Lots of people remember lots of things about my grandfather.
He told lots of stories. He told lots of jokes. He told lots of lies, but in a way, those lies were lots of truths. He did so many things that it was hard to keep track. Some people know his punchlines and tall tales. Most know those superbowl rings. Everyone knows his voice.
I’ve gone through most of my life running into and meeting people with stories to tell me about my grandfather. Friends and friends-of-friends and people I’d never ever know would meet him at Arrowhead Stadium. They’d run into him at the farmer’s market. Or they’d see him while he did one of his signature khaki-pantsed, no-sweat, post-heart attack cycle workouts at the gym. He was Bill and Griggs, Bill Grigsby and the Prince of Parkville, Mr. Kansas City and the Mountain Valley Spring Water Guy. Anyone who lives in Kansas City knows what Price Chopper sounds like.
I appreciated the sentiments from others, but I struggled to relate to their stories of chance meetings and memories of this man. I listened attentively, but these recollections were always about Bill Grigsby the broadcaster, the charmer, the media man. Though he could enchant us all with his stories about the business, he was most magical and enigmatic as the Bill Grigsby I knew. Bill Grigsby, my grandfather. My Papa.
How do you remember someone everyone remembers?
From the moment I was born, Bill Grigsby lovingly called me his "stinkpot," and as soon as I formed a decent sense of wit, I called it back at him. I’ve only ever been to one Chiefs game, but I knew he didn’t care that I didn’t care about football, or any sports, really. It was okay, because I knew the other things he liked: ice cream cones, and good cries, and blondes, in no particular order. He ordered chile relleno and adored Pink Martini. He possessed a true gift for pretending to know names. He wrote and sold a country music song called “He’s Got My Queen in His King-Sized Bed.”
He also loved whipped cream.
Not homemade — he couldn’t stand that stuff. Papa liked Redi-Whip, from a can. Real, fresh aerosol. Dollop was not part of his expansive, energetic vocabulary, especially when it came to cherry pie. The man could dump half a can on his slice, and more when celebrations were in order. Strangely, the airy, bubbly squirt became as recognizable as his voice — one so resonant it scared the dogs into the bedroom while beckoning you to listen. Papa unabashedly hosed his coffee with Redi-Whip and from time to time, he might have taken a hit straight from the can. I never considered him to have a fervent sweet tooth, but when any dessert of the pastry-crusted variety was served, you could predict how he’d take it: Whipped cream, with pie on the side.
I never questioned his taste. Although he was notoriously outspoken, my grandfather was not a man to overindulge. He rarely insisted on conventional payment for the work he did. For him, a thank-you was enough. Once in a while, he would open the trunk of his Oldsmobile to reveal a stash of stuff he had received in exchange for his time, his face, and his voice. My brother and I dug through extra-large Gates t-shirts, FBI hats and golf clubs to find our next Grandpa Grigsby treasure. At one point, I had collected more than 300 dollars worth of Jazzy Bucks.
Papa liked to share — success, good fortune and good stories. For someone who painted vivid flashbacks of hiding from the taxman in a closet with his mother during the Great Depression, I figured whipped cream sprayed in excess from an aerosol can was a little like warm gravy to a once-homeless pup: Well deserved.
Papa never dwelled in the past, but he made reminiscing a profession. We all knew about his morning radio show days with Jim Moore — we knew all of the plotlines set in Bucket Bottom Falls and his fantastical slew of made-up characters. We knew a rogue keg of Schlitz was the culprit behind his forever-busted fifth finger. We knew Japanese soldiers in the Second World War shot off his nipple, and we also knew this was a lie.
I knew these stories by heart. I took some of them for granted. I don’t think he’d blame me for doing so. For a while I did well — at the age of six I was his joke-telling protégé. But just as he had a knack for feigning knowledge of names, I began to hone a talent for pretending I hadn’t heard his stories many, many times before. Sometimes I grew impatient. But other times he’d catch us all by surprise with details. New truths, embellishments or falsities were presented with his tellings, making every retelling richer, sharper. I didn’t know what to believe. I learned that it didn’t matter.
I spoke to Papa by phone on the morning of his 89th birthday. It was 11:30 and he had slept-in. Nonnie half-joked about how long she’d been waiting to make his birthday breakfast — soft-boiled eggs — and now he wanted to have a shave.
I pictured him in striped blue pajamas, gangly legs and bare ankles, bracing himself over the bathroom sink that he’d filled with warm water. He patted the thin skin that had once stretched taut across his chin and cheeks but now drooped endearingly to reveal burst blood vessels, weariness and age. He no longer breathed quietly. Each inhale took something out of him. But despite waking up later and later, and an incomprehensible exhaustion he’d never before known, today was going to be a good day. For February, it was already warm and sunny. Everyone would be at Garozzo’s later for dinner. He’d have the veal and a glass of wine. There’d be no cherry pie or Redi-Whip at the Italian restaurant. Tiramisu was on the menu for tonight. He was happy that I’d called, and he wished me — his fellow Aquarian — a happy birthday too.
I wondered if, on this birthday Papa thought about other birthdays before. What did he remember of childhood birthdays? Was there ever a cake? A pie? Probably not. Even then, my grandfather was never a dweller. He was, though, a dreamer, and he always will be — that remarkably skinny kid standing in the middle of a rickety twin bed in Joplin, broadcasting imaginary sports games through imaginary microphones, wondering if he’d ever have the chance to have stories, and if he’d ever have the chance to share them; wondering when life would taste sweet, and if he’d ever have it all.
His voice echoes vibrantly across the line. 4,000 miles away, I hear its signature boom cut through the phone. I can see him through the phone. So clearly. Suddenly, I want him to have all of the tiramisu in the world. I want him to have all of the Redi-Whip I can find. I don’t want to say goodbye, but I hear water splashing. He is readying the shaving cream. He wants to get on with his day. The first day of his 89th year. His last year. One he will not finish.
I remind myself that Bill Grigsby is not a dweller, so I can’t be one either. I tell him I love him. He loves me too. And I hang up with his voice still ringing in my ear.