the grampa who would not be
it started so unsuspectingly the other day. the phone rang. a woman was on the line who thought she might have a story for me. a sweet story. a story about how her husband, a retired plumber, has been out in his garage workshop for months, building a playhouse for his youngest batch of grandkids.
i really should come by, she thought. it was quite something. even had electricity so they could hang a lavender chandelier, and, in december, a lighted christmas tree, just like one she’d seen when she was little and never stopped wishing she too could own.
now, those who knew and loved my papa might never take the double twist in mid-air that i’m about to take–knowing that not in a million years would my papa be one to lift a hammer, or, geez louise, string a chandelier. it remains to this day a question of much debate: could he change a lightbulb or did he need to call in an executive assistant (who would be, of course, my mama)?
but as i pulled my notebook off the shelf, headed out the door, en route to see this grandpa who was building dreams for his little grandkids, i was washed over in missing for my papa. specifically, for the grandpa who would not ever be.
it’s odd. my boys are 14 now, and almost 6. so it’s not as if i suddenly realized they were growing up without their grandpa. there were moments when i was awaiting their arrival that i’d felt that twinge, or worse, the deep throbbing, for the truth that they’d not know his belly laugh, or his hot-wired wit.
and over the years, grandpa geno stories have come to slide into conversation almost as if they’d just unfolded the day before.
but spinning stories, recalling tales that make you laugh more deeply than they should, only because you are hoping that in the deep rejoicing you can sink down into a place where you can almost bring him back again, so you plumb the bottom of your belly, hoping, half expecting.
all of that, after a long while, is only fumes.
it is not flesh and blood. it is not his left hand, the way he wrapped it around his tennis racket. or the indent on his bald head where the farm dog, long long ago, raked its claws through his moppy curls, dug right to his skull, forever left a long comma up where hair had been. it is not the glint of his gold wedding band, the way it always caught the light when he was typing, flashing, shining, with every other downstroke of an “a” or “s” or “d.”
there was something about thinking of this grandpa who was very much a fixture in his grandkids’ lives, who could haul out a jigsaw and cut a heart in the plywood door, who had struggled through the construction of four paned-glass windows, who would hole up in his garage, country-western tunes crooning from the radio, that made me ache for all the hours that had not been.
that made me miss the grampa my boys did not know.
the one who never got to do the 100-yard dash across the front yard, and beat them every other time, just so he could prove that, even with his, um, expanded gut, he could do it.
the one who didn’t teach them how to watch the wristwatch, and make sure to flip those eight-and-a-half-minute burgers at the precise and pre-anointed moment.
the one who didn’t get to teach them prestidigitation, just one from his long list of tongue-twisting words that he used the way most folks use catsup and mustard. on top of everything.
grief is like that. it comes up, sometimes, and taps you on the shoulder. you think you are merrily riding your bike down the gravel lane. but then all of the sudden, the pulsing breathing shadow is there. is right beside you. brushing up, whispering in your ear. you turn to look. and that’s when all of a sudden, your wheel goes wobbly. you tumble. you skin your knees on the bumpy gravel. and it hurts. for a while.
you clean the bits of grit out of your bloodied knees. you put on the mercurachrome, that stingy rusty stuff the school nurse would always drip from her evil dropper. you slap on a band-aid. and off you go.
only, for a while there, it hurts to bend your knee.
and so it was, that as i drove to see this grandpa, my very own little one, riding along behind me, out of the blue piped up about his grandpa geno.
“did grandpa geno ever embarrass you? i mean bring out baby pictures when you were 16?”
i held the wheel, but wondered mightily how his thoughts had drifted in the same direction as mine.
it was my turn to ask a question: “do you ever think about grandpa geno?”
his answer: “not so much. i can’t hear him. i can never hear him.”
ouch. i blinked. blinked and tried to drive for the big lump i was swallowing.
he, apparently, was still interested in the subject: “is he funny? very? would grandpa [he means his beloved new jersey grandpa] like his knock-knocks? [he and his new jersey grandpa have a rolling knock-knock joke routine; it’s been going on for a good year or so, it seems].
“do you remember his knock-knocks? [apparently he thinks all grandpas are synonymous with the telling of really corny knock-knocks.]
“even one?” he asks, insistently. hoping just the way i do, i suppose, for just the tiniest hint of something to hold onto.
he wraps it up, there in the back seat, with this: “i never saw him, before when he died.”
he was born, the little one, a full 20 years after his grandpa died. all he has of his grandpa geno are his mama’s stories. stories that over the years he’s made his own. as has his big brother.
but he has no knock-knock jokes. and no chandelier hanging from a playhouse in the backyard.
and some days, out of the blue, that makes the hole feel very big. it makes the tumbling from your bike, and the skinning of your knees, sting like nothin’ you have felt for a long long time.
sweet friends, i know i am not alone in missing a papa or a mama who is no longer. who is not a part of the everyday of all the others we have come to love. we’ve talked before about missing a parent for who they were to us, but what about to little children who grow up not knowing. only holding onto wisps, but not squeezing a hand that you can feel even now. just closing your eyes. do you get caught out of the blue some days, if it’s been a while? or is it still too new and every day brings a wobbly moment, where you can feel yourself going down, onto the gravel lane?