I woke up to a text yesterday morning that said, simply, “He’s gone.”
Somewhere, there’s a picture of me and my grandpa that I can’t find, and it’s plagueing me. It’s of the two of us, sitting on his concrete front steps with my mom as we wait for the rest of my family to be ready to go to the local amusement park. It was taken in the 1980s, and Mom and I have the obligatory perms (mine with what borders on Mall Bangs) and I’m wearing a very era-specific sleeveless button-down blouse. But that’s not what the photo really captures. What I love about the picture is how entirely Grandpa it is. I’m in the center of the photo, but somehow, he’s what draws the eye: his deeply browned skin from spending his days out in the sun, working for the Forest Service. The trucker hat worn too high on his head, ever-present when he was out of doors. His arms-forward, hunkered over posture as he waits with me on the stoop, and how lovingly closely to me he’s sitting. The patience and stillness that’s present in his face.
I grew up several hundred miles away from my mom’s parents, and so it would have been easy to feel distant and removed from them, or for our relationship to seem awkward. Grandpa made that an absolute impossibility. Nobody’s eyes sparkled with so much mirth as my grandpa’s. Nobody, before or since, has ever been able to express so much joy in a welcome hug at the door. Every time he said my name–even during the month or two when I lived in his home, after graduating from college–he made it sound as if he’d just happened across his best friend after a long absence. No one was ever so glad to see me as Grandpa. No one was ever so glad to sit and talk with me for as long as I wanted. He always made me feel as if I were the only grandchild in the world who mattered, and I knew he did the same for everyone else. Grandpa loved everyone, and in that way, he made everyone feel special.
Because Grandpa loved everyone, he could talk to anyone. We would watch, amused and amazed, when on a rare visit to our house, he’d walk across the street and chat up the neighbor we’d hardly spoken to in five years. He’d talk to strangers in grocery stores, seatmates at ball games, fellow pumpers at the gas station–he didn’t care that he’d likely never see them again. Grandpa loved knowing about people and their lives, and I don’t think it ever occurred to him that it wasn’t necessarily how everyone else around him behaved. Because he was so warm and genuine, people opened up to him, and he made their lives the fuller for it.
My very favorite memory of Grandpa, though–the one that I think will live with me forever–is this: I was walking across my college campus, one day, feeling kind of lonely, and wishing I were home. Cars were driving past me as I trudged down the sidewalk toward my dorm, and I was making a mental list of all the reading I had to do that night, and kind of dreading it all. I was aware that a bright green service truck had driven past in my peripheral vision, but I didn’t notice that it had stopped. I didn’t notice anything but my own grumpy little trudging, until I heard that slightly bumbling, cracking, friendly voice call out, “Well, hellll-oooo, Jennifer!” There’s nothing quite like feeling alone and stompy and then hearing the voice of your beloved grandfather in a place where he doesn’t fit. It’s a little like hearing the divine. And on that day, I needed a little of the divine. I turned and saw that slightly stooped, thick, warm old man I loved, stretching his arms out as wide as they would go, and all I could do was run for him.
I hope, someday, that that experience repeats itself. I know I’ll run.
Love you, Grandpa.