Yesterday, I felt like I had taken a jump to the left and a step to the right and I found myself in a bit of a time warp. For you to understand what this means, it would make sense for you to have a little bit of history. History about not only myself, but more importantly my grandparents.
My grandfather (Grandaddy) was an amazing kind man. He was a plumber, a jokster, friendly beyond belief, and above all else, an animal lover. I grew up hearing stories about how he kept chickens, and bred betta fish. I also heard about how everyone my mother knew growing up had a cockatiel. Evidently, he also bred cockatiels. My grandmother told him that he had to get rid of them, and his answer to the problem was to gift the fun birds to all of the neighbor kids.
Birds were his favorite. He had shirts with cockatiels on it. Ties with Parrots. And his favorite was the mallard, but specifically the male mallard. I remember him pulling me aside and telling me that what he really like about birds is that “the males get to be the pretty ones.” I never got to tell him I was gay before he passed. But part of me feels like he knew (his brother was gay as well, but not out to the family. He came out to me after my grandfather died, so it is unclear if Gradaddy had known. I suspect he did). I feel or at least would like to think that his statement about the males being the “pretty ones” was his way of letting me know that I was ok.
Each time I saw him, whether it was when I came to visit him, he came to visit me, or I woke up from a nap, I was greeted with a strong “Ryan Baybeeee!” and a stubbly kiss. He would take me in his large man paws and sit me in his lap. He would then invite me to eat one of his bazaar concoctions (in hindsight, he was just ahead of his time. One of his favorite breakfasts was Cheerios, milk and apple sauce. Apple Cheerios came out some years later. He was a man ahead of his time!). I don’t know if my grandfather knew about that part of my life, but I have to believe he would have loved me regardless.
My grandfather also watched animal documentaries all day. He would teach me trivia facts about just about any animal you could think of. He would take me into fish stores, hold me up to each of the aquariums and teach me about each of the fish. His love of animals was only rivaled by his love of me. I also imagine that he must’ve done things similar with my mother.
My mother and I have a complicated relationship, but one of the areas that we really connected was around animals. I was allowed to own hamsters, anoles, guinea pigs, a dog, and even mice. We bonded over these animals, but most notably over the hamsters and mice. You see, my cousin Scott had gifted me a hamster for my birthday in kindergarten. It turns out, Spike, was pregnant. Spike soon became “Spikette” and I got to care for several multicolored hamsters.
A few years later, my friend Ben introduced me to mice as pets. They were smart. He would make mazes for them and time them to see them get faster. He also bred them. This is where my Grandfather’s influence must have flared up in my mother. She soon was teaching me about Punnett Squares (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punnett_square) and we were mapping out the genetics of my own mice for my own mouse breeding program. I was just in elementary school and learning about genetics!
It was when I am working with animals, and especially in this way, that I feel closest to both my grandfather and my mother. A year ago, I decided that I wanted to try breeding crested geckos. I purchased a male (Fezzik). I wanted to make sure I felt comfortable with the animal, as reptiles are not creatures I am the most familiar. I now felt familiar, and thought it was time to go back to the monthly reptile show and look into purchasing a female.
Again, this is where the spirit of Granddaddy must’ve visited me because I didn’t just want to go with Matt, but I wanted to take my friend Barbara’s kids (“C” and “E”). We had taken them to their first reptile show last year. They had returned to a subsequent show and purchased a corn snake and gargoyle gecko (they are so cool! They typically have lavender eyes! No contacts!). I also wanted to see if Brooke and PWW wanted to go. When Brooke told me that she and her husband were creeped out by reptiles (snakes in particular) and that PWW had never been to such a show, I became more excited and persistent about her going. I was so happy that everyone was able to go (and little did I know, Barbara had to help her boyfriend move a couch into his house, so I was doing her a solid by taking the kids for the day).
Taking the kinds to the reptile show was amazing. C and E spoke to us openly about their lives (notable as they are in 8th and 6th grade, respectively and these are the ages where they start to individuate and separate from their parents. This usually results in less talking. But I think that not being around their mother allowed them to step into more mature exchanges. Just a hunch anyway). They spoke to us about what was going on in their social lives, video games, and school. They stayed in conversation the whole 45 minutes to Frederick (the location of the show). (Brooke and PWW followed in a separate car behind us).
Once there, we walked around looking at all the animals. I enjoyed hearing Brooke asking Matt, “What’s in that box? I don’t want to look in the box. Is it a snake? Is there a snake in that box? There’s a snake in that box, isn’t there?!” While Brooke buzzed behind me, I was proud to see PWW walking right up to the display tables and looking at the lizards, snakes, tarantulas, frogs, and scorpions. The spirit of Grandaddy moved me once more and I found myself teaching PWW facts about different animals, asking her which was her favorites, and watching her curious eyes scan, even the animals I feel uncomfortable around (if it has eight legs I can respect it, but over there!).
