I didn't get to know him until I was around 10 years old, living in Oxnard, California. My mother hadn't seen her father since she married my father back in the early 1940s and when we moved to California, she began to search for him, knowing he was in the state, but not sure where. Since Robinton is an unusual name, it didn't take long for her to track him down in 1969, but he was hesitant to have us come see him. He was retired from the Navy and living aboard a wooden Chris Craft on the Sacramento Delta. He also didn't cotton well to small children. My mother took this as an affront, but I snuck his address from her book and wrote him.
To my surprise he wrote back, and that's when I found out about his "saltiness:"
Dear Jayne, Thanks for the nice letter - you write a very good one and your handwriting is also very good."
He signed it "Your Grandfather."
We began a sporadic correspondence. He typed his letters on an old typewriter that printed script so it looked like handwriting; I handwrote mine for a while, then switched to an old manual typewriter I found at a yard sale. Sometimes he drew pictures of his boat on the envelopes and in the letters; he always had interesting stories to tell about life on the Delta.
Over the years, I slacked off a bit, but always came back with letters of apology; he always replied. We talked on the phone when I was out of the house and living in New Hampshire. I didn't meet him in person until 1984, when I was going through a troublesome divorce and needed to get away from New England. I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car and drove up the coast, ending in Mendocino, where Grandfather lived with his fourth wife, Laura. He was about my height, white-haired, spry, sharp blue eyes, but not a smile. I wasn't sure what to think at first. No hug, no handshake, no kiss on the cheek. Instead, he reach out a finger, touched it to the end of my nose and nodded slowly.
"The Robinton dent," he said, then smiled and hugged me.
I didn't know if he was crazy or what. It turns out that the Robintons have a small indentation at the very tip of their noses. When I returned home, sure enough, my mother, brothers and sister had one, too. You learn something new all the time!
Grandfather loved computers and flight simulators. Since I was a bit of a computer geek way back then (and still am), he and I got along famously. He told fascinating stories about his life in the Navy, and flying PBY-3 Catalinas, but left out huge gaps. Rumor has it that he did "top secret" missions during WWII. He never talked about the war.
When I married my husband, Christopher, a Marine, his first duty station was in El Toro, California. One of our first trips was up the coast to have him meet Grandfather. Before I knew it, Grandfather shooed me out the door with Laura so that he could play the flight simulator with Chris. They talked for hours on end and Laura and I laughed about it, but I was glad they got along.
On my last visit to Mendocino in 1992, before we headed to Okinawa, Japan, Grandfather asked me what I wanted when he died. I was taken aback and told him I really didn't want to think about it. He opened the closet door and pulled out an old bomber jacket - yes, the real deal. He'd worn it during WWII. He told me it would be mine when he was gone. I said fine and let the matter drop.
Grandfather was on the Internet by the time we returned to the states in 1995, and even had a faster computer than me. He and I would exchange e-mails at least once a week, trading favorite URLs or just catching up on things. Once in a while I called him to see how he was doing and just to hear his voice. I kept trying to plan to see him and Laura, but things didn't work out. Each year, he reminded me how old he was getting; his back was giving out and he had to get an electric scooter (I warned him not to chase the neighborhood dogs with it - he thought that was funny). I urged my mother to get in touch with him, but she never did.
My mother expressed regret for not having gotten in touch with him and I told her it was a bit too late. She mourned him in her own way at home and didn't want to go to the service. I went on behalf of her, but mainly for me.
I finally got to "meet" my uncle Michael via phone and e-mail right after Grandfather died. He was surprised to find out Grandfather and I were so close. We talked a long time one night, trading stories about Grandfather. A week later, the leather bomber jacket arrived in the mail. When I opened the box, the smell was that old mustiness. The jacket was cracked, but the "fur" around the collar was in perfect shape. Two patches on either arm and Frank A. Robinton on the leather name tag on the front left pocket. I burst into tears.
A memorial service with full military honors was set for June 25, 2001 at Rosecranz Cemetery. Uncle Michael kept saying it was just for those of us who wanted to remember him - it wasn't what Grandfather wanted. But you know what? I think he really did want us to do something. He was like that. He always grouched about paying too much attention to him, but if you didn't, then he'd get upset.
I flew to San Diego on June 23rd and visited the cemetery the morning of the service to see where he'd be buried. It sat on a hill overlooking the Pacific, just the way Grandfather would have wanted. The stone bore Lee's information:
Lee Rosanna Wife Of Lt Cmdr F A Robinton U.S.N.R. September 29, 1917- January 26, 1947
The ceremony was short, silent, and very moving. The Navy men and women who performed it did so efficiently and with grace. The twenty-one gun salute was awe-inspiring, and a Navy plane felw overhead at the same time. "Taps" brought tears to my eyes. What family could be there, was. Laura was too ill to attend, but one of her daughters was in attendance with her husband, as was Uncle Michael's wife, Mimi, and daughter, Lily. I met another uncle I'd never known about, John, who was a mystery to me, my older brother and niece, and a couple who were great friends with Grandfather and I knew well. When the folded flag was presented to Uncle Michael with the only words spoken (in a low tone), "In honor of your father, please accept this flag on behalf of a grateful nation."
I couldn't hold back the tears.
The next morning, at 7 a.m., I headed back to the cemetery to make sure the flowers I'd placed had water. And to say goodbye to Grandfather. The only other people there was the maintenance crew, mowing the green grass.
I stood in front of the grave and sobbed. I patted the headstone, then told Grandfather I'd come and see him when I could.
I swear I felt a hand on my shoulder.