Argyle socks and one old man's kingdom

O'Malley At Large

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

The last time I saw my grandfather we were at Providence Hospital in Anchorage in a dim room, which smelled like minestrone soup. Granddad was on dialysis, flipping TV channels. I lay next to him, listening to the machine purr and click.

"So, beautiful, what's new with you?" he asked me. Both of us stared at the TV where a cheerful woman sniffed a bottle of Pine Sol.

"Not much," I told him, though it wasn't entirely true. I'd recently been fired from a low-paying office job for "not meshing with the workplace culture." And, I was broke. In the course of a week, my buoyant little get-up-and-go-to-work life had taken on water and sunk. I had decided, maturely, to retreat to Anchorage where I sniffled quietly in my childhood bed at my mother's house until she sent me out to visit Granddad.

In the hospital room, Granddad flipped to "All My Children," then a Catholic mass. He was wearing a faded pair of pajamas, his fingers were swollen, he had an IV taped to his arm. A nurse padded in to fiddle with the machine. He winked at her.

"You're a good kid," he said, after she had gone. "You'll do fine." We watched TV until he started to snore softly. I kissed him on his cool bald spot and left.

He was scheduled to be in the hospital for a week, awaiting heart surgery. I'd been given his car to drive - a perfectly maintained, red 1990 Oldsmobile that beeped like a UPS truck when put into reverse. In the parking lot outside, beeping out of a space, I proceeded to feel sorry for my poor, fired self. I was sure the firing was evidence of a budding personality flaw. I wondered if it was diagnosable, like bipolar disorder. I had "Office Meshing Dysfunction" and I was sure it could ruin my career. Maybe, I thought, it already had.

I'm not really sure how I came up with this idea, but at that point I always thought that in your early 20s you were supposed to decide on a career path and stick with it. A career was like a great manuscript, I imagined, a life's work, an opus, built resume chapter by resume chapter. And, now I was back on page one, at home, unemployed, not meshing.

I decided to take a drive through my old neighborhood. I cruised by Wendler Junior High, East High School, the Hostess Discount Bakery, the dying Boniface strip mall with its gaping windows and "For Lease" sign. For no reason, I thought about the dozens of times my grandfather had driven this route, in this Oldsmobile, to pick me up from school. Unlike other people's rides, Granddad always parked and came in the building. I was perpetually embarrassed beneath my bangs to find him standing in the foyer, near the front office in his trench coat with a red driving cap in hand.

When the car came to a stop, I was in the driveway at his house, a modest split level in a lower-end neighborhood. I went inside. The place was empty and smelled like vitamins and getting old. I wandered down the hall to my grandfather's office, a pile-ridden hole where he toiled away on "his taxes" year-round under an ancient desk lamp. In his later years, I think he was mostly sending in Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes forms and ordering us mail-order gadgets for Christmas like plastic hen-shaped egg cookers, toaster ovens, and made-in-China car compasses.

Granddad had been a building code inspector for the city of Anchorage until he retired. There was a career, I thought, something started young and finished late. Something with heft, with a title, with retirement and benefits.

I switched on the desk lamp and thought about all the parts of him his career didn't encompass. He was a guy who drove too fast and never used a turn signal, who liked hot-dog sandwiches and Bill Clinton, even post-Monica. He spent the better part of his day in a recliner, watching movies on TNT, and liked to take much-younger ladies from the Italian Club out to dinner. In fact, I don't think I ever heard him talk about his job once.

If not his career, what was the man's opus? I decided, sadly, that maybe he didn't really have one.

I was still looking for work six weeks later, when I went back home for his funeral. Afterward, I happened back by the house to look around. I peeked in Granddad's closet at his suit jackets and slacks hanging in a line, his Velcro shoes on shoe trees, his striped bathrobe. I pulled open his dresser drawer full of handkerchiefs and argyle socks. I looked in his bathroom where an ancient shaver and electric toothbrush waited on the counter.

About then I finally understood Granddad's life work. This little aging house, the desk lamp, the striped bath robe, the 30 pairs of argyle socks, the toothbrush, all of it was part of his personal kingdom. And, all his life, he had worked on us, his family, arriving early and waiting in the foyer to see us, hat in hand. Even in his last days, it struck me, he had worked on me, a neurotic, unemployed granddaughter, a good kid, who would be just fine.

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