Sunday, April 17, 2011

The biggest surprise

When I was talking with New York Times contributor Paula Span recently about the experience of cleaning out the condo, she asked me a great question: "What was the biggest surprise?" Nothing specific came to mind right away. It had been nearly a year since I'd locked that door for the last time, and my mind was cluttered with more current things, but a few weeks after the conversation, the memory of it suddenly hit me.

I had found the biggest surprise in the drawer of Opa's bedside table, underneath the index cards with illustrated directions for how to connect the High-8 video camera to the TV and VCR, a neatly folded sheet of typed lyrics for the Star Spangled Banner, five flashlights that didn't work, his stash of double-salt licorice, and a lot of miscellaneous batteries. It was inside of a small blue box with foreign writing on it that didn't look like Dutch to me. I mindlessly opened it, figuring that it was probably another "gift" that had come in the mail from some charity; another calculator or clock or something along those lines. I was two months into the clean-out process at that point, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the contents of the two bedrooms and their respective closets, but to find myself holding an Italian tear gas pistol came as a complete shock to me.

The biggest surprise

When I asked him about it, Opa said, "Oh, that's my revolver. It's for if someone breaks in at night."  I sat there trying to imagine a scenario in which my 95 year old grandfather, who has the steadiest, but largest hands I have ever seen, would successfully load teeny tiny tear gas caps, in the dark, without his glasses on, into this pistol, after first finding it underneath all the other stuff that was on top of it in the drawer.

Then I thought about all the nights during the previous four years when I had stayed up late after flying down for my long weekend visits, waiting for my grandparents to fall asleep so that I could sneak into the kitchen to reload the dishwasher with the dishes that had been put away dirty, sort through the contents of kitchen cabinets to find the source of rancid odors, and dump expired bottles of Thousand Island salad dressing down the garbage disposal. I began to imagine the story that might have run in the Herald Tribune if Opa's hearing loss had not been so profound, "Woman in pantry, surrounded by outdated boxes of Rice-a-Roni, teargassed by her grandfather who mistook her for an intruder..."

Opa is one of the most trusting people I have ever met, which is what made the discovery so hard to believe. If the pistol had been in the drawer on my grandmother's side of the bed, it would have all made so much more sense to me, but the people who have known Opa throughout his life agree that he'd be far more inclined to offer a burglar a cup of tea than to respond with self-defense.

He did not remember where he had bought the gun, or when, but my aunt put the pieces of the story together. She had lived in Uganda with her husband and young children between 1967-69. During a period of frequent break-ins and politic strain, they were advised to obtain tear gas for their personal safety. This wasn't something they could easily purchase locally, so they wrote to Opa for help. She didn't know that he'd bought one for himself too, but that must have been what happened. Neither of the weapons were ever fired.

While I was on the phone hearing the rest of the story, Opa sat at the kitchen table, wearing the coffee stained shirt that I hadn't been able to get him to change all week. Someone on The Price is Right was bidding on the showcase. As I watched him carefully sorting paper clips into neat piles of different sizes and colors, I could see it all so clearly, the X-Acto knife he'd used to cut the pages out of the center of a hardcover edition of Reader's Digest Collected Stories, the hours of letting the glue dry around the section that would hold the pistol, the long drive in his '66 Dodge Dart to a post office out of town, the fake return address, the successful smuggling operation. His strong desire to protect the people he loves; a lump rising in my throat. After I hung up the phone, I swallowed hard and said the only thing I could think of,  "Opa, would you like to go out for ice cream after lunch?"


  1. My grandmother once caught a burglar climbing into her back window, which he had broken. He immediately told her some story about having cut his hand and that he was looking for band-aids to cover the cut. (!!!) She calmly, as only my grandmother would have done, told him to sit down, gave him a towel to staunch the bleeding, served him tea and then went off to get her first aide kit.

    Of course she called the police while she was getting the kit, and then waited and listened to his tales of woe over tea and cheese and wholegrain toast for the authorities to arrive, unbeknownst to him, of course.

    Thanks for jarring that memory free. I love how much you love your grandfather.

  2. Karen, THAT is a fantastic story. Thanks.

  3. wow , as a shocked surprise ! awesome perform thanks for discussing really like this way.