My grandfather was, what they used to call, a natty dresser. Natty is an old fashioned term for someone who is smart and fashionably dressed.
My grandfather was always beautifully groomed. There are movies and photographs of him and my grandmother visiting our home for birthdays, holidays, and other events. He was usually dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and bow tie. He was a tall, thin man, who was mostly bald when I knew him, with gold wire-rimmed glasses and a cane to help him walk.
In a home movie from thanksgiving 1968, my father, dressed in a jacket and tie, is seen carving the turkey. To my father’s left sat my grandfather, dressed in a dark grey suit, white shirt, and bow tie. My grandfather is seen leaning in towards the turkey with an intense critical look, watching as each piece of the turkey carved. Between the two men and a few feet back sat my youngest sister, still in a high chair. To my grandfather’s left sat my grandmother, also beautifully dressed. To my grandmother’s left sat my mother, directing the help, hired for the night, as they served the food.
My grandparents lived in a thirty-story apartment building in Center City Philadelphia. I remember they lived on one of the higher floors. I loved visiting my grandparents at night. When you stepped off the elevator on their floor, to your left, was a big picture window that faced West Philadelphia. I loved seeing all the lights of the city and the traffic below. It always seemed magical. After looking out the window at nighttime Philadelphia, we would run down the hall to their apartment. I always loved the different cooking smells that filled the hallway of their apartment building.
My grandparent’s front door was usually opened by Sadie, a wonderful African American woman who came up from the south in the early 1950s and had worked for my grandparents ever since. I never heard about a husband but I knew that Sadie raised two strong black women, who both became nurses and raised their own families. When my grandfather died, Sadie continued to work for my grandmother a few days a week and my mother for the rest of the week. When my grandmother died, Sadie worked for my family until she retired in her early 80’s.
Sadie had a little apartment in South Philadelphia. I don’t think it was much more than a studio apartment. Sadie once told me she never learned to drive because, as she put it, “how could I drive when I can’t see what the wheels are doing?” Shaking her head vigorously and smiling, “No. No. No, I couldn’t do that.”
One of my special places in my grandparent’s apartment was what I can best describe as a man’s chest of drawers that stood across from my grandparent’s bed. As a boy, the chest filled me with wonder. The bottom section had two large swinging doors that opened to a set of cubicles where my grandfather would keep his freshly laundered shirts. The top section had one large drawer where my grandfather kept his cuff links, collar stays, his gold watch, and the garters which held up his socks.
My grandfather died in 1971 and my grandmother died ten years later. When my grandmother died the chest was one of the few items of my grandfather’s that I knew I wanted. The chest is really a very ugly piece of furniture. I doubt it held any sentimental value for my grandfather. Yet when I pause and think about the chest all those years ago, and turn my head, I can see the rest of my grandparent’s bedroom. When my grandmother died I was twenty-four years old, in college, and had my own apartment. I took the chest, along with a few other pieces of furniture that I cared for.
As a child, the chest embodied for me the mysteries of what it meant to be a man. Fashion accessories like sock garters, which were used to hold up a man’s socks, have long since disappeared from men’s fashion. As a young gay child, the garters seemed the very essence of men’s hidden fashion secrets. Unlike my father, who had no sense of fashion, my grandfather was the first man I knew that took his grooming seriously. Even later in his life as he grew ill, he was always well-groomed. In the final years of his life, I remember him sitting in bed, propped up on multiple pillows, in pressed cotton pajamas and a beautiful brown paisley cotton robe, which is now in my possession.
I was never terribly close to my father’s parents. I was not the special grandchild. As a gay child, I did not have any interest in football or baseball, sports my grandfather was passionate about. I was overweight and had lots of effeminate characteristics which I suspect made my grandfather uncomfortable.
In his later years, as my grandfather’s health declined, he became angry. He would bark out orders and get into meaningless fights. As a child, I did not understand the physical or emotional pain my grandfather was in as he aged. At the time I saw his anger, in part, due to my own inadequacies, particularly when compared to my older male cousin who my grandfather adored.
A special place in my grandfather’s heart was reserved for his other grandson. My cousin, who was four years older than me, was a great athlete, with blond hair and a handsome all American face. Sadly, he was killed at fifteen years of age by a drunk driver as he rode his bicycle. After my cousin’s death, my grandfather commissioned a painting of his grandson kneeling in his football uniform, with his helmet and football. That painting hung in the center of my grandparent’s living room until the day my grandfather passed away.
In his will, my grandfather specifically referred to my cousin as ‘my much beloved grandson’ and requested to be buried next to him. He gave the oil painting to my aunt and uncle. That painting still hangs in the front hall of my uncle and aunts’ home. My cousin is frozen in time at fifteen years of age in his gold and maroon football uniform and his blonde all American good looks.
As I prepare to sell my home and downsize, I have wondered what to do about the chest. As I have written, it is not a particularly handsome piece of furniture. When my shirts are laundered I get them on hangers, not folded, so the chest is not particularly useful for me. But thinking about the chest has been the source for all of these memories.