Retrospective just sounds better than posthumous or postmortem; more reverent than "after-the-fact," and less creepy than "Beyond the grave." Open letters to people I'm grateful for, but who aren't around anymore to read them, are part of this project. They don't count toward the minimum of 52-letters to 52 living, breathing people. That's why the Nitty Gritty will be formatted differently for this type of letter.
January 9, 2018
First of all, I want to thank you for raising my dad. As all who knew you know from the many stories you told to make him blush, he could be a double-handful in his younger years. He likes to wax of the woes of middle-childhood— how the eldest gets the new clothes while the youngest gets all of the freedom and attention at the same time. The middle child is wrapped in hand-me-downs and left to entertain himself with three Lincoln logs and a two-wheeled tricycle. I’m just glad he wasn’t the oldest or the youngest, otherwise my sister and I might not be here. The suffrage that the sandwiching by an older and younger brother afforded him must have contributed something positive to his character, as he turned out be quite a responsible and faithful family man.
I remember being your apparent favorite grandkid from early on, spending Friday and then sometimes Saturday night at your house several times a year throughout my elementary years. You would pick me up in that big maroon Buick LeSabre. It rode like a waterbed in a battle tank. I would climb up and sit high on the armrest between the front seats right next to you. We called my perch the “Boogedy Seat.” You strapped a seatbelt across my knees, and off we went on the twenty-minute cruise from Marietta to Naples, TX. You punched the white chunk of plastic that housed Brooks & Dunn’s single, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” into the dash, and we rocked out, blasting that song over and over again. We both felt like rebels, as listening to something as secular as a country song that included the line, “They got whiskey, women, music and smoke” was about as risqué as my pre-teen years got in a dry county.
When we arrived at your house I went straight to your bedroom and plopped down on that big tan stuffed-leather spring rocker adjacent to the bed. It was perfectly aimed right at a color TV. That’s where I learned to binge-watch before binge-watch was actually a buzzword. We didn’t have a TV at home for a long time, and when we got one it never sported more than the big broadcast stations. Even that was heavily censored by the local authorities with regard to quantity and content watched.
Your uncensored boob-tube was an open portal to another dimension, sporting MTV, Nickelodeon and Wrestlemania. I learned from the best—The Ultimate Warrior, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, The Steiner Brothers. When I got home and practiced what I learned on my little sister, my newfound skills were promptly extracted from my portfolio by means of belt or board. As a nightcap we watched Dr. Who reruns and assorted Britcoms, including Are You Being Served? and laugh our heads off together.
At night I slept on a pallet on the floor in your room, right at the foot of my still-warm chair, and I still remember how pitch black it got in there when the lights went out. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a literally darker place. It was like floating face-down in an inkwell with a blindfold on. But, now that I think about it, it could have been that my eyes were just a little scorched from 14 or so hours of screen time. Screen time before HD, LED, and plasma screens. Screen time back when remote controls had only 4 buttons. When TVs were thick and boxy and generated copious amounts of heat, radiation, quarks, pulsars, and who knows what else. I wondered if you might step on me when traveling from bed to bathroom, because it happened now and then.
I felt like a king when, like clockwork, you delivered a glass of orange juice and a warm Jimmy Dean sausage biscuit wrapped in a paper towel to my throne in the bedroom for breakfast in the morning after I crawled from my pallet back into my chair to watch cartoons. But I had to adjust to the light and come to the dining room table for lunch, where Papa always joined us. I thought it was weird that you spent most of the morning cooking supper and then we ate it at lunch time. Dagwood-style sandwiches and chips were synonymous with “lunch” back home. Meatloaf, purple-hull peas, turnip greens, and potatoes au-gratin were evening fare.
