You were the king of stuff, a collector of sorts, and I remember my 4 year old heart's glee when I would "help" you with your flea market in the field by the house. You had the most amazing, old treasures, and I loved to play with all of them, my vivid imagination taking me places
I remember the French lessons. Boojay voo! Ici! Keller ay teel? While stationed in France during WWII, you had learned so much. I just knew you were a genius, and you were! It wasn't until I took French in high school that I realized just how bad your accent had been, but even then, I'd still speak French with you whenever we'd visit.
I remember learning to swim in the same concrete pool where Mom and Vickie had swam. You loved to tell me their crazy stories, like Vickie shooting Danny Taylor in the eye with a pellet gun when he wouldn't get out of the pool, or the summer Vickie grew a chest and could no longer dive through the innertube and had to climb out of the pool with her hands pinned to
I remember my wedding, 5 years ago, and how wonderful it felt to know Dennis and I were getting married on your 60th wedding anniversary. We worried then that it might be the last time we'd see you, as attested by the many pictures of me in my wedding gown, hugging you
We were cleaning out the house last month, after you left for the nursing home, and again I found things from your life. Telegrams you sent Mema during the war, letters from during your military service, boxes of pictures you took of family, and all the old cameras and 8mm footage and projectors. I crawled through the attic and found the suitcase full of Life magazines from the 60s. That was your doing, no doubt. Mema was the queen of the garden; you were the king of stuff. You always knew what had value-- real value anyway... heart value. I found the list of your inventions-- sun-protection sleeves for driving long trips without sunburn on your arms, and other such plans. I sat on the living room couch reading your ideas under the watchful eyes of your giant 1960s head. Mom and Vickie said they always thought that was the biggest, gaudiest portrait they'd ever seen. I'd always thought it was the most perfect representation of my Papa I had ever seen-- devilishly handsome, smiling, and larger than life.
I remember you telling me about how you met Mema. She was a sassy southern teen, moving into a home in your neighborhood, and you couldn't wait to talk big to your friends. Do you see that good-lookin' girl over there? I'm goin' to marry her. They laughed, but you went to offer to help her carry things, and pretty soon you were invited in for tea. She snuck off to marry you, and then came back home to her parents to live for a week while you went off to find a house. Once you did, she told her family she was married and left to join you. You were such entrepreneurs-- owning a “soda shop,” a motorcycle store, and who knows what else, before you became an insurance salesman. But then, they say you were also a hellraiser. Homemade blueberry wine, friends, and fishing holes do not mix, according to one story. Another rats you out for burying Mema (gently and lovingly, I'm sure) under a mattress when she tried to interfere with your going biking with the boys. No doubt about it, Mema was a hellraiser, too, but that's a different story, for a different day. "He'd rather pop a guy in the head than explain himself," they'd say, and I’d just giggle, knowing they could never really know my Papa, not the way I knew him anyway.
The last time I saw you, I knew it wouldn't be long. You were napping when I arrived, crunched over on your side crossways across the bed, lying there like tomorrow's outfit tossed out in preparation. You couldn't sit up by yourself, and struggled to try to pull yourself up. I didn't know how to help you, and had to get Aunt Vickie to help me help you. I recognized the sight of you fumbling through your pocket, trying to find a comb. I had just helped them pack all your combs for the trip to the nursing home. "It's okay, Papa, you look fine." You smoothed out your strands as best you could with your hands, and straightened yourself up to your fullest dignity. You called my Daddy a troublemaker, and told me how beautiful I was, and when I hugged you goodbye, I didn't want to ever let go.
I know I'll see the old house again this weekend. It always depresses me to go there now. Ugly, hateful cars fill the field, which used to be full of my memories. Why did you have to rent it out to some old used car salesman, anyway? The low branches of my Mommy's magnolia tree have been cut to allow shade for your cars, and it's no longer fit for climbing. Within a year or two, when the new interstate comes through, it will all be gone anyway-- the house, the shed, the pool/fish pond/garden, and the magnolia you planted the year my Mom was born. I suppose there's no way to transplant a tree that big or old, but I can't imagine it all being gone, any more than I can realize that I'll never again have you wrap your arms around me, never get to see you clog dance in your dress shoes, and never again hear you argue that the dogs really can understand your crappy French. I know that same old pellet gun will be there, calling for me to go shoot some cans, but it's not as much fun being a hellraiser without you.
When I was little, I used to sit on your bed and listen to that monster of a stereo you brought back from Germany. I thought it was the coolest stereo ever, because it could pick up stations from other countries. I would lay there, with my head on the foot of your bed, and listen to words I didn't understand, occasionally spot-checking for the gibus, and feel like you had taken me to some magical and mysterious land with you. Yesterday, I went home from the office, and turned on that stereo. I found a woman's soothing voice, speaking French like I’d never heard from you. I picked up my favorite pillow and moved it to the foot of the bed, closed my eyes, and fell asleep safe in the memory of you.