This week’s memory challenge is inspired by this period of change I am in with the dayjob. Last week my company and another one have merged to form a new and hopefully stronger company. The changes are just beginning. We have a new name and a new stock ticker symbol. There will be layoffs which will bring more changes for those that lose their jobs. Those that stay will have to learn to adjust to the new company. This is one of those life events they talk about that gets in the way of eating and sleeping and thinking about anything other than the coming week.
I’ve had a lot of life changes as an adult but when I think about life changes in my childhood the biggest one came when I was 10 years old. That was when my grandfather, my best friend, died. From that time on my life was marked as before and after. I don’t know if I was more talkative and adventurous before Papa died but somehow I think so. I think I took my courage for life from him and when he left me I didn’t know how to be brave anymore.
My grandfather was a big man, a former smoker (not in my lifetime) who took to chewing on toothpicks and peppermint lifesavers to help deal with the oral fixation. He was a surveyor for the Contra Costa County roads but I didn’t know that as a kid. All I knew was that he left every morning with his big black lunch box and never came home soon enough for me.
He was the only one who would ever play basketball with me in the funky dirt court with the hoop that never had a net. He drove an old green and white station wagon to work but what he liked to drive best was his big old Glasper boat. He had a duck blind out in the Antioch sloughs and there was clam bed in the pond. We would always stop for him to rake a bucket of clams before heading out for his favorite fishing haunts. He was a hunter and a fisherman and the freezer was always full of duck, pheasant, catfish and sometimes venison. He wasn’t a reader except for a glance at the evening paper and he wasn’t much for television except for the Red Skeleton show. I love Red because Papa loved Red.
Wherever he worked in the yard or on the house, I was right there with him. My grandmother would have called me “in the way” and “underfoot” but he just found something for me to do right alongside him and never once made me feel unwelcome. He wasn’t a softie though. Not by a long shot. I can’t remember once ever hearing the words “I love you” slip through his lips. And oh how I wanted to hear them.
When the cancer came for him it hit his bones first and knocked this giant of a man down faster than bowling ball headed for a strike. I remember feeling shell-shocked at the sight of this big man flat out on his back on the couch. For weeks he didn’t move and I sat on the floor beside him, mostly just watching him sleep because he didn’t have the energy for much else. He went to the hospital and I remember seeing him there in the hospital bed, only briefly. The hospital was no place this outdoor man. He came home soon after that and died at Easter.
I didn’t go to the funeral.
I was asked once if I wanted to go and I was so scared, so absolutely terrified of trying to live my life without him in it that I couldn’t imagine watching them put him in a hole in the ground. So I said no. Oh how I wish I had said yes.
I remember the after funeral part. Where everyone came back to my grandmother’s house bearing gifts of food that we didn’t have the stomach to eat. It piled up high on the the table in the dining room. Jello salads and hams and bread and butter are all I remember but there must have been more. I sat on one of the dining room chairs that had been pushed back against the wall and watched all the grown-ups swirl around me, hugging one another, sharing memories of my grandfather, crying and sometimes even laughing, together.
But no one talked to me.
From where I sat I could see my grandfather’s favorite chair. It was bright red and covered in some sort of nubby textured material. I tried to picture him there, a toothpick clenched in his lips as he shifted the newspaper into one hand and patted his lap with the other, inviting me to come sit with him so we could read the comics together.
But the picture wouldn’t come into focus anymore.
Childhood is often a series of life altering events. That’s the one that stands out the strongest for me. What about you? Is there a life event from your childhood that calls to you even now?
I was ten. We were living in North Carolina, and I’d gone to a friend’s house. We had a fight, in the way only little kids can fight. We were angry at each other. I left, went to another friend’s house. I stepped into the barn, but he wasn’t there. I left a note on the chalk board, that I was going to go for a ride.
I’d been riding most of my life, and knew how to do it. I stepped into the stall, holding the brushes and the saddle and the bridle… And that’s where the memory cuts off until I hear the bullets that struck the trees around us, and felt the earth slam into me, and sharp hooves cave in various bones on my body.
After that I don’t remember much, except snippets and snatches of reality. But I remember pain. And feeling alone. And seeing the youngest of my elder brothers sitting beside my bed, holding my hand, and reading the Black Stallion to me. I remember choking and gasping for air around the tube down my throat.
That’s the trampling.
Next really clear defining memory: I was 16. My mother had just called me a whore, and a Jezebel, and several other choice names, after I told her I was pregnant. I was alone, five months pregnant, terrified. I couldn’t stay with my soon to be husband that night, but… he took me to my grandfather’s. Out to the farm. I got there, and grandfather, in his old battered flannel robe, opened the door and told me to come in. He made me hot chocolate, and asked me “What in Heaven or on Earth has happened?”
I told him everything. I cried, and sobbed, and panicked at him for hours. When it was over, he just held onto me tight, and told me to go fire up the stove, he was going to gather eggs. We were going to have breakfast, and then, we were going to do winter chores. Then, well, then we’d do something else.
He told me it’d be okay, and if God was angry with me for having sex before marriage, then He shouldn’t have made it so damned easy, or fun. For as long as I wanted, I had a home with him, because we were family, the baby would be family, and God was real big on family.
I still miss him. But he got to hold his great-granddaughter before he left. I still have that picture somewhere.
Oh my. You made my heart skip a beat or two or three.
Thank you for sharing. I’m so glad you have that picture.
…reminds me a lot of mine.
He had a favorite chair. And he would invite me to sit with him. I squeezed in beside him. He wasn’t a narrow man. Fortunately, I was a twig of a kid. Sometimes sitting with him meant I could get stay up very late. I mean VERY late for a twig of a kid. We’d watch the Friday night fights. Black and White boxing matches. 12, 15 rounds. Black and white men would pound each other until one fell down for the ref to count ten. Sometimes no one would fall down and still someone would win. I didn’t quite understand. It didn’t matter. I was up very late. And I was sitting with Gramp.
And I would rub the veins the popped out on his hand. I could see mine, bluish, under my skin. But they didn’t pop like Gandpa’s.
And I remember when he died. I saw him in the hospital. He joked with nurses. Asking for vodka in his orange juice. And he would grab at them. He was dying yet he still had time to be that “dirty old man.”
And he said “Goodbye” when our visit was over. And I knew he meant it.
And I was a pall bearer at his funeral. Is was very hot day in June when he was buried. And our suit jackets were completely wrong for day. And the heat may have confused the young funeral director. The son of the funeral director that my grandfather worked for many years as a hearse driver.
The son of the funeral director suddenly realized the coffin was transposed. The head where the feet and vice versa. We spun it around. That meant I had to step over the open hole. The heat got to the young boy diagonally to me. He let go. The weight shifted in my direction.
Grandpa almost took me with him!
It was humorous later. Over Screwdrivers. Grandpa’s drink.
Re: Your Grandpa…
I can so see that scene! Funny later, I can imagine but it must have been tough back then.
must have been tough back then.
The graveyard scene was funny back then, as well!
The funeral director was the only one not laughing.