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DIANNE KLEIN

A Time Not for Goodbys, but for Hellos

August 23, 1992|DIANNE KLEIN | Dianne Klein's column appears Sunday

I see my grandfather maybe once a year, and our visits are always short. I come accompanied by my husband, two daughters and a tight schedule that invariably places us on an airplane soon.

For many years now, this is how the visits with my grandfather have been, squeezed in, a stopover to someplace else.

After his greeting kisses--kisses that have felt the same for as long as I can remember--Pop will sit in his favorite chair with his pipe nearby. Each year, I have to talk a little louder to be heard; his voice seems louder, too.

And Jane, Pop's "new" wife of 20 years, will offer food. She is diabetic but always has sweets on hand.

Soon we'll all settle down to chat, with the exception of my daughters, who fidget most of the time.

There are minor variations, of course. This year, the baby gave her great-grandfather a kiss. He will be 82 this fall; she will turn 2 in a few months.

My older daughter, nearly 6, liked her gift of a "101 Dalmatians" T-shirt and shorts so much that she changed into the outfit on the spot. I felt strangely proud about that.

Still, most things at Pop's house stay about the same.

Just before we leave, I'll get out my camera. We always take several shots, although the poses under the oak tree in the front yard barely change. Grown-ups smile, kids squint. My husband and I rotate from behind the camera lens.

Then as we're climbing into the car in the driveway, either Pop or Jane will ask when we're coming back.

"Oh, who knows?" I say. "Maybe next year. You know how things are."

As we pull out, everybody waves. Jane and Pop don't go back inside until we are out of sight. Then, later, it will hit me.

"Yeah, right," I'll tell myself. " How things are ."

I think of my grandmother then.

She married Pop, a mechanic, when she was 17. My sister and I called her Nan. Her name was Ethel, but that didn't fit. "Ethel Mae!" my sister and I would call to her, trilling out her real name as a joke, and then we would laugh. Nan would, too.

Nan died of breast cancer--young, very young, it seems. My mother says she was 59, but in my mind, she was 49, if that. I think of her as so alive.

When the life began to drain from her, I didn't see. My mother didn't tell me and I didn't ask. This was just another hospital stay, I thought. I started visiting less. When my mother would tell me she was heading to the hospital, I'd stay home.

It was boring, depressing, long , sitting next to her bed. I was 15 years old.

Nan died before dawn one morning, during that same hospital stay. I knew it, somehow, when the phone rang beside my bed. My father came to tell me the news. I was awake and waiting for someone to confirm the worst.

I never told Nan goodby. I can't even remember the last time we spoke. Now I talk to her in my head. Sometimes I cry.

I'll never forget that image of Pop, crying too, as he bent over to kiss Nan one last time. We were at her funeral.

Tributes seem easier when the person who should hear them is not around. We should have, we could have, but too often, we don't. We are afraid of embarrassment, of being maudlin, of eliciting a response and of not eliciting one.

I know I am. It's easier to think of other things, the life blips that grind into routine. Visits with a loved grandfather are squeezed in.

It wasn't always so.

I remember the time that Pop took my sister and me fishing on the lake and that camping trip where Nan made him honk at every historical landmark we'd pass on the road. I guess my sister and I were supposed to feel enriched, but ensconced in the camper shell, we'd just hoot. Pop understood the joke.

I remember too that Pop seemed always to be fixing my Fiat Spider. He hated those crummy little foreign cars. I imagine he still does, although it has been a while since I asked.

I haven't been around.

This time during our visit, my husband expressed his admiration of Pop's tool collection, displayed for utility's sake on the wall of his garage. The difference between these two men is that my grandfather cannot only name but actually use each implement my husband finds so cool. Pop gets this joke, too.

I love him for that and more. I want him to know. This is not a goodby. It's a hello again. I'm glad you're around.

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