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Grandpa

Andrew Cunningham

    Michael grew up in 1950s Millbrae. His parents owned Hillcrest Pharmacy, a local pharmacy frequented by many Millbrae residents before the monstrous reign of Walgreens, Safeway and CVS. As a kid, Michael delivered prescriptions to the large homes in Millbrae’s hills. With a red pack slung over his shoulder, “Mikey” biked up the steep stone streets delivering medicine to Hillcrests’ customers. At 16, just as his youthfulness had begun to melt into awkward adolescence, he stopped delivering prescriptions. Instead, his father put him behind the counter where he helped his mother keep track of the pharmacy’s finances. With a knack for mathematics and detail, Michael loved it. You could find him there all the time, even on school nights and early Saturday mornings. Even now, when he talks about his father’s pharmacy, you can hear the pride in his voice and see the longing wash over his face.

 

One bright September morning, just a few days into his junior year, Michael opened Hillcrests’ front door to see a bright, beautiful young woman he’d never met sitting behind the cosmetics counter. Sheepishly, he approached and introduced himself. With thick-framed glasses and a wardrobe full of striped turtlenecks and khaki pants, Michael considered himself a nerd above all else; he had very little experience with girls – let alone ones as beautiful as the girl behind the cosmetics counter. As soon as he introduced himself, however, the warmth in her voice and her welcoming smile quickly melted the nervous feeling in his stomach. Within a few weeks, Michael was in love. While he didn’t marry her then, he later confessed to me he spent all of college thinking about Judy from Hillcrest cosmetics. When he graduated from high school in 1965, he enrolled at Stanford –– At the time, the tuition was a staggering $285 a quarter. At Stanford, he continued to pursue mathematics. His love for numbers transferred to a love of physical sciences and, eventually, a passion for engineering. Shortly after graduation, he married the girl from behind his father’s cosmetics counter, Judith Rees, went to work for Hewlett Packard, had two kids, and bought a home in sunny Palo Alto. In each new step, Michael tackled life with a ceaseless passion, loving everything he did, even the things most dread like changing a diaper or traveling to Detroit on business.


 

           I was born November 7th, 2000 in the bitter cold of a Boston winter. Despite the distance, weather, and inconvenience, my grandpa was there to welcome me into the world. While I obviously can’t remember it, photos and first-person accounts put my grandfather, Papa as I know him, in Brigham and Women's’ waiting room the same day as my birth, pacing in nervous anticipation. According to my father, he’d called Papa around 12:30 a.m. Eastern Time as he rushed my mother to the hospital. After hearing the news and bestowing wisdom only a father can give his son, Papa rushed to the airport, boarded the first flight to Boston and, by 12 a.m. Pacific Time, had taken off from SFO.

 

           As inconceivable as this story sounds, it feels almost normal to me. Papa never does anything halfway. If it’s something he’s passionate about – building a massive, three-story birdhouse, running the Boston Marathon at age 57, mastering Bach’s Minuet in F Major on the piano or being there for the birth of his first grandchild – he’s going to make it happen.

 

I remember a time not long ago, it must have been my 11th birthday or near to it, when we were working on the old grandfather clock that stands by the piano in my grandparents’ living room. Despite its age, Papa’s assiduous care has kept it running without fail since my great-grandfather was alive. Since he’d passed, the clock belonged to Papa. That old grandfather clock is always there when I need it; beautiful and powerful, its ability has withstood the test of time. The gears within its broad oak chest move in a diligent, calculated rhythm, never missing a beat. Nestled within those gears, a pendulum swings back and forth at a predictable, comforting pace. Roman numerals line the clock’s face; while faded and peeling slightly at the corners, the figures shine with a vintage beauty. Each time the clock’s hand hits an hour mark, it bellows with a low dong, immediately grabbing the attention of everyone in the room. From its place by the piano, the old grandfather clock proudly looks over my family. As I stared up at the clock that morning, my eyes filled with wonder and admiration, my grandfather whispered in a gruff, soothing voice, “Someday, God willing, she’ll stand in your living room. In the meantime, help me keep’er running.”