Growing up, all I knew about my Grandma Mavis’ boyfriend was that they had been together almost as long as I had been alive and that he liked children to be seen, not heard. So when I ended up moving in with my grandma in third grade I remember feeling a little bit of apprehension when it came to how much “Grandpa” Darrell’s presence might impact my freshly overturned life.
It turned out that my nervousness was misplaced, for the most part. Once my move from Portland, Oregon to Placerville, California was complete, Grandma sat me down over dinner and explained to me the new rules that would dictate my life away from the familiar routines of the home up north with my parents and little sisters. The first rule was one that I had already been accustomed to obeying; “What happens in this house stays in this house”, a rule I figured all households had. Rule number two was equally familiar; “Everything has a place and there is a place for everything.” Her list of rules continued, each one was reasonable, easily understood and something I could follow without complaint. That is, until she got to the end.
“When Darrell is over at the apartment, you can watch TV in the living room but you have to make sure that you are absolutely quiet when his shows are on and only move in front of the TV when a commercial is on.” That is when I found out that Grandpa Darrell only came over on the weekends, when Grandma didn’t have to work the next day. His routine was to come over Friday evening and leave Saturday morning and then before the sun set Saturday night he returned again and stay for breakfast with my Grandma Sunday morning. After breakfast, he made his rounds with the birds they raised together, give her a big kiss, glare at me and walk out the front door, only to return the next Friday.
And that was it, as long as I was silent and invisible, there were no complaints to be heard, my new life was pretty calm and comfortable. The bitch of it was, those damn birds. Birds have a thing for throwing their dander into the air as they preen their feathers and after living with Grandma for a couple of months I developed a rather annoying cough that tended to manifest as each day turned to night. Right about the time Darrell was scheduled to come over to watch TV.
That first weekend I could see him cringing when I coughed, visibly tensing his body as if my coughing caused some sort of electrical shock to pass through him. To his credit that first weekend he remained silent his annoyance, as far as I know. It wasn’t until the next weekend, the very second the first cough of the night happened, that he turned to my Grandma and sternly said, “Mavis, you need to take this animal to see a doctor, he is sick. He has been coughing since last week.” and then he turned his attention back to the TV. There was no conversation to be had, the diagnosis had been made, I needed to get my cough treated.
I felt fine though, the cough only ever bothered me at night. It wasn’t until years later that I would even realize I was allergic to bird dander. When I was still in third grade there was no logical reason for me to be coughing every night, it just happened and I resolved to cough as silently as I could or make it to another room before a fit of coughing took place, so as not to disturb “Grandpa” Darrell. For what it is worth, he seemed to have appreciated the effort, for a couple of weekends at least. But as soon as my passing between him and the TV on my way to the bathroom to cough became a regular thing, his patience was exhausted and I earned the nickname “Ferret”, because all I did was “bark like a damn ferret”.
I don’t think at the time I had ever heard the word “curmudgeon”, but I sure as hell knew the definition of the word, I lived with it two nights a week. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t mean or cruel to me, he never did anything bad, he just didn’t want kids around and loved his routines. Simple enough unless you are a kid with an allergy to the dozen or so birds in the room. All I had to do was not cough, stay silent and away from the front of the TV.
That became the norm though, week after week, month after month, the weekly visits became a part of my life and eventually I started spending the nights at other places Friday and Saturday nights, both to give him the peace he needed and to not spend hours in fear of coughing.
I do remember one day, I don’t know exactly how old I was but I think I was in fourth grade, Darrell took me from Placerville to Sacramento, in his sparkling blue Datsun pickup, for a bird show. I remember him asking my grandma if it was okay and the look of surprise on her face that he considered bringing one of the “animals” to go with him. I knew even then that it was a gesture, him reaching out to me, trying to bond with me using one of the things that we had in common, birds. We spent the day looking at parakeets that had been cross-bred to have tufts of feathers on their heads that reminded me of the Beetles, Cockatoos that were as loud as they were beautiful, and more varieties of Love Birds than I had ever seen in his collection of Bird Talk magazines.
