It’s funny how the scent of gas station hand soap can turn a 29-year-old woman into a nine-year-old girl. Something in the fragrance reminded me of his warm hugs and Ralph Lauren Polo cologne, instead of a pit stop on the way from Chicago to Lake Geneva. So, I breathed in the aroma and allowed myself a few moments to remember a loving, yet complicated man.
When I was little, Grandpa Drag kept a glass Mason jar on a shelf next to his cologne. Every dime, penny, nickel, quarter and half-dollar of spare change went into that jar. When grandpa came to visit, he put the clinking coins into an athletic sock and tied a big knot at the end. After requisite hugs and kisses, he would pour the contents of the tube sock onto the floor as my sisters and I scrambled to count, roll and divide the money evenly among the three of us.
“Okay whipper snappers,” he’d say when we had finished rolling the last of the coins. “Let’s go to the bank and cash it in.”
A trip to the bank meant exchanging the coins for crisp new bills, never less than 50 dollars for each of us. And, we got to save or spend the money however we wanted.
One year, my sister, Melanie, bought grandpa a two foot-tall vanilla ice cream cone bank. “Hey grandpa, why don’t you fill this up for us?” Melanie challenged with a smirk.
“It will take me a little longer to fill that sucker up,” grandpa joked.
“That’s okay,” Melanie replied.
After a visit or two and the absence of coin filled tube socks, Melanie rethought her initial request. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be all the way full for you to bring us the money,” she said.
When my family visited Grandpa Drag in Silver City, he would often take us girls, sometimes just me, to Dairy Queen in his old, lime-green, Bronco truck. I remember chastising him, “grandpa, put on your seat belt!”
“I’m old already and haven’t died yet from not wearing one,” he would reply.
Despite my horror at his refusal to buckle up, our outings were perfect. I would eat a chocolate dipped cone as we cruised with the windows rolled down. The breeze flowed over our faces, rock and roll music blasted over the stereo.
Grandpa Drag was always armed with presents and a mischievous grin. One Christmas he bought my sisters and me a karaoke set. “Let’s see what kind of pipes you girls have,” he said plugging in the machine and adjusting the multiple microphones. We had more fun singing “Baby, Baby” by Amy Grant. And grandpa sang right along with us.
Then there was the Easter morning we awoke to bunny rabbits in our front yard. We were delighted.“Let’s name one Happy and the other Easter,” I said, thinking it was the most original idea in the world. Our mom was not pleased.
But it wasn’t just the sock of coins, or the gifts that made grandpa special. I went to school at New Mexico State University, home of the Aggies. Grandpa was a former basketball coach at Western New Mexico and Adams State College and loved teasing me about being an Aggie and our terrible athletic teams. But he would always end the teasing on a sentimental note. “I’m so proud of you and all of your accomplishments,” he would say. “Keep getting good grades. I love you.”
Grandpa didn’t have favorites, but just once he told me, “Laura, I have several grandchildren, and I love all of you dearly, but as the oldest, you were the first one to come into my heart.”
As an adult, I’ve come to know another side of my grandfather. He was a complicated man with skeletons in his closet and a rough and tough exterior that I never saw. My grandma, dad, aunt, uncles and basketball players were most often on the receiving end of his outbursts.
When he lost his battle with cancer, there were many newspaper articles written about his life and coaching career. The tributes recounted an often abrasive but charismatic personality that touched the lives of many. He was a complicated man, yet I’ll always remember him as Grandfather Christmas.