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?