Yesterday would have been my Grandpa Reedy’s 110th birthday. He was born just after the turn of the century, the last of nine children in Natchez, Mississippi. My great-grandmother was already a grandmother, when she gave birth to Grandpa. His father was nicknamed Shakespeare, due to his propensity for getting drunk and reciting Shakespeare from his front porch. This must have left quite an impression on Grandpa, because Shakespeare was one of his favorites.
Unfortunately, his father died when he was twelve and his mother sent him to live with his older brother in Missouri. At this point, his life became difficult. His brother was not what you would call stable. (He dropped out of school in the sixth grade, to free up time to gamble and run the streets.) There is only one story I could get out of grandpa about this period in his life. One year his brother asked him what he wanted for Christmas and grandpa said, “Candy” thinking he would understand that meant chocolate. His brother apparently didn’t realize this and bought him a box of hard candy. Since that was his only gift, he had a hard candy Christmas that year. Despite all of this, my Grandpa put himself through high school, college, masters and Phd programs. He was a great teacher, an avid reader, latin scholar, fantastic storyteller, lover of Barbra Streisand music, Shakespeare and food.
When I was growing up grandpa lived two hours away in Jefferson City. My father went to visit pretty regularly and I always jumped at the chance to go with him. Because to me, grandpa’s house was magical. It was a shrine to his past life, like a museum. The playroom where my father and his brothers played was exactly how they left it, toys and games on the shelf ready to be played. My Uncle’s slide was in the side yard and his bed still had a chain of gum wrappers on the headboard. Soda was never in a can, only glass bottles. (The fact that there was soda at all, was pretty exciting to me.) My grandmother died before my father met my mother, but her dressing table was exactly how she left it (including hair trimmings from a do it yourself haircutting session.) Her study, which still smelled a little like her, was filled with books, plays she had written and her typewriter. The whole house seemed like this other world, stuck in time, like a living time capsule.
Food was an obsession of my grandfathers. (side note: he was skinny) I think it comforted him and it became a way we connected. During our visits, there were three things I knew we’d eat; spaghetti, Duff’s Buffet and Zesto’s Ice Cream.
Grandpa made the best spaghetti. It wasn’t traditional Italian spaghetti. His was sweet, garlicky, salty, smoky and decidedly southern. He was not a spaghetti snob, he was an addict. (As am I.) I always hated when my family went out for pizza. It felt like a wasted visit to an Italian restaurant. I found out Grandpa and I had the same feelings on the subject, during one of his visits to our house. The family was deciding what to order for dinner. The consensus was pizza, that is, until grandpa announced, “I don’t know what the big deal with pizza is anyway. It’s not that good. I prefer spaghetti.” “I thought in my head me too, me too.” We were partners in spaghetti.
At some point during every visit to grandpa’s house my father would say, “Who wants to go out for dinner?” My grandfather’s response was always “How about Duff’s?” My father attempted to protest, but I was usually already yelling “Yes, yes, yes!” in a fit of excitement. He was outnumbered and he knew it. Duff’s is a prime example of what’s wrong with American food. Of course it’s a buffet, but with a twist. The steam tables were motorized lazy susans, kind of like an airport baggage carousel. When it’s your turn you stand between two gates at the steam table of your choice and grab food with tongs. If they are out of fried chicken, you just stand there while the table rotates around. The workers behind the wall refill it, kind of like baggage handlers. As a kid, I thought that was awesome. There was an unlimited supply of fried chicken, spaghetti, and fruit punch coming from the wall! (And no mom to stop the gluttony!) My grandpa and I were in heaven, my dad not so much. Once we had our fill of fried chicken, we went to Zesto’s, the local ice cream store, because everyone agreed on that!
Grandpa was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was 11 and eventually died when I was 13. His decline was pretty rapid and brutal. He lost his ability to walk, read, speak and eventually eat. I prefer to remember our times eating spaghetti and pigging it up at Duff’s.
I’ll end with my favorite rhyme of Grandpa’s
Here comes that woman down the street, flipping and flopping her great big feet. (This was usually said, while sitting on the porch, smoking a pipe and people watching.)