In Memoriam

A year and a half ago, after family Christmas celebrations with my mother’s side of the family, I said to myself, This will be the last Christmas like this one.

Six months ago, after an eclectic hodge-podge of people, food, and gifts with the pilot’s family and other expatriates, I thought that I’d been wrong, and there had been another Christmas like that one, I just wasn’t there to see it. Of course, when the power came back on and I checked my email, I had an email from my mother, informing me that the family was having Christmas at the hospital, in and out of grandpa’s hospital room.

My mother’s father died yesterday morning.

The last time I saw him was at orientation in August. He and grandma came by to say goodbye to me, and to bring me hugs and a game of Dutch Blitz. We walked to the park nearby, and along a wooded trail. One of the other SALTers, at this point I don’t even remember who, wandered by as we were saying goodbye and took a picture of the three of us. They sent it to me for my birthday, and it hung on the wall of my room in the Wooden House. He looks the same as he ever did, or perhaps only slightly different.

I feel far away and a bit lonely, though surrounded by many excellent people. I’ve been reading comfort books and eating the chocolate that’s been stashed in the freezer since January in expectation of this eventuality. I feel weird telling people, and weirder still not telling them, and have somewhat managed to arrange things so that other people tell people for me. Hugs are easy to accept, condolences are harder. I don’t have a clue what I’m supposed to say, if there is anything other than “Thank you,” and both Miss Manners and No Nice Girl Swears are in Philadelphia, and No Nice Girl Swears is intended for débutantes and probably doesn’t have a section on bereavement, anyway.

I’m managing, I think.

People keep asking, “Were you close to him?”

I don’t know how to answer that question. Closer than many people are to their grandparents. Not as close as some. I loved him, and I know he loved me. He was my grandfather. I wasn’t as close to him as I am to my parents, or to my maternal grandmother, I guess, because of the person he was and the person she is.

There’s a white wooden bookcase in my room at home, six (seven?) shelves high and exactly half an inch higher than my taller hardcovers, that was my birthday present from him back when I was in high school, made to the specifications I requested: to contain all of my books, and to fit into the space between the wall and the window. In front of the window is a shorter bookcase with higher shelves, that he made some years later, when I needed somewhere to store school binders and my few really big books. Grandpa installed the ceiling fan in that room, fishing around, halfway inside the ceiling, with grandma feeding him wires, because I wanted one. I must have been at school at the time, because I don’t remember this, and have only heard of it from mom.

Whenever the two of them were coming to visit, we always needed to come up with a list of household tasks, things with the right combination of tinkering and engineering and manual labor, because grandpa wouldn’t be happy just sitting around visiting without any work to do.

He taught me to sharpen knives, something my mother, despite her twenty-first century emancipation, has always thought of as men’s work, and my brother wasn’t interested in learning. Apparently I can sharpen kitchen knives without ruffling gender roles, as long as mom doesn’t have to do it herself.

When I was a kid and would go on summer visits for a week at a time, we’d work in the garden together, or he and/or grandma would walk along as I rode the bicycle they got for me. When I was cleaning my room last year, I found a charmingly misspelled journal from 1995, describing an upcoming visit to gramol’s house and gleefully anticipating a bicycle. I remember that bicycle; it was red. I don’t know what was so special about it, as I think I had a bicycle at home. That grandma and grandpa got it for me, I guess.

Until just a few years ago, whenever we visited, grandpa would climb up the ladder built into the wall of the hall closet to fetch down sleeping bags and air mattresses for my brother and I. Those shallow rungs always seemed very intimidating to me, but he climbed up them without fail until the time that Isaac did instead. The transition was natural and easy, but I remember being very aware at the time that it was One of Those Signs.

He was an excellent cook. There are some dishes that are particular to my grandmother, but for anything beyond those, we’d have to ask to be sure who made any item of food found in a meal. In particular, I remember him standing over the electric skillet, tending pancakes or french toast for a big family breakfast.

He was not a game-player by nature, though the rest of us are, and usually sat in his chair and read or napped while grandma terrorized everyone at Parcheesi, or we all tried to out-bland and out-cunning each other at Clue. I recall that he particularly despised Fluxx, describing it as “a very postmodern game.” It wasn’t until I got to college that I gained an understanding of postmodernism that is more nuanced than my teenage impression of it as something approaching a curse word in my grandfather’s vocabulary. It was probably Easter a year ago, though it might just have been an ordinary family get-together, that we discussed postmodernism and biblical scholarship over the dinner table, skirting close to the edges of The Topics We Did Not Talk About.

We Skyped a few times since I came to Zambia, but it grew harder and harder to find times when he was alert and aware and not befuddled with sleep. But even then he was still my grandfather, if vaguer and more obstreperous.

He was ready to go, and for several months now, this is what we’ve been praying for.

But it’s still hard.

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