Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Grandpa is Dead

It's amazing to me how with one simple act, a person moves from a reality to a memory.

My Papa was born in 1917, and from that day until his last, he had the kind of memory that makes genealogists and historians go weak in the knees. I think he must have remembered every day of his life.

He saw Babe Ruth play in Tiger's Stadium with his dad in the 1920s.  We didn't know about that until shortly before he died.  In the middle of an uninteresting conversation about baseball, he said it like it was something everyone had done, like he wasn't sitting in room full of people who knew of The Babe only from faded photographs and scratchy video.  He said simply, "I saw him play in Detroit, with my dad."  Like it happened everyday.

A similar experience had happened a few years earlier, when my mom and I stopped in to visit on our way home from the movies.  He asked what we'd seen and my mom said, "We saw Seabiscuit, about this horse in the 1930s."  My Papa muttered, "Seabiscuit, that little horse from California?"  My mother responded, "Yes,"  And Papa, as if he was telling you that he'd had a banana for breakfast that day, said "I saw that little horse run 39."

Just like that, he mentions this legendary horse and his brush with history, and that he'd just driven across the country.  My mother looked at him incredulously.

"Dad, you were in California in the 1930s? Why?"
"I drove your Aunt Crystal out there and stopped at the race track on the way back."
"You drove to California in the 1930s?"
"Yes, what's the hullaballo? She had to go and I drove her."

Never mind that the trip, before highways, probably took more than a week.  Never mind that it would have been an unbelievably historic trip to have made during the Great Depression. He drove to California. He saw Seabiscuit run... what's the big deal?

He was like that about every event in his life. No matter how big or how small, it happened, he lived it, and that was it. He served as a Supply Sargent in World War II in what he always called "The Forgotten Theater" of China, Burma, and India. He didn't see a lot of action, but he did trades with the British.  As he said it, the British liked our military issue sunglasses, and the Americans were jealous of the British issued shorts, which they wore instead of long pants.  So my Papa would trade the American sunglasses for the British shorts.  He was always a businessman.

He came back from the war, worked in a Papermill for awhile and then started his own small boats and motors business.  He also had six kids.  Like most grandparents, mine also functioned as babysitters when the grandkids started to arrive.  Papa would be at the store next door to his house, and we'd wander over there after lunch to visit when my grandma started watching her "shows"-- the dull soap operas that filled afternoon TV.

 He would tell us to "pick out a boat" in the showroom, and when we did, he'd lift us into it so we could play inside. It was a way to keep us out of trouble, but for me, it was the best playroom imaginable. My brothers and I would catch fish, storm castles, and kill dinosaurs all from the confines of a 12' bass fishing boat parked on a trailer in a showroom.  When we got to play in the pontoon boats, that was a real treat indeed, those weren't usually in the showroom.  Often, my cousin Rachel would be there too, and to this day she's more of a sister.  We grew up together, in my Papa's store.

When he died last week, a little piece of my childhood disappeared forever. I could not imagine a world in which Papa didn't exist, and yet he was gone.

Gone with all the answers to all the questions I never thought to ask.

So I bought a black dress I'll never wear again, and flew home to say goodbye one last time. To him, to the laugh and the mischievous smile, to the twisted sense of humor I loved so much (and many say I inherited), to the smell of his house, the papery feel of his skin when I kissed his cheek.

And if I sit quietly, I can hear him say one last time the thing he always said when I was leaving, "You're a good kid Tracy, I love you."

I love you too, Papa.

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