Volume 32, Number 1

Boardwalk and the Upper Crust

Robert Collings

Toward the end of her life, my mother told me a story about her father that says a lot about a person, and a lot about people in general. Some of them, anyway.

Grandpa was born in the late 1800s. He was born in England to some sort of aristocratic family. I don’t have the slightest clue about the British aristocracy, but we’ve all heard stories about these noble British families who had a castle at one point and then lose everything. We’ve heard stories about how the servants remain loyal to these penniless families because they belong to a certain class, whereas the people who do all the bowing and the scraping can only aspire to that class. My grandfather’s family was called “upper crust” although I have always despised that term. I think by the time Grandpa came along, the family money was mostly gone, the castle was in ruins and all the bowing and the scraping was slowly coming to an end. Still, I’m told that Grandpa grew up with assurances that he had noble blood and was destined for great things. He always liked to boast that he had attended a couple of fancy “upper-crust” boarding schools in his early years with some members of the royal family before the money ran out.

Upper crust or not, by his early teens Grandpa had gone one way and the royal family had gone another, and they never came remotely close to each other after that. My mother was not sure exactly what happened, but Grandpa ended up in the trenches during World War I. He was then barely twenty years old. I doubt if any member of the British aristocracy had hunched down beside him in all the mud and all the vermin, and I have always been confident in the assumption that the trenches of northern France marked the definitive end of my family’s brush with nobility.

My mother told me that Grandpa would always talk about the horrors of the poison gas during something called “The Hundred Days’ Offensive” when the British were trying to break the German lines to end the war. I may have studied some of this in school, but I can’t remember much about it. Of course, I had heard all about the poison gas, and how awful it was, and how it burned the face and the lungs. I had always heard a lot of talk from Grandpa and the other adults about how vile the Germans were for using poison gas in the first place. I remember Grandpa saying that the British used poison gas against the enemy, too, but only because “those bastards used it first.” Grandpa had a pair of WWI binoculars, and he always enjoyed holding them up for me when I was a kid and proclaiming, “Picked these off a dead German.” Grandpa did not like the Germans, ever.

As Grandpa told it, he got hit with the poison gas in 1918 and he spent a lot of time in hospital recovering from all the burns and the blisters. He even ended up losing one of his lungs. He was never sure if it was “their gas or our gas” that scarred one lung and forced the doctors to remove the other, and it didn’t matter anyway. Grandpa said there was always so much confusion and panic when the gassings happened that you never knew where you were or what you were doing or even where the enemy was. He talked about “all the screaming and the vomiting.” He held back on the more gruesome details about the blood and the writhing bodies, and we never heard from anybody who fought alongside of him. They were either dead or back in Britain, and those who survived the trenches were now long-forgotten as far as Grandpa was concerned. But the fact that he only had one lung was a great concern to him. The slightest physical exertion was always a warning, and a caution, too. My mother told me that Grandpa would always be careful not to walk any significant distance or he would end up gasping for breath. She said she always saw this happen to her father when she was a child. She said her father had to watch everything he did, and even simple things like raking leaves or mowing the lawn were done slowly and cautiously out of fear that his remaining lung might fail, and he’d end up on the ground. My mother said she never saw her father drop to the ground, but there were times when he came close, and she and her sister would have to run out and help steady him as he gasped for breath and fought to remain upright. When they got old enough, they did the raking and the mowing and their father would watch them from the porch, pensive and quietly ashamed. The ravages of war were awful, and there were millions just like him.

Grandma died many years before Grandpa, and I didn’t remember her that well. My mother always talked about her as if she were a saint. She always liked to tell the story of how her mother made up a Monopoly game for her and her sister from scratch when they were too poor to buy a real game. The game had a big board made from the bottom of a large cardboard box, with the Monopoly squares and the properties carefully drawn on it, all in color and all laid out in perfect sequence. Each paper money bill was cut to size and perfectly illustrated, front and back, and the little houses and hotels were all made from sculpted bits of bread dough, baked hard in the oven, and then hand-painted in bright red and green. Even the markers for the players were crafted with dazzling ingenuity, a wonderful collection of miniature people and animals and crazy thingamabobs, each one fashioned from bits and pieces found around the house and then glued together in fantastic shapes and sizes. Only the dice were real, and they came from the church where Grandma would sing in the choir.

