On the radio today, I heard a trivia question in which they were asking the name of an area of northern Canada where a near-extinct old Scottish language is spoken. I know nothing about Canadian geography, so the only mental guess I made (which was wrong) was that it was the place where my maternal grandpa was stationed as a firefighter in the air force during WWII. He used to talk about it all the time, and we used to tease him because it seemed about as far away from war action as a soldier could get. What was the name of that place again?
A few minutes passed and I couldn't come up with the name. What was it?! He talked about it all the time! The name even appeared in a short story I wrote a few years ago, and now it was eluding me completely. Out of nowhere, I began to cry.
It amazes me sometimes, how emotions can sneak up on me. See, my grandpa died almost 6 years ago (has it really been that long?). I started to have a feeling of panic while I was driving, trying to come up with the name of this place. My thought was that if I couldn't remember, it meant that I was beginning to forget him. It makes me cry again now thinking about it. The rational part of me countered with the thought that I could always call another family member and ask, but what did this mean about where he lived in my own memory? What else would I start to forget?
There's a scene in Sleepless in Seattle where the young son wakes up from a nightmare and, in tears, tells his dad that he is starting to forget his deceased mother. The dad (Tom Hanks) answers by sharing a detail about his wife and the boy's father. "She could peel an apple in one long strip. The whole entire apple."
I've always appreciated this scene. The father does not try to make the boy feel better. He doesn't tell the boy that he mustn't forget; he just helps him remember something specific, something to bring her memory back into the space for a moment.
I would like to do the same now.
When I was 18, I moved out to Redondo Beach, L.A. to escape from the Ohio winter I was suffering at the time. I moved in with my grandpa, whom I've always known as "Tata." If you say the word to yourself, you have to say it right, with the softer "t" of the Spanish language, more like "tda tda," because if you say the "t" too strong, as in the word "town," you'll picture him wrong in your head, and I can't let that happen.
My grandma ("Nana") had died about 4 years before that, and Tata, though he didn't seem debilitatingly lonely, also didn't seem to mind the company. My grandparents' house had belonged to them for some 30 years, and it was a house I lived in from ages 4-7. I loved that house, so while I had moved a considerable distance away from my parents, it still felt like home.
My Tata wasn't the kind of retired man who travelled the world, or the country, or even the county. He didn't tinker in a workshop or golf. He didn't grow rosebushes or purebred dogs or attend town meetings. Mostly he watched t.v. Mostly he seemed happy like that, at least as happy as I'd always known him.
At the time, I was working nights as a restaurant server, so I would wake up late in the morning like he did, and we would spend a good part of many days, he in his not-too-low wooden kitchen table chair with hot tea or instant coffee on the t.v. tray in front of him, I on the end of the couch, both of us facing the screen through a steady stream that went something like: 11 o'clock news, Jenny Jones, Montel Williams, Jerry Springer, Judge Judy, another Judge Judy, then various cooking shows. Then I'd go to work. All through the day, Tata and I would watch and make jokes, about the guests, about the hosts, and especially about the commercials (always some two-bit (one of his phrases) insurance company, a trade school, a bail bondsman, an add for 1-800-dentist or a doctor who performs "breast augmentations"). This was about as close as I got to my grandpa, emotionally, during the day. During dry hours. I enjoyed every minute.
Once I walked into the kitchen in the afternoon to find him pouring salsa on a recently heated, Healthy Choice t.v. dinner. "Mija," he said, "watch how I incorporate the salsa." A little joke referring to the cooking shows we always watched. I told him I was impressed, and we laughed.
My Tata was a master story teller. None of us minded his exaggerations. They were harmless and they undeniably made the stories better. There was the time he was chased by a roadrunner, and the ghost who overturned a table behind him one spooky night when he was all alone (eating Cheetos--it was all about the details) in his childhood home on a ranch in Brawley, a small town in the desert of Southern California. There was the man who walked miles through the desert, asked for food and water at their little house, and disappeared only a minute after stepping back out into the hot day. And of course, there was the time he and his buddies were unloading an incoming shipment on the air force base when a box fell and some medals of honor tumbled out, which he and his buddies promptly swiped. Where was that base again?
He always used his hands for illustration when he was telling these stories, hands strong, tan, and calloused from a lifelong career building fighter planes at Northrup after the air force. And sometimes, when there was music in a commercial on t.v. he would use those hands to drum along...that was the other thing--Tata spent a lifetime as a jazz drummer, on the weekends, in the evenings, whenever there was time. When he died I found an address book just specially for local musicians he knew and would sometimes play with. The entries would read like Salvador "Chava" Rodriguez, tenor sax, and then a phone number.
I would come home from work late at night to find Tata still awake and in front of the t.v. By this hour, he'd be watching the fights or Jay Leno or an old black and white movie on Telemundo. The coffee or tea would be replaced by a can of Budweiser in a foamy keep-cool holder. Sometimes he would just say hi and ask how my night was. Sometimes he would say, "Mija, I'm glad you're here," and he would tell me he was proud of me. That he rarely said such things when he was sober mattered little to me. I knew he meant it.
On the day of his funeral a few years later, 2 years after I'd come to settle in Northern California, the house in Redondo was full--of all things--of laughter. There was family. There were lifelong friends. There were my parents and aunt and uncles, and all of their lifelong friends. My aunts' and uncles' spouses parents were all there, and many of these people came from out-of-town or out-of-state. That's the way both my grandpa and grandma were. Their love had spread far and wide. Most of the people my mom's age or younger had at one time lived in my grandparents' home; it had always been a welcome refuge and a place of warmth.
I sat in the small and packed house that day listening to stories from all these people who had been touched by my Tata...not planned, walk-up-to-a-microphone stories, just people sitting around sharing what they remembered. Just joyful reminiscences of a man who was hard to forget.
The name of the base in northern Canada was Goose Bay, Labrador. I remember now. I suppose that even if I never had, I would be assured knowing there will always be so much about him to remember.
Thank you for reading while I brought his memory into this space for a while.