Happy 101st Birthday

June 17, 2011. Were he still alive today would have been my grandfather’s 101st birthday. I’m sure I would have written about his centennial celebration last year had I been actively writing then. Suffice to say, I’m sure Pappy will forgive me for holding out a year as I blog about him today. But the truth is, not many days go by where something about him doesn’t cross my mind.

My story about Pap (or Willard Z. Appleman as he was known to most grown ups) isn’t one of the usual “grandfather takes grandson fishing” type. In fact, for all intents and purposes, I really only had that kind of bonding relationship with Pap for the first six years of my life. And even then fishing wasn’t one of the things we did.

When I was born my family had been living with my grandparents in their house on south side Easton. Pap was working as a dyer in a silk mill for many years although I was too young to remember him ever going off to work. I only remember him being “around” if that’s the right word for it. To me, my Pap was just too good to be employed by someone else. And oddly enough the way I found out that he once had a real job was by reading his obituary as a teenager. But even though he too worked for “the man” that didn’t diminish his “superhero” persona to me.

Pap was one of those meticulous types that loved to take care of his yard. If he wasn’t chopping down some tree or weeding he was mowing the few acres of land he had. All with one of those hand mowers no less. I can imagine him taking an entire Sunday to do yard work every week in the Summer. And he probably loved every minute of it.

When I was five, and could actually start remembering things, I recall all the times he would ask me to take a trip down to Seiple’s hardware store across town. I’d run outside and jump in the front seat of his Rambler and soon we’d be off. Those drives are what I remember most about my days with Pap. It seemed like we would be driving for hours to get to the store but in reality the shop was only about two miles away. Youth has a way of making good times seem to last forever.

I don’t have any fun tales about what we talked about on the ride. It was just me driving to Seiple’s with my Pap. It was the only thing I remember: the drive, but that was good enough for me.

From what I was told growing up, in addition to being my grandfather, Pap was also a scientist. I heard many stories from my great aunts and uncles about how he could cross-pollinate an azalea plant and make a new species or even how he invented a cure for baldness that really worked. Looking back now, I wish he would have passed the recipe for the latter down to me.

About the only thing I didn’t like about living with Pap was his dog. He had the most obnoxious chihuahua you’d ever want to meet but Pap loved the hell out of him. His name was Butchie and all did was growl if you came within ten feet of Pap. The dog was loyal to him, hated everyone else and had no problem showing it. I still cringe to this day when I think about that hell hound.

In 1975, around the time of his 65th birthday, Pap suffered a major stroke. Suddenly, the man who had worked tirelessly all his life and was getting ready to retire was unable to walk on his own or feel anything on his left side. It just didn’t seem fair and as a 5 year old boy I couldn’t understand why something so bad could happen to my Pap. Especially because I just thought Pap went to the hospital for a checkup and would be home soon. At least that’s what I had been told.

When Pap did come home he obviously wasn’t the same. He couldn’t walk on his own or talk anymore. Anything he said sounded like something a baby might say. When I first saw him come through the door in a wheel chair with my grandmother pushing him I knew right away the days of riding shotgun in his Rambler to the hardware store were over. And to add insult to injury shortly after Pap came home, Butchie suddenly died. It was as if he knew that his master would never be the same.

Over the next nine years we all adjusted to Pap being, well, Pap. He would spend most days sitting upstairs in the parlor watching TV with my grandmother. At mid day my grandmother would help him walk back to his bed to take a nap and afterwards, right back for more TV.

If he ever needed something when someone wasn’t sitting with him, he had a bell he’d ring to alert us or he’d yell out and someone would come tend to his needs which frequently, became the need to help him light his cigars.

One of the things I always admired about Pap was his artistic ability. I had seen quite a few oil paintings he had done over the course of many years. Sadly, the paints were put away permanently by the stroke but yet he was able to find another outlet for his love of art. He always liked to draw horses with his bum hand. 

I have to admit, in the beginning they looked like something someone from kindergarten would draw and rightly so. Pap pretty much had to learn how to do everything all over again. But soon enough the drawings became more defined and we loved to watch him create his masterpieces.

Every summer we would have a big picnic on the patio. Relatives from all over would gather and we would wheel Pap down to enjoy the company. And Christmases were just as fun as we’d put up our fake tree in the parlor with Pap being the architect of the project.

He would sit there and tell us when a ball looked out of place or if the garland wasn’t running just right. You couldn’t understand a word he said but we always knew what he meant. Good times.

By early 1984 his condition began to worsen. My grandmother’s advancement in age would no longer allow for her to take care of him alone so inevitably, Pap went into a nursing home. On August 13th of that year he passed away at the age of 74.  With his passing my grandmother lost her husband of 51 years and I lost my Pap. Sadly though, the worst was still to come.

A few days later we went to Pap’s funeral services. I could not tell you what was said or who all was there. Pap had many friends I had never met. He was also going by nicknames like “Woody” and “Brother Will” and I was confused as to who called him what. To me, he was always Pap.

Then the time came to say the final goodbye and I think you know the one I mean. The one where you file past the deceased, out of the room and the casket is closed for good. I thought I would make it out unscathed. I had relatives die before but never thought much about it. I never went to any funerals. Even one of my great aunts died around the same time Pap suffered his stroke but I was too young to even bat an eye. But just as I was leaving I watched my grandmother fall to pieces.

She was sobbing over the casket and saying how much she was going to miss him and that’s when it really hit me. The tears began to flow and a fourteen year old boy was devastated. I was going to miss him too. That day still haunts me.

I knew Pap’s birthday was today and for some reason decided to look at one of the old photo albums I have. While reminiscing about Pap I stumbled upon his obituary from the newspaper clipping we had saved. I’ve probably read it dozens of times over the years but after reading it this time, a smile actually came across my face.

The date of Pap’s funeral service, my grandmother’s breakdown over the casket and me crying my eyes out and saying goodbye was August 16th, 1984. Seventeen years to the day after that horrible event, my daughter was born. Coincidence? I’m not so sure.

So happy birthday Pap. I know that where ever you are God has you taking care of his yard. Whenever I see azaleas I think about you and still miss you terribly. Oh, and if there’s any way you can send a message from the great beyond, I could still REALLY use that cure for male pattern baldness.

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