As a little boy in the 1940s, Max Apple shared a bedroom with his grandfather, Rocky, a baker who had fled Lithuania during World War I.
In the 1960s, when Max enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan, Rocky followed him to Ann Arbor and rented an apartment with him.
And when Max married his girlfriend and got a job as an English professor in Houston, Rocky, who was nearing 100, moved with the newlyweds to Texas and settled two blocks away.
How a 103-year-old man saved his family.
Max and his wife, Debby, had a daughter, Jessica, and then a son, Sam. Rocky watched both of his great-grandkids often. He also mowed Max and Debby’s lawn, baked for them, and berated them for their indifference to housekeeping.
At 102, Rocky got a bad case of colon cancer that everyone thought would kill him. But then Debby was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he found his way back to health.
“Between 1978 and 1980, Debby’s condition deteriorated, and Rocky, who had seemed as if he had one foot in the grave at 102, bounced back into action,” Max writes in Roommates, a moving and funny memoir that was published in 1994 and made into a movie the next year.
“He was too busy to die.”
Max was spending long days and nights in Debby’s hospital room, so Rocky tended to the kids.
Mostly, they watched the Astros.
Jessica decided to become an announcer when she grew up. Rocky bought her a portable radio so she’d never miss a game.
This excerpt from Roommates is about how Rocky responded when Jessica was caught with the radio at her elementary school and disciplined by the principal, Mrs. Simmons:
In October the principal called. Mrs. Klein caught Jessica in spelling class listening to the World Series through an earphone.
“It’s against the school policy,” Mrs. Simmons said. “Jessica understands school policy. We confiscate radios and send the child home.”
Rocky took the call. “She has spelling every day,” he told the principal. “The World Series is only once a year.”
“I’ve called her father at his office, but I haven’t been able to reach him,” Mrs. Simmons said. “Is there anyone else who could pick her up?”
Rocky walked the five long blocks. When he got to school, Jessica was sitting on a bench outside the principal’s office. The confiscated radio was on Mrs. Simmons’s desk.
Rocky took Jessica’s hand. “Where’s the radio?” he asked.
Jessica motioned to the door marked “Principal.”
“He knocked,” Jessica told me later. “He didn’t just walk in and yell at her. Anyway, I don’t think she understood him, so I told her what he was saying.”
Rocky wanted the radio.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Simmons said, “the radio has been confiscated. She can have it returned after a seven-day period.”
“By then she won’t need it,” Rocky said. “The Series will be over.”
“That,” Mrs. Simmons said, “is exactly the point.”
“I bought her that radio,” Rocky said. “I’ve got the receipt to prove it.” He fished it out of the zippered change purse that the children and I bought for him last Father’s Day.
“Nobody is taking the radio. It’s hers, she just can’t use it for a week.”
“Are you in the union?” Rocky asked.
“I am a member of the teachers’ union.”
“Is that where you learned to steal, or were you a crook before you joined those robbers?”
“I tried to pull him away then,” Jessica said, “but he wouldn’t move.”
“Give her the radio,” Rocky said, “or I call the Labor Department. You union people think everything is yours—jobs, radios, you can’t even leave a kid alone to listen to the World Series.”
“Not in school.”
“She learns more from the radio than from the school. She’ll be an announcer someday.”
When he grabbed the radio from her desk, Mrs. Simmons didn’t try to stop him. He pulled out the earphone and turned up the volume, high so he could hear. The voice of Vin Sculley and then a Gillette Foamy commercial blared into the halls.
Mrs. Simmons followed them out the door. “Her father will hear about this, and so will her teachers.”
“Good,” Rocky said. “I’ll tell all the people I know, too.”
When Mrs. Simmons did reach me, I went right to school. By then she was calm. She knew Jessica less well than the teachers did, but she went out of her way to let me know that she wouldn’t hold Rocky’s behavior against Jessica.
“I know it’s her grandfather, and I tried to reason with the gentleman,” Mrs. Simmons said, “but he had no respect for school policy.”
“Actually,” I said, “he’s her great-grandfather, and he doesn’t have respect for very many policies, but I apologize for anything he said or did.”
We agreed that Jessica would stay home from school the next day to reprimand her.
When I came home and broke the news, Jessica screamed with pleasure. “I’ll be able to watch the seventh game!”
“You see?” Rocky said. “The principal knew she was wrong.”
Roommates follows Rocky until his death at 106; Debby died not long after he did.
Max is now 73 and lives in Philadelphia, near his grandchildren.
Check out all of Max Apple’s books here.