Grandpa's yard had a pipe, an old rusted iron pipe that stuck up from the ground about a foot. I had no idea where it came from, or where it went. It was just in the middle of the yard like it grew there. A rather useless blemish to most people. And when I ran out to play in Grandpa's back yard I would always go look for it. Because if it had recently rained you could see the water level by looking down the narrow mouth of the pipe. Or if it was a sunny, summer day, the water would reflect back the bright blue sky. I would collect up old rotten walnuts, some broken in half to reveal their owl faces, some just rough, muddy little pods, and drop them down the pipe to watch the water level rise.
And then there were the willows. Two giant, weeping willows with branches so long that I could grab armfuls of them and swing back and forth until I heard them start to rip. Grandpa told me one day not to do it anymore, because I was hurting the tree. I was tearing it, and it wasn't nice. Besides, there was a tire swing on the willow that I was welcome to use all day, and I did. Allison and I would sit in the tire and twist up the rope until we couldn't turn it anymore, then let it unwind while we sat inside the raw rubber. It would make us dizzy and nauseous and we came dangerously close to knocking ourselves out on the thick trunk of the tree.
Up closer to the house, Grandpa's garden was filled with vegetables and berries we'd never seen. He grew wax beans, and plum tomatoes and red currants, things we were wary to eat. After picking the harvest, he'd bring us inside for Bozo, and we'd watch t.v. and eat boil in the bag Chicken A la King or Tamales from the Mexican market down on Western Avenue. He had an ancient, broken brownie camera that we'd pretend to model for, holding his pipe in our teeth and tasting the long dormant tobacco. Other treasures waited in the curio cabinet. Two dollar bills, slate arrowheads he'd found in the back yard, rare coins, old photographs of mom as a kid. And then there was the broken cane that was propped against the wall, taped in the middle. We could always find it beneath the 'high quality' paintings of colorful Birds of Paradise. We'd grab the cane and do a little soft shoe while Grandpa'introduced us' to the audience.
He had a glider couch on the front porch, with green and turquoise flowers on the plastic upholstery. There were always Jumbles to do in the Sun-Times, and comics to read, old Reader's Digests...and in the afternoons, we'd watch the wild tiger lilies wave in the funeral home garden across the street while Harry Caray called the Cubs game or we listened to Days of Our Lives from the t.v. in the living room.
He died of emphysema, weighing a tiny 90 pounds, frail, with his hair still dark and thick, a bit oily from neglect, but brushed back neatly against his head. He was on oxygen the last time I saw him, sitting in his olive chair in the living room, gaunt little cheeks, eyes a bit dulled, insisting that in the 104 heat he had no need for an airconditioner. I watched my mother cry as he struggled to catch his breath.
He was a crabby guy, always telling us we ate too much, always sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom like a teenager. He didn't know he was doing a comedy routine. As we got older, my sister and I would just sit and laugh at his condemnation of the world at every turn. Everyone from Patch on Days, to my dad, to the president, to his girlfriend, to Andre Dawson to the guy at the Eagles Club who 'screwed him out of five bucks'. He slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand and said
"OH BROTHER!" or "FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE!" He was never...not surprised at the madness of humanity.
As I left his house for the last time, not knowing it was the last time...he reached out a hand and shook mine, like we were strangers.
"It was a pleasure to know you," he said. "You're a great kid."
And about a month later, he was gone, laid to rest at the same funeral home where we used to watch the tiger lilies grow. I didn't like the makeup they'd put on him...so I went to sit on his porch instead. The chipping, slate blue paint on the steps, the mat that said "Welcome to Harry's House", the glider, fallen silent and still. It all seemed like a better representation of him anyhow.