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Reminiscing on Big D.'s big day

My grandfather, Big D., turns 80 today. Big D. stands for "Big Dad," the guy my aunts and uncles tried to avoid after they had misbehaved as children. He was the man in charge at 270 Oakridge Avenue. The eyes of children, colleagues and friends have always looked up to Big D.

We celebrated his birthday with family and friends on Saturday night. After racing north on Route 206 to my grandparents' house, my nervous energy and pre-exam stress dissipated as I walked through the garage toward the side door. As I reached for the knob, I heard my mom inside telling my aunt she expected me at any minute.

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The sounds of talking and laughter welcomed me as they filtered through the walls. I could picture the scene: my grandmother, worrying if the food was hot enough; my uncles, talking about the Giants' season-ending loss to the Vikings; my aunts, discussing my cousin's case of chicken pox, while grandchildren, dodging the adults, wondered when the cake would be served. I opened the door and went inside.

Big D. was seated in his favorite chair. He smiled and whispered, "Sarah dear," as I bent down to give him a kiss. His liquid blue eyes were calm though the tumultuous crowd of children, grandchildren, well-wishing old friends and his wife of 55 years talking around him. Everyone was reminiscing; 80 years fuels old jokes and favorite stories.

Big D. and I have always shared. When I was little, I used to grab his hand, dragging him toward the door as I called over my shoulder, "Big D. and I are going bowling. Be back soon." Big D. would look at me and wink as we headed out the door. Bowling was our code name for a clandestine operation – it meant we were going for ice cream. Since Big D. and I always ate the evidence, I thought we had everyone fooled.

When I was 10, Big D. and I started playing tennis together on the weekends. We drove to the courts in his dark blue Volvo, singing along to the tape of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." We never listened to anything else, and our favorite tune was "Friendship." In those weekend tennis lessons, Big D. taught me everything I know about the game, killing me time and time again with his topspin backhand crosscourt for a winner. This weapon caused me to lose point after point, but I finally learned how to hit the shot myself.

This has always been Big D.'s method of teaching: showing me how it's done and leaving me to hit my own shots; to win or lose, but to be responsible for my decisions. Though I didn't know it at the time, Big D. taught me much more than groundstrokes as we joked between points or on our way to Friendly's for a post-game sundae.

Big D. always says, "The best must do more. It is only right." He is proud of what I've accomplished, and I always know I am the best in his eyes. Though a Yalie himself, no one was happier than Big D. when I was accepted at Princeton.

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Big D. has suffered from a few strokes, and he hasn't played tennis since we won our last mixed-doubles tournament together. Now when I'm home from school, Big D. and I frequently go out to lunch. We have a mutually beneficial arrangement: I drive, he pays.

These lunches are my favorite times with Big D. – we are on our own, once again. I talk about school and future plans; he tells me about the war, the day he proposed to my grandmother and his matches against the tennis greats of long ago. I soak up these stories. These episodes of his life have become mine as well – the details have become imprinted on my subconscious, so I will be able to recall them later in life, when I tell my children about Big D.

The "Anything Goes" tape finally broke after years of faithful service. Big D. may have slowed down a bit since then, but his eyes still radiate life. His cake appropriately resembled the cover of Time magazine, with scenes made out of icing from the past 80 years of his life – my Man of the Year.

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