Family & Friends

The Gift of Family

Plaque“The Gift” from the Russell family to Grandpa—an adopted bench in Central Park, from all his grandchildren.

My father is a “family man.” I didn’t realize this when I was a child or even a young adult. He worked extremely hard to provide for my mother (his first wife) and his three daughters, and that was his role in our family. Growing up, I didn’t really know much about my father. To me, he was a charming but overworked businessman in an unhappy marriage. I can proudly say that he is one the most important people in my life today.

After the birth of my first child and a stressful family ski vacation together, my father and I were not in contact with each other for six years. I needed a break from our relationship and the space to figure out how to be a working artist with two babies and a husband in Denmark. When my children, Isabel and Alexander, finally met my father at ages 6 and 7, he became Grandpa. And in a matter of days, he wasn’t just Grandpa. He was the World’s Best Grandpa.

Since that joyful meeting in Copenhagen in 1997, Grandpa’s popularity has never wavered. The interest that my father takes in my children has shown them that they are important people in a strong family. And it has taught me that I have a funny and generous father who loves all of us very much.

Part 1: The Road Trip

Almost three years ago, during her gap year between high school and college, my daughter Isabel stayed with Grandpa and his wife in New York for about a month. Even after she had found a job and moved in with some roommates her own age, Isabel stopped by my father’s apartment several times a week to hang out with him. During their many hours together, Isabel collected outrageous sayings from Grandpa. She wrote them all down in a hilarious book that she gave to her brother for Christmas. It is clear that, as my father became aware of the project, his expressions became more and more colorful. He was interested in being documented for posterity. Unfortunately, I cannot share with you his politically incorrect observations on life and completely inappropriate words of wisdom. I don’t want to encourage him.

Isabel was determined to end her gap year with a road trip with her best friend across the USA—in a red convertible. She refused to compromise, and everyone wondered how she was going to achieve her dream with the money she had earned working for minimum wage. Then one day Grandpa sold his new silver Volkswagen GTI Hatchback and bought himself a red Mini Cooper Convertible. He was 79 years old. He announced that he was going to lend his new, fully insured car to Isabel and her Danish girlfriend, Line, for their road trip. To make sure that the girls were competent drivers, Grandpa suggested that he drive with Isabel and Line to his alma mater, Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana. To everyone’s credit, the girls were thrilled to have Grandpa along for the ride. And Grandpa was happy to spend some more time with his oldest granddaughter and make more family history.

Right after the car transactions, my father had elective knee replacement surgery. Looking forward to the road trip, he would wake up intermittently after the surgery and remember something that he needed to teach the girls about the new car, like what kind of gas to put into the tank. The trip seemed to fill his mind both when he was conscious and when he was unconscious. As soon as he could get out of his hospital bed, he started training with his new knee. His recovery was extremely quick. The road trip was good medicine.

Isabel and GP at Notre DameIsabel and Grandpa at Notre Dame on their road trip.

The drive from Pennsylvania to Indiana was 630 miles and took Grandpa, Isabel, and Line twelve hours in the crowded Mini Cooper. After a few days at Notre Dame, the girls persuaded Grandpa to continue on with them to visit my sister and her family in Boulder, Colorado. That stretch of the trip was about 1,000 miles and took them more than seventeen hours over several days. Grandpa ended up driving with the girls all the way to San Jose to visit more family. It took them eleven days, and they drove more than 3,000 miles together.

By the time my father left them, both Isabel and Line were excellent drivers and able to complete the second half of their road trip without any of us worrying too much about them.

My father says that he will never sell the Mini Cooper. He calls it “Isabel’s car” and lovingly cleans and polishes it before taking it out for the summer. And, of course, he still enjoys telling anyone who will listen the story of why he drives a red convertible at the age of 79.

Part 2: The Bench

My family and I wanted to do something special for my father when he turned 80 years old. It was Isabel’s idea to adopt a bench in Central Park and dedicate it to Grandpa from all his grandchildren. My father has always used the park, and for years he and his wife have lived near the entrance at 72nd Street on the Upper East Side. They have walked several generations of dogs in the park.

My husband, Casper, and our children loved the idea of a bench for Grandpa, so I suggested the gift to my two sisters and their children. Everyone agreed that Grandpa had earned the accolade “World’s Best Grandpa.” We all imagined the pleasure he would get visiting the bench and telling strangers that they were sitting on his bench. Since my family was planning to go to New York for a winter vacation, we volunteered to find the bench.

The first day, we spent several hours running around in the cold, jotting down the five-digit tag numbers of well-located benches without plaques. Then we walked over to the office of the Central Park Conservancy on East 60th Street, where we discovered that all of the benches we liked were already taken. The only benches available from 65th to 79th Streets on the East Side were in playgrounds that adults could not enter without a child. We were given several maps that indicated which benches without plaques were still available in other areas.

During our second day of searching, I began to worry that we might not find the perfect bench. We returned to the office to ask for maps of additional areas so we could expand our search. We decided to check out Wien Walk (the pathway from 60th Street to the Zoo) and the east side of the Ramble, where there were still some benches available. Sensing our desperation, the manager, Kerry Shannon, called the park architects. Suddenly there was more hope: several new benches were going to be placed behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We were so excited that we took a taxi to the Met. My father had lived on East 86th Street when he first moved to New York. Newly divorced, he spent every weekend exploring a different collection at the museum, so the area of the park around the museum had special significance for him. When we found the exact location for the new benches, we could see that they were going to look out onto a road with heavy traffic. It would not be a nice place to sit, and it was too far from my father’s apartment.

We crossed our fingers and headed to the Ramble, not far from the 72nd Street entrance. There was an excellent bench on the hill behind the boathouse. But it was attached to a bench that was a memorial to a young man who had died tragically. We couldn’t adopt that bench because I knew that my father would wonder about the young man’s story and feel sad whenever he visited the bench.

As luck would have it, there was another wonderfully located bench nearby with a more upbeat neighbor bench. We were overjoyed as we checked and rechecked the tag numbers to make sure that the bench was available. We photographed it from every angle. We sat in it and photographed the view of the New York skyline from the bench. Finally, we had found Grandpa’s bench.

Back at the office, we decided that the plaque should read:

To the world’s best Grandpa,
Robert J. Russell

Love, Pilar, Sammy, Sofia, Lucca, Isabel and Alexander
May 22, 2013

That summer, the whole family gathered in New York to celebrate my father’s belated 80th birthday. My sisters came with their families from Colorado and Vermont. And I traveled with my family from Copenhagen. On a sunny summer day, we had a picnic in Central Park and all of the grandchildren proudly presented the bench to Grandpa together. Even though he seemed to know what was coming, Grandpa did a great job of acting surprised. More importantly, we all knew that he was thrilled with his gift.

As we were searching for the right bench for my father, we read hundreds of plaques with their inscriptions. There were dozens of marriage proposals, commemorations of births, graduations and wedding anniversaries, memorials for people and a various types of pets, and September 11th tributes. There were funny inscriptions and poetic inscriptions, and benches for famous and not-so-famous people. But I only saw one world’s best Grandpa, and that was Robert J. Russell. Thank you, again, Dad!

Isabel at the bench(1)Isabel at Grandpa’s newly dedicated bench.

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