My mother was 66 years old when she died. Her mother, the only grandmother I really knew, died when she was 70. I’m 68 now, and thankfully, a whole lot healthier than either one of them were. Not that I wanted them to be unhealthy. You know what I mean.
I grew up with Grandma Gertie and Grandpa Willie at my side. I knew at some point in time that Grandpa Willie was my step-grandfather. The step part never mattered to me. I loved him so much and he showered all of us with love and good humor. It was years after Mom died in ’86 that I even began to wonder who my real grandfather really was. Willie was gone by then, too.
Eventually I learned that Fred Shea was the man who cared for my grandmother when she was just 18 and won a train trip to San Francisco from Missouri as the grand prize in her hometown beauty pageant. Grandma’s father had arranged for his brother Fred, who was living in SF and working for the railroad, to look after young Gertie. Love bloomed, and in the way of the world, uncle and niece fell in love. My mom was born in the spring of 1920.
Sometime, somehow, in the next 15 or so years, Fred was out of the picture.
I tracked down his death certificate. He died in a hospital in San Francisco, from cirrhosis of the liver when he was 63 years old. It was December 23, 1945, 6 days before my parents celebrated their marriage in Grandma Gertie and Grandpa Willie’s home across the bay.
I’ll never know if Mom knew where her dad was. It makes me so sad. Maybe no one he loved knew where he was.
While looking through old pictures just a few years ago, I stumbled upon a picture of my very young and beautiful grandmother sitting next to a strikingly handsome man on a blanket on San Francisco’s foggy Ocean Beach. I knew in that instant I was looking at my grandfather. I also knew why my parents named my brother Fred.
I jumped in my car, sped to the office supply store to get the best magnifying glass they had on hand and rushed back home. When I glared through my powerful new lens, I was gazing on the mirror image of my brothers and my sons.
Finally, I got to meet my own Grandpa Fred.
Tomorrow is his birthday. October 1, 1883. Happy Birthday, Grandpa Fred.