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How My Kids Will Love Their Grandpa (Even Though He's Gone)

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I fully believe it is possible to love someone—I mean really love someone—you will never interact with.

I don't mean the way we fawn over celebrities we think we know after watching a thousand hours of interviews. I mean the way we love our fathers, or our sisters, or the first real friend that ever stuck around for a while. I believe we love this way through stories.

The first and only time I saw my paternal grandmother in person, it was not her but her corpse. It's the earliest memory I have of my life, and I'm not sure it's real. I was three. They had dressed her body in pink. The coffin was lined in cream-colored silk. My mother was holding me, my father facing his mother's body, his back to me. I cried, not for death (I didn't know what that was), but for the dull understanding I had that I was surrounded by sadness.

I don't know if any of this happened. Each time I remember it, some detail changes—the number of people in the room, the color of the curtains. Mostly I start to remember my 1992 parents more and more as they are now instead. My dad with silver hair combed back, standing before the coffin in the light beige suit he wore to my wedding three years ago. My mom with her hair dyed strawberry blonde, gray peeking through at the temples, tired. This, of course, I know is not true.

So it is that my only memory of Grandma Lucy may very well be entirely a fabrication. This much I do know: That my grandmother is preserved in pictures, in pastels and smiling. That my brother (then five) and I honored her memory, as only children would, by naming our first dog after her some months later. That my father carries her stories.

I say he carries them, not tells them, deliberately. He tells them, of course, and so does my mother, but I don't remember the verbal stories so well.

My father carries her stories in the way he stops at the supermarket to talk to strangers for ages like old friends, making my mom sigh as she wonders whether the ice cream will melt before they get to the checkout.

He carries her stories in the way he talks about home, slips into a southern accent, passionate and excited and all lit up.

He carries them in the way he talks, the way he laughs, his sense of humor, hell, even the way he blames the dog when he passes gas. In some ways, I'm sure, my father is nothing like his mother, just as in some ways I am nothing like either of my parents. But in some ways he carries her with him like a photograph in everything he does.

I didn't get to know my grandmother the way you get to know a celebrity, through selective stories, only the glimpses they choose to share. I got to know her the way I got to know my own parents—what she was like when she was angry, what made her laugh, how she interacted with people. No cameras. Just human. And so I'm blessed to know and love my grandmother, because I know and love my father.

I found out a few weeks ago that my husband and I are expecting our first child, and I think about what a wonderful grandfather my dad will be. But sometimes I think about my husband's father, too, and how unfair it is that cancer took him before his first grandchild was even a reasonable possibility in our lives. 

Mike would've been an amazing grandfather, in a lot of the same ways my dad will be—he loved kids, he loved to teach, he loved to exist in endless possibility like the kind that a young child holds in their mind.

And I'm so grateful to know that even though he was gone before they got to meet him, our kids will know their Grandpa Mike. 

They'll  know him in the way their father holds his guitar. 

They'll know him in their father's perpetual homesickness (sometimes for things that never were). 

They'll know him in their father's laugh, his crooked smile, his love of telling stories, and of course in those stories themselves, things that my husband carries every day. And they'll love him like I love Grandma Lucy. Like their father, or an old friend.

And I can't wait.


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