I have a grandfather who made a decision to not be a part of our lives anymore. Really, if we’re being honest, he made that decision multiple times. I may not know the full story from my father’s childhood, but I know he wasn’t around for most of it. My grandmother raised those five children.
But, at some point, my grandfather must have come back. It must not have been for long that first time because the memories are sparse. Actually, that’s not accurate. I shouldn’t put an S on the end of that word. There’s literally one memory from the first time he was around in my childhood. It’s one of those memories in your life that you aren’t sure if you really remember or if you remember the picture of it that someone took. He painted a Mickey Mouse image on my bedroom wall. I know because there’s a Polaroid of him standing by the wall. He may even be holding a paintbrush. I don’t actually remember seeing him there, having the painting, or anything else about it. I was pretty small.
Then, he was gone again.
I can’t say I was sad because my childhood simply didn’t involve this relative. If that sounds heartless, I’m sorry, I don’t mean for it to.
When I was in fifth grade, we made the decision to move across the country. OK, that’s not accurate either. My parents made the decision, since I was in fifth grade. Either way, we moved about 3000 miles from Massachusetts to Arizona. When I got here I learned that is the state my grandfather had been in for years. To this day I wonder if that was factored into my family’s choice of locations.
Either way, that moved sparked what would turn out to be the longest period of time this man had been in my life. I have memories of visiting with him at his new home, with his fiance. I remember attending their wedding.
Not every memory was great, I suppose, but there are a few that standout.
- Fishing. My grandfather loved to fish. Something about sitting in a boat with a fishing rod in the water made him happy. I don’t really remember the actual act of fishing with him, but I do remember waking up early to go. We woke up before the sun was up and made hot chocolate in a pan. Then we poured the hot chocolate into a big thermos. I remember thinking it was the absolute coolest way to drink hot cocoa. I don’t remember the trip, not really. I do remember jumping out of his big truck and burning my leg on the exhaust that ran up the side. Strange, random memories.
- Bailing me out. My sister was in kindergarten and attended a school with an early release schedule for kindergarten. It was my job to pick her up from the after school care program, take her on the bus with me, and let us into the house. Well, I forgot her one day. I didn’t even think about it until I was already home. My parents were both at work, plus they would absolutely kill me for forgetting her. So, I called my grandfather. I figured he was less likely to judge. He drove to my house, picked me up, brought me to the school, and waited while I picked her up. Then he drove us home. He didn’t yell at me or seem to judge me at all. Just waited, quiet and patient. I didn’t burn my leg on the truck that time, I learned my lesson.
- Swap Meets. I had never in my life heard of a swap meet before my grandfather mentioned them. Of course, once I heard about this magic place where you can buy things incredibly cheap, I had to go. I remember helping him set up his area, where he sold marble cutting boards, and then walking around with my $10 to find things I absolutely couldn’t live without. I remember him teaching me about haggling. I remember all the vendors wearing baseball caps and most of them wore them too high on their heads, barely perched there. I remember they all knew each other. I have no idea what I bought. I did, one day, get a marble cutting board of my own from my grandfather. I still have it, it’s my favorite cutting board.
- Orange soda. Of the small collection of memories I have of my grandfather, this one is probably my favorite. When I was a sophomore in high school I used to walk home from school. We had moved to a house that was about 2 miles away from the school. In Arizona, it stays hot even after summer ends. We don’t really have four seasons here. Anyway, I remember walking home with another girl from the marching band one day. We were complaining about the heat and how thirsty we were. I remembered my grandfather worked in a little shop sort of on our route. Out of desperation, we stopped. We were hoping he’d have a water fountain or something. He seemed genuinely glad to see us, I remember that. He had a whole mini refrigerator in the back, he told us. He offered us something to drink. I asked for orange soda and settled for lemon lime when he didn’t have one. Then he gave us a ride to my house so we didn’t have to walk. After that day, we didn’t stop every day but we did stop again. We would stop if it was really hot, we were really grumpy, or it had been awhile since we stopped. He didn’t always drive us home, sometimes he couldn’t take a break to leave. But, and this is the part that makes me strangely emotional for the guy he could’ve been, he always had orange soda.
At some point during my sophomore year of high school, things changed.
I am not sure if I wasn’t privy to the full story because of my age or if I’ve just forgotten the story because of how long it’s been. But either way, all I know is he moved to northern Arizona and cut ties with all of us. I tried reaching out once, when my son was small. I didn’t get a response and I honestly haven’t tried again. Maybe I should have.
A few years ago I had the dream for the first time. I was at a funeral, seated in the back of a room I had never been in surrounded by people I didn’t recognize. At the front of the room a priest stepped up to a microphone and asked if anyone wanted to share a story in memory of my grandfather. In the dream I look around the room at the people who should have more than five small, random memories of him to share and watched as they all stayed in their seats. No one stood up.
I tried not to over-analyze the dream. Even when I had it again.
In the waking hours, I tried to think of what I would say in that situation.
Because everyone should have someone who speaks for them. Surely there had to be someone in his life he didn’t cut out. Someone who can say nice things about the man he was.
I certainly couldn’t say he was always there for me. I couldn’t say he raised my dad to be a good man. I couldn’t say he loved my kids. I couldn’t say he supported my dreams. I couldn’t say he understood me. I couldn’t even say he loved me.
I decided, if it ever came to that, the best I could do would be to tell the story of the man who always remembered to buy orange soda on the off chance that his granddaughter would decide to swing by on her walk home from school.
Sometime last week, he did die. I didn’t know he was sick, I don’t know how it happened, and I didn’t hear about it until after he was already gone. In the absence of a chance to try and make amends or say goodbye, I guess I get the chance to do what I always said I would do and tell you all about the orange soda.
Sometimes, hanging onto our memories of a time when someone thought about us, even a little, is the best we can do.
I hope he rests peacefully.
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