Grandpa Reinhard was always old. At least to me he was always old. I was the first of his great grandchildren and he was 78 years old when I was born.
Even as a kid, I remember him as short, pudgy with a shuffling walk. He had a bushy white mustache and he combed his gray hair straight back. It was never totally white. He always wore a long sleeve buttoned shirt and suspenders held up his pants.
Grandpa Reinhard, my great grand father.
I was fortunate to have been born when I had two great grandfathers living. I never knew any other great grandparents or even grandparents on my dad’s side. My paternal grandmother died when I was less than 18 months old. My father’s father died when my dad was only 13 years old.
I guess I inherited the names Grandpa Reinhard and Grandpa Besser from my mother. Grandpa Besser died when I was four. I have mental snapshots of him which occasionally flash through my memory. But, as a child, it is Grandpa Reinhard whom I remembered well-- as much as a kid could remember, that is.
Grandpa Reinhard lived alone in a two bedroom house which was one house away from my grandparents. Pappy, my grandfather, was one of two sons of Grandpa Reinhard who lived to become adults but now Pappy was his sole survivor child. The other son, Uncle Charlie, had died in 1936 at home in Stamford, CT.
Dinner at my grandparents' house was a weekly ritual on Sunday afternoons. Before dinner, I would walk to Grandpa Reinhard’s house. Before I escorted him to the weekly Sunday dinner, I would sit on a stool in his garage studio and watch while he painted. He was a very good artist and many of the oils he painted were scenes from his days in the Klondike Gold Rush. I still recall the swirling snow in his art work which echoed the bleakness and loneliness of those days after his wife died, or maybe of his lonely days in the garage studio.
While at his easel and paint brushes in his hand, he would chatter away and I would sit passively, my thoughts wandering where ever children’s thoughts wander, and pretended to listen. I felt child-like compassion for the aged man and I thought by setting there on the stool while he painted and prattled, I would help fill his day with some relevance. From vague recollections, I now try so desperately to recall the elusive memories of the wonderful tales of his adventuresome life, the loss of his wife, “beautiful Regina” he called her, when she was only 28 years old and the three young children they buried, his days in the Alaskan Gold Rush and his days in Connecticut and New York, especally the weekly family poker games (for the men only).
The Reinhards were great cooks, especially the men, and Grandpa Reinhard, even in his 80s, cooked most all meals for himself. Well, except for Sunday dinners. He baked cookies and pies, rolling out the dough on a floured marble board which was used in a confectionary business by members of the family. Each time when I would visit, he would offer me some treat he had made.
Of all the different treats he served me over the years, only one vividly stands out in my memory. It was so dramatic, that I still feel the anxiety of my November and December visits to his home. The short walk to his house From my grandparents' home became an inner struggle in my childhood nobility to make him still feel needed and relevant.
He loved to bake his own pumpkin pie. Rolling out the dough for the crust, mixing the spices into the boiled pumpkin, he baked the pie to a perfect brown. No burnt spots on the skin of the custard and the crust was golden. His pie could have been photographed for Good Housekeeping magazine.
He always offered me a piece and I would never refuse him. I wanted to please him and reward his cooking efforts by enjoying his creations.
“Just a small piece, Grandpa Reinhard, pleeeease,” I whined as I leaned over to make sure it was a small piece.
I smiled weakly I am sure, as I took my plate, fork and a big glass of water and sat down at his small dinette table. He would then slice himself a big piece, pour a cup of thick coffee, added his sugar and milk. He seemed happy to share his creation as he cut a bite from his piece of pie, slid it onto his fork and saluted me with it before he put it into his mouth, carefully bypassing his mustache. I couldn’t avoid it now. I took a deep breath, placed my glass of water in a ready position, close to the plate. I took off a small piece of the pumpkin custard and slowly drew it to my mouth. With a gulp, I slid it down my throat and followed it with a big gulp of water. I fought to keep my squinted eyes from watering as I softly complimented him on his delicious pumpkin pie.
That custard, oh, how it would bite. I look back now and realize the culprit ingredient had to be the ginger. Probably three or four times what the recipe called for. He made it the same way every year. And every year, I would join him in the ceremony, little realizing that no one else ever ate his pie. And every year, I fought to get it down with a smile and a compliment.
The morning of the first day of my sixth grade, as I sat down at the breakfast table, my mom said to me, quietly, “Grandpa Reinhard died last night.”
The news was a jolt to me. I didn’t remember him sick. Ever. He never complained of any pain. Oh, he walked slowly and seemed stiff when he would bend over. But, I never knew him to mention feeling badly. He was just always the same.
The next day, I learned from Pappy that Grandpa Reinhard died in Pappy’s arms the evening before. Every night, Pappy would walk King, his dog. King always pulled Pappy along tugging at his leash, each time they came out of the house, turning left to walk around the block. However, on this night, King pulled Pappy across the street. At first, Pappy tried to steer him back into their daily pattern, but King would not relent. So Pappy followed him as King uncharacteristically walked towards Grandpa Reinhard’s house. As they walked past the front, --and no one in the family ever went to the front yard,-- King pulled him up the path.
Suddenly Pappy heard a small voice calling, “Arthur, please help me.” Pappy let go of King and ran up the two steps into the house. There was Grandpa Reinhard sitting in his easy chair. As Pappy wrapped his arms around Grandpa Reinhard, he drew the last breaths of his life and silently went to sleep.
Gone were the Sundays in his garage studio and gone were the recitations of his life, forever silenced except for those distant and vague memories I still have,--- except for his pumpkin pie.
I still remember sitting at his small wooden table, struggling to eat his pumpkin pie with him.
That spicy bitter desert became the strong connection which still binds me to my great grandfather, after all these years. Every time I have pumpkin pie over each holiday season, I instantly picture the two of us eating that pumpin pie as I recall the sacrifice I made for that memory.