Dinner at your house consisted of leftovers from the prior meal, or Papa took us out to Catfish King in Mt. Pleasant. That was a real treat. We always ran into someone that he knew there, and it always boggled my mind how a man who spoke so little could know so many. I took quickly to those flat-ended-stogie-shaped hush puppies that seemed engineered to fit right into the miniature plastic Country-Crock tubs. And there is no vehicle for tartar sauce like a farm-raised deep-fried catfish filet. I can’t find a respectable equivalent, at least for the price, in the Northwest. Pacific Salmon is in a completely different category of food.
I knew all along that I was only your apparent favorite because I was so low-maintenance. All you had to do was hand me the remote and feed me every few hours. I even drank those nasty plastic cups of Diet Dr. Pepper that you would bring to me in the chair. I’ll still choke down half a can once in a blue moon, just because the taste reminds me of you. After Katy made the mistake of coming out of the chamber of channels to tell you she was bored, and you carted her right home, she didn’t come over nearly as often. But you raised 3 boys and no girls—maybe you just understood us better. At least that’s how Mama explained it.
I remember those many long, hot treks through the acres of rummage sales and craft booths that were the trade days in Canton, TX. You were on the hunt for carnival glass. Why you accumulated lumpy fruit-busted dishes that looked like they’d been rolled around in an oil slick, I’ll never understand. I do, however, strongly relate to the appeal of a treasure hunt, and I guess that’s what it was.
We trudged for hours and accumulated loot. You were the wise-woman purchasing the gifts, and I was the camel. You always bought me a gun that shot rubber bands, plastic discs, or water . . . or a gun that shot nothing at all— but made loud noises, or a gun that pneumatically extruded a cork from a tube with a light pop and then quickly arrested its trajectory and reloaded itself with a string. Sometimes I got marbles, or a book on marbles, but there was always a shooting theme.
A trinket of some sort was always appreciated, but I didn’t agree to that long car ride and pack-mule duties in direct Texas sunlight with a toy in mind. Carnival or fast food is the equivalent of crack to a kid that grows up in an area too rural for McDonalds, and the selection of crack foods at Canton Trade Days is hard to match. The help was there for a free lunch.
When I started 7th grade at that fancy boarding school in St. Louis, you were my comic relief. Calling you every couple of weeks to catch up on the latest off-color humor you picked up from your weekly socials at the local beauty parlor could be the highlight of my week. I miss those mildly dirty jokes and the cackle of guilty pleasure that always followed the punchline. I miss the way you said, “Now don’t tell your mama I told you that!”
You had a short fuse and a generous filter. The few times I tripped on a last nerve, the tipping point came hard and fast. I should thank you for those two or three stinging backhands over the years. They were swift, on point, and well-deserved.
Our personalities balanced out quite well overall. I think my temperament is a lot like Papa’s. I ended up marrying a woman with your kind of impulsive spunk. It’s funny how that works. When it comes to relationships, I think the personalities that stick together most often form temperamental equilibriums. At one extreme end of the spectrum, if you can picture it like the pivoting board of a see-saw, you have the most extroverted or spontaneous; on the other end, the most introverted or laid-back personalities. Some couplings consist of counterparts more similar to each other and with moderate temperaments— that would place them both near the fulcrum of harmony where the board pivots. In that case, the plane doesn’t rock much. Two very different people at opposite ends of the spectrum often achieve balance as well, though the board is likely to sway more often and wildly, making the balance of harmony a more active struggle to maintain as they dance the dance of life. . . That’s my theory, anyway.
You outlived the rest of the three grandparents that I knew, but when you passed away I was living in upstate New York. Funerals have never appealed to me. I knew you wouldn’t notice if I stayed home, so I didn’t bother flying all the way back to Texas to see you in cold blood and dressed up for the hole. Part of me regrets not going, but mainly because it was my last chance in a long time for me to see my cousins. Funerals seem to be the only thing that brings us together these days, and which of us will be standing upright the next time we come together is anybody’s guess.
I’ve chased a lot of rabbits over the course of a one-man memorial service. All of that was to say that I can’t help but smile when I remember you. I love you, I miss you, and thank you— for the countless hugs and memories, and the you that’s part of me.