness started when I asked the first question, but quickly subsided as I listened to Grandpa. He told me about his childhood in rural North Carolina, growing up with eight brothers and one sister. When he was my age, Grandpa explained, he rode a mule to plow the fields on the family farm, where they grew tobacco and other cash crops; as sharecroppers, the family’s entire livelihood depended on those plants. Grandpa told me about being educated in a one-room schoolhouse, which he attended through eighth grade. He didn’t go to high school. Grandpa talked about moving to New York City to find work when he was 18, followed by several years of working odd jobs and a stint in the Army during the Korean War. Shortly after moving to New York, Grandpa said, he pitched for the Brooklyn Browns, which Grandpa described as a semipro team that served as a farm club for several Negro Leagues teams. He told me his two heroes were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson. Because of Robinson, Grandpa was a Dodgers fan before they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958, four years before the Mets came into being.
After that interview, I realized that, even though Grandpa didn’t speak much, whatever he did say was worth listening to. As I got older, we talked more and more about baseball. He told me about his frustration with Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the one-time Mets phenoms whose careers were dimmed by drug and alcohol abuse. Both of them “could’ve backed their way into the Hall of Fame,” Grandpa likes to say; he took Gooden’s and Strawberry’s failings so personally, you would’ve though they were his own sons (coincidentally, Grandpa’s one son – my uncle – has battled drug addiction most of his life). I began to understand why Grandpa purchased bicycles for all of his children and grandchildren when they were old enough to learn how to ride; he and his nine siblings had to share one bike. Three things stand out from my one and only round of catch with Grandpa, which occurred when I was a teenager and he was in his sixties: the half-smile on his face, his three-quarters throwing motion and the zip on his throws; if Grandpa had a more privileged upbringing that arm could’ve taken him places, I thought. I learned that Grandpa did everything from wash dishes to drive trucks after he left North Carolina before he secured a job with the City of New York; Grandpa helped build and maintain the city’s water and sewer systems, working his way up to supervisor. The work wasn’t glamorous, but it allowed Grandpa to provide for his family and left him with a very good pension upon his retirement a quarter century ago.
Today is Grandpa’s 81st birthday – we think. The people who worked for the census arrived in his hometown to record the latest births and deaths in late April or early May of 1931, Grandpa once explained, and he may or may not have been born on April 30th, the date our family celebrates his birthday; Grandpa wasn’t born in a hospital and doesn’t have a birth certificate, so he may never know the exact date for sure. Regardless of his exact birth date, Grandpa lives alone – Grandma passed away nearly nine years ago – in that same house in Queens Village where he raised his four children. Grandpa loves to brag about not needing a “stick” to get around and he still plans his days around the Mets’ schedule. Ask Grandpa about the Mets and he’ll tell you “they’re doing pretty good” or “they’re not doing too good.”
Grandpa is the man I hope to be. Someone whose action speaks louder than his words but, when he does speak, people listen. Someone who values hard work. Someone who finds a way and doesn’t make excuses. Someone who’s passionate about whatever he does, whether it’s watching baseball or providing for his family.
Happy Birthday, Grandpa. I’m glad I’ve gotten to know you.Follow @raford3