He’d served in World War II, in Europe, and had been exposed to things we didn’t know about. Things he didn’t know about. As a scout, it was his job to go ahead of the rest of his unit and check out the situation ahead, befriend locals and find out information and make sure his unit would be safe when they followed him, even if he himself was never safe.
He wrote my grandmother, who he was dating, a v-mail every single day he was there. Sometimes he was allowed to talk about where he was and what he was doing. A lot of times he wasn’t. Sometimes all he could do was draw a picture of his girlfriend, my grandmother, waiting for him.
He came out of WWII alive, came home to his girlfriend and married her, and made a life that involved no travel, no danger, only love and fun and being a smart-ass. And working in a chemical factory.
25 years later he was diagnosed with cancer, and was going through treatment when I was born. It was 1973, and doctors were just trying to kill the cancer, to save his life, and they didn’t know about moderation. So they gave him chemotherapy that almost killed him, and followed that up with radiation that left him with permanent nerve damage in his feet, and a bad taste in his mouth for the rest of his life.
He spent the next 22 years trying to get rid of that bad taste.
He started by chewing tobacco, but at a certain point he realized the idiocy of a cancer survivor chewing tobacco, so he moved on. To gum, then those red-and-white-striped peppermints, then those lurid yellow butterscotches. I was at his house all the time (I learned his phone number before I knew my own) and would chew gum or eat candy along with him. (He also pumped me full of soda pop, processed lunchmeat, Miracle Whip, and potato chips fried in lard. It was the ’70s, and he’d escaped death, and I was his only granddaughter.)
And then he moved on to Werther’s Originals. And we stuck with them.
There was something about the silky caramel that was still a hard candy. All of the gooey-ness of caramel without sticking in your teeth. (Which was great, because Apappa had had all of his teeth pulled in his 30s so he wouldn’t have to deal with them. I was fascinated by his dentures.) It was all the enjoyment of a caramel without the commitment. Just writing this is making me want one.
We ate Werther’s Originals for most of my tween and teen years. Apappa carried them in his pocket for when he needed them, and would hand them out to people he encountered as a little pick-me-up. (You’d be surprised at how delighted people are when given a Werther’s Original.) When he came to visit me in college, he handed out Werther’s Originals to every one of my friends. 20 years later, whenever Apappa’s name comes up, someone says “I could eat a Werther’s Original right now.”
There was so much to my grandfather. He was funny, both on purpose and because he just said whatever he thought. He came up with hilarious ideas, like making me a wading pool out of railroad ties and a plastic tarp. He was a gifted artist who painted scenes of places he’d been and of his parents’ home country of Hungary. He was the life of the party. He could be a real jerk, but he was also so generous and loving to me. He was proud of me every day, and I knew it every day.
Apappa died of the sixth cancer he was diagnosed with, in 1995. He was 74, and I was 22. I think about him every day. I love that I can get back a little bit of him so easily, and that so many people think of him whenever they eat a piece of candy.
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