“Don’t wear underwear/I don’t go to church/and I don’t cut my hair” — Jimmy Buffett, Pencil Thin Mustache
When I was younger, I thought Jimmy Buffett knew Opa.
Opa was my extra grandfather, I always tell people. I’ve been lucky to have had two terrific granddads, but I also had a family friend who treated me and my siblings like he did his own two grandchildren.
Oma and Opa were friends of my parents’, a retired couple who came into town two or three times every year to stay with us, pulling their camper behind an ancient white Mercedes.
Opa fit the Jimmy Buffett song. First of all, he didn’t cut his hair very often because he didn’t have much. In fact, he often teased that he was going to figure out a way to borrow some of mine.
He dressed for comfort, and his clothing choices always seemed to belie the fact that he was well-to-do. He wore shoes with holes in them; they were his “air-conditioned shoes.” He never wore deodorant, and I remember as a kid thinking he smelled funny. But I loved him so much that I kind of liked how he smelled. And, just like Jimmy Buffett’s “Pencil Thin Mustache” character, Opa didn’t wear underwear. I know because my mom told me she had never saw any underwear when he brought his laundry for her to wash.
But what I remember most about Opa was the not going to church thing. He came to stay at the preacher’s house, and every Sunday morning, he politely declined the invitations to attend services with us. And every Sunday when we got home from church, Opa would be busy with the list of home repair projects my mother handed him at the start of each visit. It was the deal he had made with her — they stayed with us as guests, and in return, he did odd jobs around the house like repairing leaky faucets and replacing the sliding screen door one of us kids ran through.
And then there was the time he built my brother, sister, and me a fort in the backyard. We came home from church to see the bones of what he drawn out in pencil the evening before. By the end of their visit, he’d finished the structure and stained it to match the deck on the back of our house.
I always thought Opa was German. Maybe because “Opa” is the German word for “grandfather.” Maybe because he would throw up his hands and exclaim “Ach der lieber!” (sort of a German expletive) when we kids misbehaved. Or perhaps it was because he taught me to count from 1 to 10 in German. Almost 40 years later, I can still rattle those numbers off: eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn
As it turns out, Opa was from New Jersey. He knew German because as a young man he met and fell in love with a young German acrobat at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. It was at the beginning of Hitler’s terror in Germany, and they couldn’t get a marriage license in New Jersey because she was a German citizen. So they took a boat to Cuba and were married in Havana in the mid-1930’s, during a time of tremendous political upheaval in that county. They moved to Miami, where he built boats for a living, and when he retired, they packed their camper and hit the road.
He’s been gone for a long time, but I think about him quite often. I found out I was pregnant with my son the day after Opa died. My son never knew him, of course, but I guess the simple comfort of finding out I was expecting a new life while I was mourning the loss of a precious one caused me to forever link them in my brain. I look at my son and remember Opa.
I also remember him every time I eat coconut. Opa was the world’s greatest coconut fan, but somewhere in the 1980’s, he had open heart surgery (“Want to see my zipper?” he would ask before showing me his scar), and his cardiologist banned coconut from his diet because it was high in saturated fat. Occasionally, my mother would defy the doctor and bake him a coconut cake. He would take that cake, laugh and say, “You trying to kill me?” before cutting himself a huge slice. Of course, we now know just how beneficial coconut and coconut oil are to human health; every few days, I scoop a tablespoonful of coconut oil out of a jar, and lift my spoon in tribute to Opa before swallowing it.
The man loved soap operas, licorice, woodworking, fish soup, a dachshund named Tubbs, his family, and us. And more than anything, he loved life. Learning German expletives is kind of cool, but the best thing he taught me was to appreciate people and enjoy every minute of this life.
Opa died of a massive heart attack on Halloween Day 1994. He was 83. I remember hearing some debate about whether or not a man who never set foot in church would go to Heaven. But I never wondered because I believe a man who would spend a Sunday morning building a fort for three kids who weren’t really his pretty much had a handle on what God is like.