I sent my mom a text tonight that read “Do you think Joe is dead?” It looks morbid, but here’s the thing, Joe probably is dead. He was already old when I knew him as a very little girl. He must’ve been in his seventies when I was spending my afternoons with him. It’s hard for me to say how often I went over to Joe’s. I’d guess it was just about everyday. My first backyard backed up to his. I’d call him up, see if he was home, then walk out the door and head up the hill to his house. He always stood out on his back deck and watched me as I crossed our yards.
Joe was a friend like no other friends I had, and he was just mine. Sure, Joe liked my brothers and the other neighborhood kids, but Joe was really mine. He didn’t ride bikes with me or play basketball. He didn’t own any barbies, though he didn’t mind if I carried mine over to his house to play with us. He couldn’t run around outside with me, but he spent invaluable time with me.
Nobody I’ve ever known has pronounced my name as well as Joe did. Elizabeth rolled off his tongue with sort of a bouncy “s” sound in the middle. Joe was cuban. I was too young to understand what it meant to be a cuban who’d left home to live in the United States. I just knew he talked funny. I often asked him blunt questions about his accent, and pointed out when he said words oddly. That’s what kids do. Joe didn’t mind. He took it as an opportunity to teach me spanish.
Joe would spend entire afternoons sitting at his kitchen table practicing spanish words with me while I colored. He had an enormous collection of coloring books that stayed in a big brown basket in his living room. Joe’s children were grown and didn’t have any kids of their own yet. It’s obvious to me now that the basket of coloring books and crayons was stocked for just me. No other kids in the neighborhood knew Joe like I did. Nobody else would sit at his table coloring the little mermaid’s tail with a green crayon while Joe pointed to the color and practiced the word “verde”. When I was learning how to tell time, he taught me how to do it in spanish. He never got tired of helping me practice. For one birthday Joe bought me a spanish dictionary. He used to quiz me on words. I still have the dictionary, inscribed with a note from Joe. It’s got to be twenty years old now.
Joe’s wife made snacks that I thought were weird, but good. They never had saltine crackers and cheddar cheese like my family, they had weird wafer-like things and fancy cheese I couldn’t pronounce. I don’t know why any of these details are still so clear to me. It’s funny what sticks with you. There was a time when Joe’s doctor told him he had to start drinking vinegar to help with his heart or blood pressure or something like that, I don’t know, I was only five or six. His wife used to mix Apple Juice, Grape Juice, and vinegar for a drink he hated. For some reason, I loved it. I loved it so much that I’d ask for it as soon as I arrived in the afternoons. Sometimes they wouldn’t have any ready so I’d help her mix it up. Joe always drank his special juice with me at that same table in his kitchen. I’d enjoy a giant glass of a drink that definitely wasn’t meant for a child’s palate, while coloring in whatever new coloring book he’d picked up for me.
Joe and I were strange friends, from the outside, but there was nothing I wouldn’t do with him. If he had to work on repairing something in his little basement workshop, I’d sit up on a stool next to him and ask him endless questions while he did it. I remember one day his sweet wife was on his case about needing to clean out the attic, so I spent the afternoon talking his ears off while he passed me things from the top of the ladder. He told me stories about the stuff he found. I asked question after question. When I learned how to tie my shoes Joe let me practice on his shoes. When I first learned how to ride my bike, after months of frustrating practice, Joe would watch me ride up and down the side walk. He’d cheer for me from the deck.
I don’t know how Joe and I met. I was too young when it happened. We were only neighbors until I was eight. We moved to a new home in the same town. Joe would visit me on my birthdays or other special occasions. I’d call him sometimes, but eventually I got older and my family moved. His did too.
Tonight I thought about Joe, and to be honest I felt a twinge of grief. My mom responded to my text with “Honey, I don’t know, but I’d guess yes”. So now I’m here doing the only thing I can really think to do which is just to write down some memories of a man who was as good of a grandfather as any other I’ve had. I’m a little sad over the loss. Joe was a man who was part of my everyday life for several years. He was a man who always had time to answer my phone calls and sit down at the kitchen table with me. Joe didn’t mind my endless questions and he never lost patience with me. Whether I was learning a new skill or just talking about my day, Joe always made me feel like what I was saying was the most important thing he could hear right then. There’s nothing better you can give a kid, and I just hope wherever Joe is now he knows that he left that kind of a legacy.
What a wonderful way to remember “Joe.” He certainly enjoyed those few years of your friendship – his face lit up as he retold the tales of your visits. You were a big part of making him feel welcomed in North Carolina when my parents moved to the South after 35 years in the New York area. A Cuban in Cary… But, accent and all, you made him feel special, loved, and at home. He did eventually have two other grandchildren (besides you!), whom he also enjoyed playing with patiently, encouraging to draw, and teaching Spanish. My sons called him Abuelo, but many people remember him as Joe. And, without fail, each time someone speaks of Joe, we are still compelled to fondly mimic that famous Cuban accent that we will never forget.