Tuesday, December 31, 2013

a portrait of my grandfather

scan0065This past Sunday, Julie and I attended the funeral for 91 year-0ld Frank Bales, my grandfather, or "Papa" as we called him. I really liked him, and I wish you could have known him. It seems that just about everybody who did was glad they had, so I'll tell you a bit about him.

For all of my life Papa wore hearing aids, which meant that you had to speak loudly to him. His own voice didn't really need amplification, as it was deep and booming. He smelled like Old Spice and Folgers coffee. He always wore a gold watch face-down on his right wrist. As a child, this made me feel a special kinship with him since I also wore my watch on my right arm. (I don't know what his reason was, but mine was that the cheap watches I wore gave me rashes on my left wrist but not on my right.)

All of the time that we grandkids had to spend with Papa and my grandmother Kaki was special and extravagant. Kaki and Papa enjoyed giving us distinctive experiences and memories: Papa took us to his office and made each of us employee badges complete with our name, picture, and address. Kaki had a song picked out for each one of us and taught us to jitterbug in the living room. They took us to feed the ducks at a nearby pond. They took us to a botanical garden/aquarium called Moody Gardens. This is also where I saw my first 3D movie. They would let us play endlessly with their adding machine. I always enjoyed seeing how large of numbers I could create before the machine gave me an error message. kaki 1I would occasionally bring out a 10-foot receipt I had made and announce how much money they owed me.

They always made sure to have plenty of sodas, chips, and ice cream in the house for us. Papa would frequently make us waffles covered in Muenster cheese (a weird but delicious combination). At dessert time (which could fall at any moment during the day), he would serve up the most generous ice cream helping in a very deep bowl. The two of them usually got up around 5 a.m. and started a pot of Folgers coffee. On occasion I would drag myself out of bed at the same time—both to spend time with them and also to impress them that I had gotten up that early. (This latter reason was reinforced by the fact that Papa would always loudly call out "Well, good afternoon!" if you dared get up after sunrise.) I would always ask for a sip of coffee because it smelled so good. They drank it black, and I always hated it.

Papa and I would play several back-to-back games of Battleship while Glenn Miller, Nat King Cole, and Johnny Mercer played in the background. Since his hearing was poor, the letters B, C, D, E, and G would sound alike to him, so we had fun coming up with words or names that started with those letters to make them distinct.

papa 1They were definitely interested in spoiling us, but not in spoiling us rotten. There were several times that Papa would verbally correct us and a few times that he would discipline us. I especially remember how he would fold my pinky down against my palm and squeeze if I squirmed too much during church.

But it wasn't just the way that he was with his grandchildren that showed his character. In the ten years between Kaki's Alzheimer's diagnosis and her death, he took care of her himself at home. Two years after her death in 2005, he moved from La Marque to Austin to be closer to his two sons, but instead of finishing out his days sitting alone at home, he became an active member of the community:
  - He was the only man in a water aerobics class at the local gym, where he made many friends through not only being friendly but genuinely caring about the lives and families of those in his class.
  - He volunteered at a local elementary school reading to children. The teacher had to teach the children that it was rude for them to turn down other volunteers since they only wanted to read with "Mr. Frank."
  - My uncle's family (who has lived in Austin for decades) suddenly started being noticed at the bank and even receiving special treatment because they had the same last name as favorite customer Frank Bales. Papa got a Christmas card from the bank. My uncle never has. In calling businesses to cancel services after Papa's death, our family continued to discover that Papa had made friends with absolutely anyone he encountered.

In my adult life, I remember how he would always wait up for us to arrive when we came to visit. He would always tell us that he would leave the front door unlocked and be in bed when we arrived, but would still be waiting for us in the living room when we arrived–even if it was midnight. He would almost always have a large batch of Santa Fe stew (aka taco soup) ready "just in case" we hadn't already eaten dinner hours before. At our wedding, he pressed a $50 bill into Julie's hand so she could get her hair done on the honeymoon. HPIM1790Apparently Kaki had wanted to get her hair done on their honeymoon but they couldn't afford it.

There were a lot of things I did for Papa to please him or avoid hurting his feelings. One of those was eat that Santa Fe stew at midnight—even though it gave me a sleepless night of stomach pain—just because he had made it. I wouldn't usually tell him that the chips he served me were two months stale. I accepted the offer to wear his senior citizen leather tennis shoes to his apartment gym when I forgot my own. In high school, I traveled with him to Ohio to visit Wittenberg University (his alma mater) even though I had no interest in attending. As a child, any time he served me something I didn't like and then asked, "You like that?" it was hard to answer; a "yes" would mean always receiving it in the future, but a "no" felt like ingratitude.

IMG_7401Papa didn't gravitate towards talking about himself at all. Whereas I'm likely to tell you any and every slightly interesting fact and story involving me, he never talked about his time in the FBI and his personal letters from J. Edgar Hoover, the fact that he met John Wayne, or his world travels. He was part of the first wave of the invasion of Okinawa as a Marine. He left the service with the rank of Captain, but I only learned this after his death.

On December 22nd, Papa died, having been surrounded by all of his children and many of his grandchildren in the hospital for several days. His funeral was attended by at least 200 people—most of them from Austin, which is a testament to how he touched lives everywhere he went.

He will be missed.


  1. Chase, This was a beautiful tribute to PaPa! I was the one who was always greeted with the famous, "Well, good afternoon"! Kaki would always soften the blow by telling me I looked like a movie star! I loved them and the time I got to spend with them. What lovely memories of two, very special friends!

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Chase! I have sweet memories of my grandparents as well. You look like your grandpa! What a wonderful legacy.


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