I woke up this morning; the sky was a pale, rain-washed blue and the air crisp in the early morning ~ a welcome change from yesterday’s muggy warmth. December had begun.
Fourteen years ago, my grandfather passed away on December 1st. I’d only known one grandfather ~ my mother’s father ~ and I hadn’t known him very well. Three thousand miles of vast blue ocean lay between where I was born and raised and where my mother’s family lived. But I’d loved my grandfather. With his thick, white hair and equally thick, cable-knit sweaters. He wore slacks, and a collared shirt every day that i knew him. He took long walks around the walls of Berwick-Upon-Tweed with a pair of heavy binoculars (the better for bird-watching) and he spent his afternoons in the sitting room on the second floor of their home. Sometimes reading with the radio crackling in the background. Sometimes watching sport on the TV. I watched several summer Olympics in that room with my Grandfather.
He’d been sick for a long time prior to leaving us all. But death still catches everyone off -guard and death is irreversible. Nothing could bring him back once he’d gone — not for an apology, a last cup of tea or round of golf. Not for a final conversation, his words carefully chosen and his Scottish lilt humming like a lullaby.
I loved my Grandfather. I loved his thoughtfulness, his quiet consideration. When David and I were little (David was named for him), he took us to the library in Berwick and we were allowed to check out a book each. I remember several inconsequential things about that book — that it had a huge silver square in the front cover (probably a scan, or tracking device for the library); that its inner cover was orange and yellow and the pictures were big, and colorful, the words large black font along the top. I believe it was about dinosaurs (Dave & I liked dinosaurs). But what I remember most was Grandpa allowing us to climb into his big arm-chair onto his lap, and wrapping his arms around us, he read us those books. He explained the things that confused us. He taught us.
My grandfather truly valued education. I think – maybe – he thrived on it. All his children are very intelligent and curious. Some use this gift to continue learning, some use it to control other people. I guess that’s how intelligence works.
One of my very last conversations with him happened when I was twenty-one years old, and I’d come to visit my English family during my semester studying in Rome. We were in the sitting room, Grandpa in his arm-chair, me on the sofa. We were having tea. He asked me about my studies. What I was learning about while in Rome. What I liked, what i didn’t. We talked about the art of taking notes during class. It was the most adult conversation I ever had with him. Maybe he saw my mother in my eyes — in my smile. Maybe he heard her in my words. I think my mother is the most like my Grandfather of all five of her siblings. (Well, the grandfather I knew. He was different when they were young — damaged by the war, angry at life perhaps, for its cruelty).
I know he loved me. He loved me, and he loved my brother – even when he didn’t understand us. He loved my mother and he loved my father. He did the best he could by us – even though we were so far away, so foreign to him.
The morning he died, we’d taken family pictures in the living room before Dave & I headed back to school. My Mama Bear wanted to send them to him, to he and my Granny, since Grandpa was so sick, and in hospital in Melrose (for some reason that name sticks with me). Dave and I got in the car and had a painfully long ride back to Penn State. My mother called me — twice. Once, to find out where I was, the second time when I was unpacking in my room. I don’t remember what she said. It was calm at first. Her voice was even. But I remember crumbling, as though my legs suddenly gave out. I lay in a ball on the floor of my room. The carpet was hunter green. I cried for a long time.
I ate Thanksgiving leftovers for dinner that night. Watched an episode of “Band of Brothers” with my roommate. I don’t think I will ever forget those details. The feeling of the carpet, the smell as I gasped for breaths while sobbing. The texture of the blankets on the couch while I lay, nearly comatose, staring and not seeing the TV.
I think of him often. And I always think of him today. I also think of him on May 17th — his birthday and the day I graduated from college (a fitting tribute to him, I think). I graduated six months after he died, so it was a bittersweet day — May 17, 2003. But I am eternally grateful for the gifts he gave me. Grateful for the DNA I have from him, for my love of academia, the way my brain works. I am grateful for the time I had with him, for the memories that I will try to never lose.