Right now I am curled into an overstuffed brown couch beneath one of our ceiling-to-floor windows in the living room. Everything is dark, everything is quiet. It’s 7am and I’m happy I was able to make the delicious cup of coffee that is sitting next to my computer without anyone waking up. In maybe a half an hour the sun will start peeking through the trees that surround the property, eventually reaching the big windows behind me and lighting the room, then the house, then the sky. After that the girls will wake up and another day will begin.
Last night Lily came sprinting in here declaring Dad! Come quick! We’ve got a real mystery on our hands! True enough, there were some wet footprints in the hall that I couldn’t explain. Together we did some quick investigative work and figured out that one of the dogs had come inside with wet feet. Mystery solved. I knew her language about ‘having a mystery on our hands’ was lifted directly from a new favorite TV show – Scooby Doo. The particular episode she watches recurrently is from 1972. I know it well, because it was one of my favorites too.
Earlier in the night I took Ava to the grocery store with me. It was cool, but not cold. Enough people were burning wood fires that cracking the windows to enjoy the brisk air and perfect smells of fall made a lot of sense to us. While we were stopped at a traffic signal Ava said Dad, do you hear the train? Honestly, I didn’t until hear any train until she pointed it out because it was such an insignificant backdrop to what I was thinking at the time…whatever that may have been. But I knew why she heard it.
Yep, I hear it Bird, I replied.
Do you remember? she asked.
The train that chased us?
I remember Bird.
Through the rear view mirror I watched her smile to herself and start sucking her thumb. What she was talking about is a memory from more than two years ago when the two of us were driving somewhere and suddenly heard a train in the distance. We never saw it, but it seemed like wherever we were we could still hear its whistle. A hilarious game ensued and we both processed that memory as the day a train was trying to get us. I looked at her in the rear view mirror again. My little girl is reliving a memory. Right now.
This morning I am thinking about Lily’s mystery and the train that chased Ava and me across Ohio and having a familiar thought. What are the things that my babies are always going to remember? And more specifically – what will they remember about me? What indelible impressions will I leave on them that they will call upon later in life and use to make sense out of the world and the lives they lead?
Now I’m thinking about you and our impending trip to see you for your birthday this weekend. I wonder if you ever think about which parts of you are seared into the lives of your grandchildren, just what those memories are and where, exactly, they live? As your oldest grandchild, I’ve got a deep reservoir of fond recollections that spans across nearly four decades, including memories from a life long ago as well as daily reminders of who I am now and, perhaps more importantly, why I am the person I am today.
As a little boy, many of my memories are from the summers I would spend with you when my parents would go to Europe. I remember every room in your house on 34th St. I remember every hiding place too, including the forbidden space between the wall and the furnace in Grandpa’s office and the little nook at the far end of the fruit room.
I remember how perfectly the ham and cheese fit the wheat bread on the sandwiches you used to make me for lunch and today I model my sandwiches after them and can’t stand when the cheese is larger than the bread. (I remember the Gulden’s mustard too).
There was the box of ‘outside’ toys that sat just inside the garage, next to Grandpa’s work bench. My favorite was the genuine bowling pin and plastic bowling ball. From where I would sit and bowl, on the porch outside the back door, I could see smoke rolling off the patio at the bottom of the path. It was Grandpa wedged in the back corner, running the grill.
Do you remember when I fell in the celery?
There was the library at Berkeley Park where we’d go once a week to pick out books. Just outside of it was the playground with the giant green, concrete brontosaurus. It was that dinosaur’s head that I flipped off of when I fell and got the wind knocked out of me. I can still remember looking up into your eyes while you put your mouth on mine and breathed air back into my lungs.
Of course there was Dairy Queen and Mister Misties and vanilla cones dipped in chocolate that we’d have to eat before getting back into the car too…who could forget those?
And there was the yellow phone in the kitchen in our house on Lane St. It’s the phone you used to answer a call from my mom in Innsbruck, Austria, telling us that my dad had fallen off a balcony and most likely wouldn’t live.
Those are just some of my memories from being a little boy. Of course I didn’t stay that way for long. Soon I began to transition into a young adult, which wasn’t easy for me. But I have warm memories of the support you gave me to carry on and to, well, grow up.
There were the football games that you and Grandpa never missed. I remember your seats, right in the middle section, maybe four rows down from the press box.
A few years after high school (and college) I moved across the country, to a city where I’d never even set foot, and you came with me on the two day drive and stayed until I was acclimated and ready to find out if I could stand on my own two feet and flourish in California.
There was the period of time when I was in graduate school and not able to work full time. You helped me pay my bills which, at the time, were very basic – food, heat, lights. And when I needed help buying a car, you gave me a loan on terms that struck the perfect balance of helping me get by and ensuring that I would be accountable for paying you back. Do you know I still have the final receipt for payment that you sent me?
It was a tough phase for me, and it coincided with the time you took the entire family to Hawaii. Boy did I need that! Do you remember when you and I were golf partners on the little putting course between the properties at the Napili Kai?
And of course Grandma…you encouraged me to write – something that now occupies a fixture part of my personality, dare I say mental health. And you would read it grandma, no matter what it was, and let’s face it – some of what I’ve written is awful. But I understand now that I needed to write it, whether it was good, bad or otherwise. For me, knowing that someone I trusted would read what I had to say kept me writing. Someone cared about what was swirling through my head, messy as it was, and that made me feel good.
You sent me some of your writing too…journal entries about your experiences in the southwest, eating tacos for the first time and coming to California before Disneyland was anything more than acres of orange groves. There is no question that your decision to share your journal with me has been paramount in me having the discipline to keep my own.
Creative writing is difficult for me these days, with two young babies and a demanding job. Catching my imaginative thoughts looks a lot like how my girls catch butterflies – sporadically swinging a net at something quickly orbiting my head and hoping for a lot of luck. I can’t get into myself like I used to. But I know those times aren’t over; I’m just doing what I need to do right now. I’m going to come back to it all, because writing isn’t something I just do anymore, it’s part of who I am.
There is some good news. For the last five years I have applied myself to keeping a detailed journal that I hope will be interesting to somebody some day. It will be my hope that someone will read about the things I’ve done – good and bad, the way I’ve felt – good and bad, and the people I’ve surrounded myself with – good and bad. They’ll read about it all and think Here is someone that didn’t leave anything on the table. He used lots of spices in life, mixing and matching depending on the situation and not always making something delicious, but always hoping for a masterpiece.
So now there is me as a grown up. I know at some level that means I am married, have a job and kids. I also know it means I’m old. But more than anything, it means that all of the ingredients and experiences in my life have hopefully simmered into the right balance of perspective and maturity and that I am growing something useful to offer to the next generation, as you have.
Today I am unbelievably grateful that I still have my grandma. Not many people can say their grandma has been a part of their life for almost four decades, but I can. I can say that and my two girls know that their great grandma occupies a fixture part in their lives too.
And I’m not the only one. Eight grandchildren, five great grandchildren (so far). We’re all very different people but I think you would agree that at each of our cores are a few common characteristics. Among them – a strong moral compass and an appreciation for family and the role it plays in our lives. And because we have those things, our children will have them too. Now that’s a legacy.
As I close this letter, I want you to know that I don’t just have the final car loan receipt, I have all the receipts. I also have every card you’ve ever sent me and every letter you’ve ever written me. All of them. You have always been influential on my life in a way that no one else could be. It’s done me well. It’s going to do my girls well, too. Your permanent imprint will carry on for generations.
I love you grandma.