The topper for the day was when we stopped at some store (not sure if it was K-Mart or Target, but something like that) and I saw a bin full of cassette tapes and asked if I could pick one. He did the hemming and hawing that I expected of him but he eventually said yes and searched through the tapes for something that I would never otherwise be able to get. When I showed him the cover of Judas Priest’s “Screaming for Vengeance” he didn’t seemed phased in the least and I am pretty sure my jaw dropped when he let me pop the cassette into the truck stereo on the drive home. He complained about the noise he was being subjected to, but after sharing his thoughts he let me listen to the tape the entire ride. I never did buy another Judas Priest album, but I have never forgotten that moment.
After that day together we returned to our regular routine; him coming over on the weekends, me coughing, him complaining, me recording Saturday morning cartoons to watch after he was gone and him giving me the Sunday comics after he had finished with them.
As he and my grandma talked on Sunday mornings, I would catch bits and pieces of stories they shared about their youth. They both went to school in Placerville when they were young, though he was a few years older than her. They knew each other as young adults, and were friends when my father, uncles and aunt were still young. He was there for her through the end of her marriage and the death of my paternal grandfather. It was around that time that they started dating, and began a relationship as a couple that lasted over three decades. I do not know the exact dates, and talk of my grandma is something that makes his fill with unshed tears. During their talks, I overheard his fond memories of motorcycle rides, his time in the Navy and their annual vacations far away from Placerville. I’ll never forget the single store that they visited along the Russian River, the only place Darrell could find a hot sauce that was spicy enough to suit his needs, or the Italian place across the street that they raved about upon every return from the Californian coast. Me sitting on the couch and reading a book as I overheard these stories made me understand how unconventional love could be, because these two people shared such an amazing connection despite their relationship being so far from what people thought of as normal.
To look at the guy you expected the grizzled attitude and rough demeanor; he stands roughly five and a half feet tall, maybe a little more, and while the top of his head has been free of hair for as long as I can remember, thick grey hairs fall past his shoulders from the sides and back of his head, so that when he wears his ancient black leather cowboy hat or motorcycle helmet, there was nothing to suggest that the man was balding. Not to mention the thick hair extending from his sideburns down into the full beard and mustache that were a signature feature. Then there are the tattoos, calves and forearms decorated with ink that seemed larger than life when I was a small child. Each one had lost their crispness over time but were clearly visible and were still beautiful works of art. Those tattoos brought to mind his time in the Navy for me, and his years riding with a motorcycle gang in southern California. I often wondered what the stories of them were, how he had gotten them, where they were imprinted into his flesh and what he thought of them, if he ever did think of them. I never had it in me to ask though, opportunities to talk to him were rare and delving into the history of a man that was more an intimidating force than an approachable person was unthinkable. So, the unknown stories of the tattoos built him up even more into a myth of sorts. The only other two things I could attribute to Darrell at the time were his passion for beautiful and intricate engravings, amazing floral patterns and scroll work that I spent hours tracing with my fingertips, and the black powder guns that he built himself and then engraved with stories of chivalry that he created for them.
And that was it really, that was my impression of Darrell for years. He shared a deep, unconventional love with my Grandma and as much as he seemed to despise her multitude of grandchildren, he had moments of compassion and a desire to connect that appeared as rarely as Leap Year.
It wasn’t until my father died that I really saw another side of him. My Grandma Mavis was devastated at the death of her oldest son, Lance. He was her tragic saint and as flawed as he was, he was always the best reflection of her good nature and loving soul. So, when he died in a car accident early one morning, she was rocked to her core by grief. But as matriarch of the family, she knew she had a job to do and people to contact. It wasn’t until it came to the point that my father’s body had to be dealt with that she seemed to slam into a wall, and had no choice but to break down. There was no money to bury him. Sure, there was a family cemetery back east, but how would she get the body there and what would it be buried in or who would be there? She didn’t know what she was going to do, even though something had to be done, there was no other option. Without being asked, Darrell came to her with the money to have my father cremated. Which was the perfect solution, his remains were dealt with, we could have a service and then he could be interred back east. More importantly, my Grandma finally had to take the time to slow down and Darrell was there to support her. He became her strength and gave her what she needed in the weeks that followed. He was there for her as she cried, as the weight of everything became too much to bear and life threatened to crush her as she dealt with the death of her second child. His stoic nature became the rock that she sat upon as grief came and then passed, her never hardening and he never more human in my eyes.
That was the second time I saw him with his shields down, and once the storm had passed those shields were firmly back in place. And they remained there for years, until cancer took the woman that he loved.
