On my 6th birthday I got my first bike. It was purple and had training wheels. It was a classic 20″ girls Schwinn. That bike meant freedom to me.
I was not allowed to cross the street to play in a neighbor’s lawn without Mom’s permission. I was not allowed to go next door to see if Susan Cunningham could play unless Mom said it was OK. I was not allowed to ride on the asphalt of Isabelle Avenue until I could ride without training wheels. Once I could ride that bike, the asphalt that lay between me and the rest of humanity, as I saw it, would disappear. Riding in the street and crossing the street would be the same thing. Riding on Isabelle Avenue would lead to riding on 21st Street, and that would lead to riding on Ogden, and then Cervantes where my pal Connie lived. In no time I would be pedaling to Stewart’s Market just down the street from her house – the whole world would be open before me, if only I could get rid of those training wheels.
Losing the training wheels was a bit of a “catch 22”, This sidewalk was peppered with dips for driveways about every 30 feet. Getting up to speed on the sidewalk was a challenge. I had tried raising the wheels to the next notch to get a sense of balance, but those dips did me in every time. If I asked Mom she would feign busyness – cooking, cleaning, reading, caring for 2 toddlers, eating bonbons. I was sure that she was perfectly content with me limited to the boundaries of the sidewalks, out of her hair, but unable to get into any real trouble. Pops was no help. He came home from work every night and planted himself firmly in front of the TV – he rarely moved from his Strato-Lounger until after I went to bed at night. I had been riding with training wheels for months now. I seemed destined never to leave Isabelle Avenue.
Most days when I got home from school I would get my bike out and ride the sidewalk the wavy 100 feet to Grandpa’s house. He worked on the railroad and was gone on Mondays on a run to Yermo, California. He worked around the clock on Monday so he came home Tuesday morning and was off until Wednesday and Thursday nights when he worked as an engineer in the switch engine downtown. Grandma worked 9 to 5, so Grandpa took care of the cooking and cleaning and was always around to spend time with. I never knocked, I walked right into his house – unless the door was locked – then I looked into the mail slot to see if he was in the living room. Working irregular hours, Grandpa was an afternoon napper. He worked on one schedule and lived on another.
About once a week Grandpa would take my bike into the back yard and check the air pressure in my tires. He had a compressor back there and he was a stickler for proper tire inflation, even if you still had training wheels. He would check my tires weekly until I left Las Vegas at the age of 25. One one afternoon he asked me when I was finally going to learn to ride that bike without training wheels. He was just home from Yermo and was still in his striped overalls and Wellington’s. I told him that no one would help me and that learning on the sidewalk was just not working. He said, “I’ll help you,” and took my bike out back and removed those stupid training wheels and threw them in the trash.
Grandpa rarely left the house in his work clothes. He was a button down kind of man who wore tailored slacks and a sport coat to eat at Denny’s. He was not ashamed of being a working man, he just chose to leave those working clothes in the hamper when he got home. He also was a quiet man, not given to public laughter or displays of emotion. I have written a lot about my Grandmother with the huge personality. If Grandma loved me fiercely, Grandpa loved me deeply.
Grandpa grew up around women – a lot of women. He was the youngest of 7 children and had 5 older sisters. His mother’s twin sister was a fixture at their house as well. He was in the constant company of women who were crazy about him. He grew up understanding how to relate to women, not in a vulgar way, but in a way that connected easily.
My Pop used to complain that when he was in high school he hated to bring a date over to the house for dinner – that she would spend the next week talking about how much she liked his father, not exactly what he was after on a hot date. In his later years I remember taking Grandpa to the grocery store. We were in the checkout line and the checker was really agitated with the customer ahead of us. She was a very large African-American woman who was loudly expressing her frustration at a customer who didn’t speak English. As we approached the front of the line my inclination was to keep my mouth shut and get out of her way. Grandpa greeted her warmly, “Hello my lovely Delores, how is your day going?” She caught her breath and they just chatted as she checked us out. As he walked ahead of me she put her hand on my shoulder and told me that my grandpa always made her feel good when he came through her line – she just loved him. He had that effect on the nurses who helped to care for him, on my brother’s wives, on the neighbors, on me. I was his only granddaughter, this first Carter girl born since his sister Olive in 1915. He doted on me and I adored just being in his presence. He was a strong and thoughtful man who had no problem putting you ahead of himself. He made me and everyone he met feel valued and important.
On this rare afternoon he took me out to the asphalt in his work clothes – overalls and t-shirt. He held onto the back of the seat of my bike and ran down the street behind me as I pedaled as hard as I could. I could hear the “stomp” of his workbooks as they hit the pavement. As I sped up I could only hear the rush of the wind in my face. I yelled back at him, “Don’t let go, I’m afraid!” He yelled back, “Too late! You’re on your own!” Upon hearing this I felt the urge to brake, but feared that I would topple over if I slowed down. He ran after me and yelled to keep pedaling, so I did. I did slow down and turn back towards him, only to see him still running towards me in his work boots. I raced back his way and he wheeled his arm in a huge circle like a first base coach telling a runner to round the base, so I pedaled on past him while he clapped and smiled.
He gave me wings that day, and it wouldn’t be the last time. When my Pops told me that there was no need for a girl to go to college, Grandpa told me about his missed opportunity at an education and urged me to go. When Pops laughed at the idea of a Fine Art degree, Grandpa told me to do whatever I could to make a career doing something I loved. When I felt I needed a change and wanted a fresh start Grandpa assured me that it was the right choice – to move away from him. When his health declined after a stroke, I told him I wanted to move home to be with him, to care for him, he told me no. He never once put his needs ahead of mine and as I consider the magnitude of that I am humbled.
When I was about 7, my neighbor across the street started taking me to church with her family. She tried to explain to me how much God loves us, how he loves us no matter what we have done, that we can never do anything that will make him stop loving us. I pondered this and thought about my Grandpa and it all made sense. When I think of him today it still does.