After the reptile show, Matt, Brooke, and I took the kids to a local pizza and pretzel shop. We talked about what he saw. The boys attempted to start a straw paper fight (blowing straw wrappers at each other), but a quick “oh no you don’t” look from me, and they settled on down. It’s nice to know that look works on tweens (storing that look away for a rainy day).
We returned home and Matt showed the boys our Minecraft game. As they played, I reflected on how close I was feeling to my grandfather. I really respected what he did for me as a kid and hope that I get to do the same for our future child/ren. I really appreciated going back in time and getting to feel the spirit of my grandfather throughout the day. Little did I know, that this was only the beginning of my time travels for the day.
Matt has a high school friend that he was very close to, Joe. Joe is a fun guy, from what I understand. He learned to speak Kingon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klingon), learned to ride a unicycle, and apparently is part of a swing band. As I understand it, the band is pretty prolific. They fill the Hard Rock Café in Pittsburgh, they fill it to the brim. They also will be opening for the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The name of Joe’s band is The Neon Swing X-perience.
As it turns out, Joe’s band was playing at Glen Echo Park and Matt wanted to go to support him. Matt hadn’t seen Joe in years, and wanted to surprise him. I know nothing about swing music, and to be honest, was feeling pretty tired from spending the morning with the kids, driving up to Frederick and back. I couldn’t think of another chance that I would get to be exposed to swing music and a bit of Matt’s past, so I agreed to drive down there with him. This was my first step into the time machine.
When I walked onto the Glen Echo Park grounds, I had taken my first step out of that time machine. The last time I had been at Glen Echo was probably when my grandmother (Mema) took me to see puppet shows and children’s theater when I was between the ages of three and seven. Seeing the large carousel and theater building took me back. When we walked into the dance hall, I took an even further step back.
I remember Mema telling me that she met my grandfather at a dance. I am 95% sure, she had said that she had done so at Glen Echo. That they would take the trolley into Glen Echo and dance the night away on Friday and/Saturday evenings. Surrounded by the swing music, standing in the dance hall, and watching the dancers on the dance floor (some even in period clothing), I became certain that this is where they met. I could see my grandmother, leaning against a wall, cigarette in one hand (she later quit cold turkey- goes to show her willpower) and a drink in another. I could picture my grandfather asking her to dance. Then, they would start cutting up the dance floor.
My mother tells me that my grandparents not only would dance at Glen Echo, but when she was growing up, they would take/teach dance lessons in the basement. This was really special to know. Not only does it speak to their connection, but is further emphasized by my grandfather’s disability. You see, my grandfather stormed Normandy in WWII. He was a tank driver, and from how he tells it, his tank had blown up and he was shot in the leg (my mother disputes this story, but that is what I remember him telling me). This has leg to him needing a double knee replacement. One of the replacements took, the other did not. This left him permanently with a full leg brace, and over time, a shoe with an ever growing, forever being adjusted, lift. The fact that they continued to dance together after this speaks to their connection and perseverance.
While watching the swing dancers, I almost saw everyone in black and white. It was even cooler to know that someone from Matt’s old friend was playing in the band that inspired all of this movement.
When I did come back to present day, I really enjoyed the exposure to swing. Especially at Glen Echo. The ages ranged dramatically and dance partners often varied in age by at least twenty years. There were several people in their teens all the way up to their seventies. It was also interracial. There was at least one person representing each racial demographic (but yes, most people were white). I don’t know if the Glen Echo my grandparents knew was segregated or not, but I am sure they would be thrilled to know that it isn’t now (there’s some family lore that my grandfather punched out my great uncle because of comments he made about my grandfather’s black coworker, and that my grandfather was known for leaving clubs if he found out that they were white-only establishments. This was a huge statement back then. I am so proud to be related to him!).
Getting to meet Joe was also fun. Watching his face when he heard that Matt and I have been married for five years was precious. I am not sure if he and Matt are going to keep in contact, but he seems like a good guy, and I wouldn’t mind getting to experience Joe in a more social context in the future.
Yesterday was a big day. I think I will probably still be processing it for a while. But I am so glad to have been able to feel so close to my grandparents last night. I haven’t felt that in years. I just hope that when Matt and I inevitably pass, that are children crave to feel connected to us in this way. I hope that we will be parents that are willing to share these parts of our relationship with them. Hell, maybe they will one day even go to Glen Echo to swing dance on their own accord. Who knows what the future holds, but I hope the love is experienced and felt as I experienced and felt it from Mema and Grandaddy.