Though he died when I was only six years old, my Grandpa Ted has been a big presence in my life.
First the memories: holding his hand as we walked around the big yard our house shared with his; the teasing grin and “I’m gonna give you a pop right in the kisser,” as he’d lean in to kiss my cheek. He sat with us – me, my sister Brenda and brother Teddy – on the white bench under the huge elm trees in the front yard, or on the low bench in the cool shade of the grape arbor in the back yard. I can almost picture his face; I can almost hear his voice.
Next, his influence. He taught me about plants: the sweetness at the heart of a clover blossom; the nut-like flavor of the buds from cheese weed; the bitter taste of dandelion greens. I think of him, still, when I taste those wild flavors. He chronicled our little lives in film. Though he was usually behind the camera, thanks to Grandpa Ted I can still watch my parents with their young family in all seasons of the year.
Then, there are stories. Because I was only six-years-old when Grandpa Ted died, these are not things I knew, but only that I learned as I got older, when my Mom or Dad would reveal things about him. Grandpa Ted was an alcoholic. He would admit himself to a facility once or twice a year to “dry out.” In those days, it was a dangerous process, often involving delirium tremens (DTs), and no medication to ease the transition. Grandpa was a jealous man, and he and my grandmother had terrible, violent fights that would send my mother, when she was a child, running from the house. When they cleared out Grandpa Ted’s garage after his death, they found a whiskey bottle hidden in every cubbyhole.
When my own children – and later my grandchildren – were young, I’d take comfort in how well I remembered Grandpa Ted. If an ache or a bump caused my hypochondriac self to start thinking death was imminent, I’d be consoled by the idea that I would perhaps be remembered, too. As I neared the age of fifty, Grandpa Ted – who died in his early fifties, without warning, of a heart attack – was often on my mind. Did I inherit his faulty heart, along with his bushy eyebrows?
Once, after my dear old friend, Ernie, died, I had a memorable dream. It was one of those that seem real, and every voice is so clear that I’m sure it could be picked up by a tape recorder. There was a noisy throng of people, crowding around a person that I couldn’t see. There, on the outskirts of the throng, was my Grandpa Ted. He spotted me at the same time that I saw him.
His eyebrows raised in recognition, and his face crinkled into a big smile. I made my way toward him. “Look at you…look at you,” he said as he wrapped his arms around me in a big hug. His voice was exactly as I remembered it! He stepped back, patting my shoulders, “Just a second, Sweetheart,” he said, “I want to say hello to this guy…” The crowd opened up, at that moment, so that I could see the person at the center. There was my friend, Ernie, with a little shy, crooked grin, being welcomed with handshakes and pats on the back from all the folks standing there to greet him!
I have never believed in an afterlife as much or as sincerely as I did right after waking from that dream. Most times, I wonder. I fall into the “I don’t know” category. I like the idea of reincarnation. I feel certain I’ve had profound and real visits from the spirit world. Heaven sounds nice, too, though I could do without hell. There is some sense behind the idea of “when you’re dead, you’re dead,” also…though it’s not as much fun to think about as the others. I live a good life, so like to think I’m prepared, whatever.
If the last is true, and we are done when we are finished here, we live on, then, only in the memories and dreams of the living. That’s what has brought Grandpa Ted into my thoughts today. It occurred to me that there are few of us left on this earth – and all of us are pretty old – that have any memory of Grandpa Ted. That makes my simple memories seem even more important.