There's this story about the time I, as a very tiny girl, walked into a room to discover, sitting on my beloved Granddaddy's lap, another tiny girl. As any self-respecting, highly-possessive wee person would do, I promptly climbed up into his lap beside the offending intruder. (His Lap = My Lap! Clearly someone has been misinformed about the way we do things around here.) After sitting there for a minute, I subtly started shifting my body further and further into the center of his lap. Then, wedging myself behind her, I pulled my feet up so that I was in a sort of tiny little girl ball... and shoved the kid with both my feet. She must have been very tiny indeed. Until last week's re-hearing of this story, I always imagined her landing just fine, seeing the error of her silly ways, and walking away to find someone else to hold her. But this time, the words came, "If I hadn't caught her, she would have hit the floor pretty hard."
My Granddaddy loves to tell this story, and because, at 911 he remembers lots of things that occurred over the course of his younger years, while forgetting the more recent occurrences with regularity. Such as whether or not he's told this or that story recently. Or where it was, exactly, we spent yesterday afternoon.
I've heard the "this is my Granddaddy's lap" story enough times over the years that we've fallen into a little rhythm. Every time he tells it, laughing at the deeply-imprinted memory, I bristle with feigned incredulity. "Well!" I declare to him, "She wasn't supposed to be there! Next time she'll think twice before she gets in my spot!" Weaving past and future, memory and lore, humor and jealousy, this dance never gets old. I love to hear him tell it as much as he loves telling it. As much as the story itself, I also love the banter that's always surrounded its telling. The banter that surrounds so many of our interactions.
A few weeks ago, I flew to visit Granddaddy and other relatives in south Alabama for a week. For a variety of reasons, a plan had been brewing which would involve him making the trip from his home to Greenville, SC where my parents live. Perhaps he'd stay a couple of weeks. Perhaps a few months. That part will work itself out in time. But how and when to make the first step happen? There's no other place this man would rather be than in the town he spent all but his Army Years in, satisfied to return there after intermittent-but-quick jaunts to this or that out-of-state destination. He loves that little Alabama town. Loves it in a way we all fathom deeply, and respect... but generally struggle to fully comprehend.
Just like the day I shoved an unsuspecting child off my favorite guy's lap, our special relationship remains strong. Strong in such a way that everybody knew I was the ideal person to "pull this off" if I could make room in my own schedule.2 And if it's all the same? Let's make this trip happen the sooner the better, thank you very much.
So back here, after 2 weeks of managing my more typical Greensboro-based responsibilities, I left once more and drove myself back to Alabama last Monday. Which took rather a long time, but I arrived safely, slept late, had a couple of days to rest and hang out with relatives I love but don't get to see very often... and then?
Then I packed us in for our first-ever Road Trip Adventure, and drove my Granddaddy to Greenville, SC. For years, seeing the nomadic leanings in his firstborn grandchild's life, he's said, "C'mon baby. Why don't we pack us a suitcase and go somewhere?" He'd never say where, only that we'd figure that out on the road. We'd laugh, but nothing ever really spurred an actual trip. I used that old joke of ours to help sell this trip. But sell the trip I did, and off we went.
This trip was filled with stories. Unlike the music that has filled every other one of my road trips in the history of ever, this time I heard, instead, my Granddaddy's life in 3-15 minute stretches. I recorded many of them on my iPhone. There was a time I would have told him what I was doing - or even politely asked. Now our typical rhythms are peppered with the realization that any alleged blessing would likely be forgotten in a half hour. Easier not to make him feel self-conscious. He's aware of this increasing forgetfulness pattern, even speaks of it openly, and with resignition, though certainly not pleasure. Aging carries a wealth of challenges for all; for a man as fiercely independent as this one, the lack of that independence is among the worst aspects he knows.
And so even when he told stories I've heard many times before - perhaps even that morning, or the day before - it's becoming more and more clear that one day these stories will stop. So I've become pressed to record them. Video will be nice, too, but it makes him so self conscious. "Why would you want a video of me?!" and he'd mean it, too.
Granddaddy talks about the ending of these stories, too, though not in those words. "I don't think I'm going to be around for much longer," he says to me, and I respond in a variety of ways, depending on the talk we've been having. My heart sinks every time, beating so fast with the relative truth of his words, coupled with my unwillingness to let myself imagine such. One time, I calmly asked, "Well why do you think that?" His eyes sparkled and he grinned at me with a look that carried an expression that might have said - if spoken aloud - "Well you silly little girl." Instead he said, "When you get to be a hundred, sooner or later it's bound to happen, baby." I joked with him then, about how he's pushing the envelope, trying to milk the old man thing and 91 is ages and ages away from 100. To which he says, "Well it's close enough. And I guess I can't live forever. Nobody ever has, have they?"
This knowledge feels like the cruelest of tragedies. I want these laughs and those sparkly eyes with me forever. I want these stories with me forever. The ones about how after the war he convinced a man to hire him to build him a house... something he'd never, in fact, done before. And which he subsequently turned into a nearly-life-long career. I want to hear the stories about the day he first saw "Miss Gladys" who became the love of his life and whom we all miss deeply. I want so many things when I think of this Granddaddy of mine.
And I already know how lucky my whole family has been that such a man has been "ours" for so long. It's a rare gift we've had...
I'm seeing him again for the afternoon on Saturday and am already looking forward to what new - or old - stories we'll get to hear this time. And since I've learned to share over the years, there won't be any possessive antics forced on anyone else who takes the liberty of showing him excessive amounts of affection. Just lots and lots of laughs. And more good stories.
1Not 92 yet, as I'd erroneously declared for some time.
2Everybody also knows mine is the most flexible work schedule of anyone in my family's. Which I enjoy looking past and declaring that clearly we all know I'm his favorite. Which is another one of those things about this man: his way of making everyone feel just a tiny bit more special. But for the record, he did declare my driving "the best of any of 'em" in my family. And yes: I have that recorded, too.