Jenny Knaak: Goodbye, Grampy
Editor’s note: Jenny Knaak, guest columnist, is the daughter of Teri Orr, the customary author of “Sunday in The Park.”
It was sudden, but not wholly unexpected. My father’s health had been declining for years. But I was still shocked last Saturday night, when I was told he had passed away.
He was a larger-than-life kinda guy. Big laugh, big heart, big personality. He and my mother split up when I was 3, so I have no memories of us together as a family, but I’ve seen pictures. We lived at Lake Tahoe when I was born, and he was a ski instructor during the winters. He taught me and my brother, Randy, to ski as soon as we could walk, so it has always been a skill I’ve taken for granted.
My dad was a lot of things — adventurer, sailor, entrepreneur, contractor, farmer, ski instructor — but his most meaningful titles were father and grandfather. Family was paramount to him. The eldest of five kids, he was always family-first — often to the frustration of his spouse.
When his first grandchild was born (Randy’s daughter Izzy) he became Grampy. Within three years, he had three little monkeys to love — my one, and my brother’s two.
It was an eight-hour drive to and from “The Lake” — a trip he made three times a year. He would typically come out on Friday, stay Saturday and Sunday, and head home on Monday, staying with either Randy or me.
And Grampy had his own way of doing things. Once the kids were all talking and potty-trained, he insisted on “Grampy Night.” It consisted of having all the kids stay at one house, kicking out the resident parents for a date, and watching an old animated movie. There would be pizza, hot dogs or some other gourmet treat for dinner. And for breakfast — Eggo waffles with ice cream, chocolate syrup, sprinkles … anything ridiculously sweet. Randy and I tried to protest and we were always shot down.
“Awww, come on. It’s ONE morning. So what if they have ice cream for breakfast? It’s not gonna kill them.”
We would reluctantly agree. One horribly unhealthy breakfast wouldn’t be the end of the world. So what if there wasn’t any fruit? Or discernible protein? So what if the kids got a total sugar buzz from breakfast, crashed an hour later, and were grumpy little monsters until lunch?
In recent years, his mobility went from bad to worse. Years in construction had him hunched over and walking slightly sideways. His knees were weak, and his back was a wreck. But he didn’t let that stop him. He would come armed with a folding camp stool, and make his way to whichever event was going on. He would walk about 50 feet, stop, put his stool down, and sit for a minute. Then he’d get back up. Yes, it would take five times longer to walk to the field than normal, so we factored in more time. I know he was both sad and embarrassed he couldn’t easily get around. But he didn’t let his pride get in the way of supporting the grandkids.
He limped his way onto many fields to watch and support them — softball, baseball and football. And the kids weren’t exactly prodigies. They fumbled and failed — and he couldn’t have been happier or prouder, to be there encouraging them.
Don’t get me wrong — my dad was no saint. Just ask any of his four wives. He was, as my brother and I dubbed him, a “serial monag-amer” — not a player or Lothario, just happier with a mate. He was really good at getting them, but not great at keeping them. Except Vivian, his widow. He was with her for over a dozen years — longer than anyone since my mother. He and my mom were eighth-grade sweethearts, married at 19, divorced at 26. They both said they were just too young and inexperienced. It was not a “conscious uncoupling” — it was messy and complicated.
Nonetheless, she allowed him be part of our lives. And he made an effort. Even though we were sometimes 500 or 2,000 miles away, he called and visited. Or had us visit. Which is how we ended up in Hawaii over the summers of my high school and college years.
In my late teens and early twenties, Randy and I spent our summers with him, on the south shore of Kauai. It was not a terrible place to visit — we biked, hiked, sailed and surfed. My dad left “The Lake” for 12 years, and had two stores in a small fresh-air mall. My brother and I would work all summer, making sandwiches and scooping ice cream for tourists. And when we weren’t working, we were playing in movie-worthy locations.
We hiked the Napali Coast — the island in “Jurassic Park.” We bodysurfed at Lumahai, “Nurse’s Beach” from “South Pacific.” We explored the Menehune Fish Pond — part of the opening sequence in “Raiders of The Lost Arc.”
Most of my best memories of my dad are from those years. Before I was married. Before I was tethered. We were drinking buddies and partners in crime — decidedly not a traditional father-daughter relationship. He taught me to drive, sail, bodysurf and snorkel. And no matter what adventure I was off to, my dad’s parting words were always the same — “Have fun. Be safe.”
I sometimes forgot the second part, but I was always faithful to the first. I made plenty of mistakes — and he let me. He truly encouraged my independence — a gift not all fathers give their daughters.
I know it will be a while before it sinks in — how I’ll never hear his voice on the phone again, how he’ll never see the grandkids graduate or marry, how he’ll never again wrap his arms around me, kiss my cheek and say — “Have fun. Be safe.”
This weekend, we will honor Grampy with a breakfast of waffles and ice cream — nutrition be damned. Because it’s okay to throw caution to the wind, and important to honor your loved ones, especially Sunday, In Any Park.
“Even the dogs were celebrating the reemergence of the sun.”