My mother would choke up with tears whenever she spoke of her mother and the Monopoly game. “We should have kept that game,” she would say, holding back her sobs. “It was a treasure, a work of art. God bless her, God bless her, we should have kept it.”

My mother could not remember a time when her father held down a real job, although she mentioned that he had one stint as a car salesman. This didn’t last long. Grandpa always insisted he gave it his best shot, but his health wouldn’t take it, and he was fired after a week when he lost his balance and stumbled into one of the new cars in the showroom. My mother and her sister overheard one of the other salesmen tell their mother that their father would mope around and approach prospective customers with a long face, as if someone had died and he was trying to make the best of it. My aunt always said there was no need for the dour behavior, and it had nothing to do with his war injury. For whatever reason, that job was never going to work out. Grandpa came into a small monthly inheritance from a family trust that started up around the time my aunt was born, and this minor windfall helped with the finances. But it was Grandma who was the real breadwinner of the family. She worked in the church as an accountant, and she would clean up after Sunday services for extra money. She also worked part-time in a flower shop, making up special bouquets and arrangements for hospital patients. Whenever more money was needed for special occasions like Christmas and birthdays, she’d clean houses and office buildings. This was usually done in the evenings, and my mother remembered lying in bed as a child and hearing her mother’s footsteps on the wooden porch when she arrived back home late at night after the long bus ride from the city. In contrast with Grandpa, my mother could not remember a time when her mother wasn’t out of the house working at something. All the while, her father sat in his easy chair in the living room or on the front porch in the spring and summer weather, sipping his drink and staring blankly off into space. My mother said she knew he was always thinking about that dammed war and his missing lung.

My grandmother died of a heart attack when she was in her early fifties, but Grandpa hung in there, year after year. As I grew into adulthood, I realized that something was not quite right about Grandpa in the eyes of my mother and my aunt. This was something they never discussed openly, but you could see it in the way they looked at him whenever the three of them were in the same room. You could also hear it in their tone of voice whenever Grandpa was the subject of discussion. I noticed this more in my aunt than my mother, but the two of them thought the same way. There was always an edge to their voices that made me uneasy. Grandpa drank to excess, and I had the sense that this had been a longstanding thing. There was also a lot of hushed talk about a girlfriend, something that had never been a secret in the family but something that was not openly discussed, either. This girlfriend went back over 40 years, when Grandma was still out earning money to keep the family afloat, and Grandpa was sitting in his chair and fretting about the war. Of all the things Grandpa did in his life, the girlfriend was the one indiscretion that was beyond any hope of forgiveness as far as my mother and my aunt were concerned. I often wondered if my mother had this lady in the back of her mind when she talked tearfully about her own mother and the lovingly crafted Monopoly game.

Grandpa seemed to morph into a frail old man overnight, and he began to spend more time with his girlfriend and less time at the house. He still drank, and it was now an open secret that he was drinking himself to death and not apologizing for a thing. I was an adult now, and I often accompanied my mother when she checked on the empty house. My aunt joined us for this inspection one time, and we were all surprised to hear the phone ring a few minutes after we entered the house. Grandma had been dead for years, and Grandpa had no friends and no social connections. We were the only ones who ever called him, and we were all there. I remember how my aunt picked up the phone and said in a voice bursting with irritation, “Yes, who’s calling?”

There was a long pause as the person on the other line spoke. I could tell it was a woman’s voice. My aunt’s patience was quickly exhausted, and she exploded.

“Why didn’t you tell us he was in the hospital?” she yelled. “Don’t ever call here again!” She slammed down the phone.

“Who was it?” my mother asked, knowing the answer.

“Helen,” my aunt said. “How dare that woman insult our mother and phone this house!”

There was a silence, and I said, “I’ll drive you both down to the hospital.”

“I’m not going,” my aunt said firmly.

“Ruth—” my mother began.

“Nope,” my aunt interrupted. “You go, you go. Go. Say whatever you want. He won’t care, anyway.”