I am ashamed to say that I do not know exactly how he reacted to her passing. I was not there as she died, and she was in a coma when I said goodbye to her. I was too emotional to speak at her memorial service on the banks of the American River in Lotus, California. What I do know is how Darrell responded after the service and after he had the time to mourn.
He took to riding his motorcycle again, and he found a best friend in Felicia, the youngest of our generation, my cousin. He shared with her his passion for riding, and together they got involved in charity runs that have become an annual event for them. In him Felicia has found a link to the past and a mentor from which she could learn how to be strong enough to achieve her dreams but soft enough to know how to feel, and in her he found a new lease on life and a connection to the love that he had lost. They became partners in crime and even as he celebrated her successes in school and the career in medicine that she was working toward, he saw in her smile the goodness of the woman he had shared a lifetime with.
Which brings us to my recent sit-down with Darrell. A few weeks after his seventy-eighth birthday, a day that he marked by doing seventy-eight push-ups (building up to that goal with prodding from Felicia). I sat down with him and he told me stories of his time in the Navy, days on a ship that served as a machine shop for destroyers and cruisers, time spent on leave getting tattoos in Japan, riding his motorcycle around the country and cruising The Devil’s Highway. He spoke slowly and thoughtfully of my Grandma Mavis, the loss of his son, Little Darrell, and the impact my father’s death had on our family. As I sat in his apartment, in the same complex my grandma had last called home, I looked around at the pictures of my Grandma as a young woman on the coffee table, next to an abalone shell with burned sage in it. I saw the silver plaque he engraved for her after twenty-five years together that hung on the wall along with a poster from her memorial service. The picture frame I had given him one Christmas sat upon the entertainment center, his perfect engraving work had transformed it into a piece of art, inside it was a picture of the very birds that we bonded over and earned me the nickname “ferret”. He showed off his guns and his engraving tools, talked about Satan’s Machine (his computer) and the first-person-shooters that he loves to spend his time playing.
I wanted to see his tattoos though. I really wanted to take pictures of each one and document the beauty of them, I wasn’t sure what his response might be though, as human as he had become the thought of broaching the topic still seemed off limits. Thankfully the conversation organically made its way to tattoos and I offered to show him mine, if I could see his and take pictures. Much to my surprise, his eyes lit up and it seemed as if a barrier had been breached that I never knew to be there. He was happy to share the work that had been done on him and wanted to know about each and every piece I had on me. I shed my shirt and he loved seeing Quan-Yin on my back (his time in Korea and Japan had made an impression on him) and the stories that came with all the other tattoo he saw. Then it came to see his, without a pause he stood and took his shirt off, turned so I could see the three pieces that made up his back and then the single ship across his chest and stomach. He turned his forearms from side to side, letting me get pictures of each individual piece before we moved to his upper arms and finally down to his calves and ankles. Sixty years later and the blues and greens still shined off of his skin, you could see where the artists had had access to the higher quality, fine needles by how clean the lines looked decades later. Each piece has a story to it, each one reflecting a part of Darrell that makes the whole. And even though he was a much younger man when he had those needles piercing his skin, he hasn’t faded anymore than the ink has.
Looking back on over two decades of my life, Darrell has been the singular male constant. Sure, he was seemingly unapproachable for most of my youth, but he was there and his presence was felt. His being grounded my Grandma, and their relationship showed me that love was more important than convention. He has shown me that in times of need, he will be there and even though he and my Grandma never married, he has always been family and we will always be family.
And what if his seeming distance hasn’t been the product of his own desire, but the result of my Grandma telling him decades ago that the relationship they would have together would be separate from the relationship she had with her kids? What if she had made clear to him that their love would come second to the love she had for her children and to ensure the strength of both, he would have to build a wall between their life together and her life with her children and that he could never let that wall be forgotten? What if over time, the distance became second nature and out of respect from my Grandma and the love he has for her, he rarely tested those waters and was always careful to ensure that nothing was allowed to come between them?
I’ve never known a tougher old man, and I hope to hear from him how he is doing eighty-eight push-ups a decade from now, about how the most recent 200 mile motorcycle ride went, and how him and Felicia are planning on having drinks in some South American country as they share stories of my Grandma when she graduates med-school.
Here are some of the amazing pictures I had the honor and pleasure of getting: