I went down to Florida this week to see my 98-year old grandfather. It’s not that he’s ailing. It’s that he’s aging — with more speed than he had done in the past, according to my mother. I feared if I waited much longer to visit, I would run into a period where I would be unable to fly, on account of pregnancy, and by the time I’d make it down to Florida, it would be too late.
To get a sense of my grandfather, one only had to look at the screened-in porch of my grandparents condominium. The room was filled with broken vacuum cleaners. My grandfather used to own an appliance store on Long Island, and until last year, he still collected broken vacuum cleaners and repaired them. He gave one to his grandson, Lanny, who couldn’t afford to buy his own, and then took Lanny’s broken machine to fix with the hope of giving it to someone else. Some of the others he retrieved from the garbage of his condo, to salvage the spare parts.
“I want them out of there,” my grandmother said the last time I went down to visit.
“They’re good vacuum cleaners,” my grandfather said.
“Nobody wants them, Bob!” my grandmother said.
My grandfather has always fixed things. You’d know when he’d been to visit our house because some pipe or hose was now gerryrigged with duct tape and rubber bands — but the appliance would be working. My husband always said I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps, because I had the patience and the confidence of a mechanical engineer. I was not afraid to take anything apart. He changed his mind when he came home from work one night to find me brutally jamming a knife into the slot of our VCR.
“He’s always fixed things with spit and glue,” my mother said of her father. “I never wanted him to fix things for me because I was afraid of what it would end up looking like.”
My grandfather wasn’t schooled as an engineer. He came from a poor Jewish family in Brownsville, Brooklyn. What little mechanical training he received was in the trade school he attended as high school. After he and my grandmother got married, my grandfather began selling Electrolux Vacuum cleaners door to door. After a while, he went to work at the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company. One day, he told his boss the company was wasting a lot of money by shipping the vacuum cleaners in large boxes. He suggested they remove the handles so that they could ship the vacuums in smaller packages. They took his advice, and in our family folklore, he made vacuum cleaner history.
“His boss took all the credit for that,” my mother said with the bitterness of someone who nearly had it all.
After a couple of years, my grandfather opened up his own appliance store in Cedarhurst with his friend, Murray. While my grandfather was a decent salesman, Murray handled sales and my grandfather took care of all the repairs, making house calls to fix broken washing machines, leaking refrigerators, or freezers that no longer got cold, for one reason or another.
My grandfather eventually retired and moved from Long Island down to Florida, but he quickly grew bored and wound up taking over a vacuum cleaner business his son had bought. The store sold every type of machine — though my grandfather was always partial to Hoover uprights — and he repaired every aspect of those machines, from motors, to hoses, to filters, well into his eighties.
Until last year, he had a room on the second floor of his condo building that he called his workshop. He stored tools there as well as a workbench, and soon everyone in the building began bringing him their broken appliances, from sewing machines, to toaster ovens and coffee pots, because they knew he could fix them.
My grandmother also benefited from my grandfather’s transformative powers. When she wanted a new kitchen set, he spray painted her Formica table gray. When their children complained they were hard to reach because their phone was often busy, my grandfather realized it was because the new phone they’d gotten for the hearing impaired was being put back in its cradle upside down. He painted a large blue arrow on it so that he and my grandmother would know which way to hang it up.
“Bob, that’s not our phone. We’re renting it,” my grandmother said.
When I arrived at my grandparents house this visit, I noticed the center of their doorbell was painted with red nail polish.
“Grandpa, why did you paint the doorbell red?” I asked.
“Because people were neglecting it,” he said. “That’s the problem these days. People neglect things.”
A couple of months ago, my mother paid a visit to her parents, and when she walked in the door, she saw my grandfather had plastic Yoplait yogurt cups on his ears. Now hard of hearing, he had cut the bottoms out of the cups and stuck them on his ears to work like little megaphones and enhance the sound. He looked like Shrek, my mother said.
“It works,” my grandfather said.