My aunt was shaking her head and staring at the phone. I didn’t think she was going to say anything more. Then she looked up at my mother and said quietly, “He thought our mother was beneath him, and he thought her homemade game was beneath him, too. When she died, the game was the first thing he threw out.”

I didn’t know exactly what the girlfriend had told my aunt, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. Sometimes you just know a thing, and we all knew Grandpa was never going to make it out of hospital. I drove my mother down to St. Mary’s General, and she asked me to stay in the car while she said goodbye to her father. A part of me felt that I should have put up some resistance in order to pay a last visit to Grandpa. Another part of me, the bigger part, did not want to visit the death ward of any hospital. So, I didn’t argue with my mother, and what follows is something that I did not see or hear. It was told to me by my mother long after that hospital visit. My mother checked with admissions and quickly made it up to the ward where Grandpa lay dying. This was a dreary corner of the old building where the elderly were sent to die. There wasn’t much activity in the halls or at the desk, and everything was silent and eerily devoid of any motion. Even the nurses were still, as if anything more than the slightest movement might somehow disturb the solemnity of it all. As my mother walked towards Grandpa’s room, she saw a few people in the other rooms huddled together around the beds as they gave their hushed farewells. She deliberately slowed her footsteps to avoid breaking the silence. When she reached the end of the hall near the stairs, she saw that Grandpa had been tucked into a folding bed that had been pushed into the far corner of an eight-bed chamber. The other beds were draped with closed curtains and the patients behind the curtains were all dying alone. She was the only visitor in the room. Grandpa’s makeshift stall had no curtain, and there was a doctor at his bedside who was studying his chart. Appropriate for the ward, this doctor looked older than his dying patients, and he fit right in with the yellow-gray walls and the mummified nurses.

My mother made no sound as she approached. The doctor saw her and nodded, and she drew closer to the bed. Grandpa was lying still with his eyes closed. His skin was grey, and his lips had no color at all. The only sign that he was alive was the slight rising and falling of the single sheet that covered him up to his neck.

My mother whispered to the doctor in the faintest voice she could muster, “Be careful with him. He only has one lung.”

The doctor flipped through the chart and then spoke in a voice that shattered all the silent reverence on the ward. “What do you mean, ‘one lung’?” he bellowed out. “His lungs are in better shape than mine are.”

My mother looked down at her father. He was now breathing heavily through his mouth as he often did when she was a child, and he was claiming to be out of breath. Her father was now near the end of his life, but she knew he had heard the doctor’s words, and she knew he was aware of her hovering above him. She said she was still looking down at him when he suddenly opened his eyes and looked straight up at her. She said the look in his eyes was something that had given her nightmares ever since. She had wanted to see some sign of sorrow in those eyes, some token of regret over what he had done to her mother, but all she saw to the bottom of her father’s soul was a lifetime of deception and laziness. She said her father kept staring at her, unblinking. Then, he tilted his head ever so slightly and stopped breathing. He was now looking away, avoiding her eyes forever.

In that moment, my mother could only think about her own mother, and how she had taken all that time to craft the Monopoly game, and how her father could only see the game as a symbol of lost status and vanished fortunes. She had never wanted to hate her father as her sister had done, but now she looked down at his gray skin and his dead eyes, and she knew she would always hate him with the same passion. This was the passion that drove their love for their mother, and it could never change. She said she had prayed every night after that hospital visit for God to forgive her, but she knew in her heart that she would never make any effort to forgive her father. She would nurture the hatred and keep begging for her own forgiveness, which was a true sin against God.

My mother and my aunt had their own story, but I never hated Grandpa. He was always nice to me. He never did me a bad turn, and I really didn’t care all that much if he didn’t want to work or even mow the lawn. I don’t want to do those things, either. In my mind, Grandpa was a nice guy. I remember how he would always give me a friendly pat on the head and give me money for things when I was a kid. Heck, he had given me enough money over the years to buy ten brand new Monopoly games if I had ever wanted them.

It just never occurred to me that Grandpa was not giving out his own hard-earned money, but rather the inherited wealth of an aristocrat.