On Saturday, Felicia and I visited Pip's Original Doughnuts in Portland for her birthday dozen. (Pip's is pretty fantastic that way.) We waited in a long line on the sidewalk—as you do—then waited again after placing our order. Pip's isn't exactly large, nor is it quiet; the bustle behind the counter blends with the white noise of the patrons, chomping and chewing and chatting all at once. The din abated briefly, and Felicia cocked her head and listened for a moment to the music overhead.
"Sounds like your music," she said.
I strained to listen, but the restaurant noise swelled again, and it was a few moments before I realized what she'd heard. The song made me smile—it always does—and I said, "That's my grandpa's song." She knew; I'd told her about the song before, and maybe even played it for her once.
The song was a rendition of "Froggie Went A-Courting," a very old folk song about a frog who wishes to marry a mouse. I didn't recognize this particular version, but that in itself isn't unusual. If you know the song, chances are you've heard entirely different flavors of it than I ever have. It's been around a long time, interpreted and reinterpreted and mutated and evolved over the years, and never quite the same twice.
My mother's father sang a version I've never heard anywhere else, his own peculiar mashup of "Froggie" and another old folk song that may have been called "Kemo Kimo". (I Googled that last one and found some astonishingly racist lyrics, which I don't remember at all from Grandpa's version, which seemed to be mostly nonsense words.) In any case, Grandpa sang the song any time my sister or I asked him to. In his gravelly old voice, the song was transportive. We adored the song. We adored him.
In Pip's, listening to some other version of the song piped in through the overhead speakers, I felt so many old memories crash in unexpectedly. I'd smiled to hear it; now I felt myself tighten up. Felicia noticed, and knew why, and asked if I was okay. We were surrounded by people, all waiting for their doughnuts, and I felt as if that old sea—of memories, of loss, of regret—had risen up under me, from nowhere. I asked to step outside while she waited for our order, and I stood in the shade on the sidewalk as people passed by. I waited for the feeling to pass. It didn't. I walked back to the Jeep, parked a few blocks away, and sat inside to wait for Felicia.
Grandpa died in 2003. I didn't get to say goodbye to him. At the time, I lived in Washington, during a year I'd spend recuperating from a divorce. My folks had just bought a home there, and let me stay. My sister had also moved back home, so at this particular moment, we were all in the house together. My sister and I were upstairs, playing a video game, when the telephone rang. We thought nothing of it until we heard my mother cry out, and we dropped everything. The phone call was from back home—Texas—and my mother said her goodbyes to her father from 2,400 miles away. I'm not sure he was even conscious; someone held a phone to his ear, and my mother told him she loved him, that everyone was okay, that he could let go. And he did.
I didn't say goodbye. I hope he knew how much he meant to us. We'd moved away from Houston during my junior year of high school. My grandparents had never lived anywhere but Houston, in the same old house they'd been in since long before I was born. But in 1997, a year after I graduated high school, I moved back to Texas for college. For a few months before the semester began, I lived with my grandparents. I have so many memories from those days. I remember being high on movies at the time, and Grandpa would watch anything I recommended. One day I said, "I bet you'd like Pulp Fiction." (Looking back, I was way, way off-base.) But a televised version of the movie was on soon after, and he watched it with me. You haven't lived until you've seen an edited-for-TV version of Pulp Fiction with your grandfather.
When he died, we all packed our things and flew to Texas. My grandma doled out Grandpa's most prized possessions to each of us. She gave me a pair of nose-hair clippers, which I stared at blankly, searching for some hidden meaning in the odd gift. She noticed, and asked if I remembered Christmas 1987. "That was the year your school had a Christmas market, and you picked out presents for everyone. You gave Grandpa nose-hair clippers." She laughed about it. "He used them, though! And he never lost them."
Nose-hair clippers. I was a thoughtful little booger.
It's been thirteen years since he died, and it's so strange to realize that it's been so long. He's missed so much of the best of our lives. I met Felicia four years after he died; his great-granddaughter was born another four years after that. He would have loved them, would have been proud of the family we've made.
I like to think he'd have been proud of the path that I've found through this world. He knew I wanted to write someday. Morbidly, he'd even read and enjoyed a story I wrote years before, about about a young man saying goodbye to his grandfather. (It was called "Swinging to the Big Bands," and was once published online, years and years ago. It appears to have been lost among the bones of the internet.)
Still preserved on the internet, however, is the blog that I set up for Grandpa in the last year of his life. He'd taken an interest in going online, and thought he'd write a blog to keep everyone apprised of his health issues. He only posted seven entries between March and June of 2002. He never was much of a writer, and I think he realized that he just didn't have much to say that he felt was worth recording for posterity. But for me, the posts are precious. He wrote them a tiny letters—postcards, almost—to nobody in particular.
Here's one about his youth:
Well, it's 1:15 a.m. and here I am instead of sleeping. Too many aches and pains from the way I treated my body when I was a young squirt, and thought there wasn't anything I couldn't do. I would try anything—as long as it wasn't immoral, illegal, or too dumb to try. Why do we do the things we do? I guess the shrink will tell us.
By the way, that's the only doctor I don't have. Yet.
This is his final entry:
It has been a long while since I have graced you all with my delightful chatter. I really don't know what to tell you yet. I'll dream up a brilliant story or article concerning a whole lot of nothing. Spring has sprung, and all that goes with it. But who cares everyones' fancy: If you are a girl, it's boys; if you are a boy, girls, girls, and more girls. 'Course, if you're as old as dirt, all that crap is over with. I'm like that old fellow who says, "I'm just proud I get a sensation after eating his candy."
Oh, well, I've rambled enough. It's time to go. Bye bye.
It's as nonsensical as the lyrics to his folk song mashup, but with a thinly-veiled joke about an old man's libido tucked away in there.
This post is the first thing I've written at our new home. I wrote it longhand, sitting on our deck in the dwindling light, and I'm transcribing it now, back at the house we haven't yet vacated. I could see Mt. St. Helens, a smudge against the horizon. The only sound was the breeze through the trees. Grandpa would have liked it there. He'd have happily spent hours on the deck, watching deer tramp through the woods, playing—and cheating at—cards. He'd probably have laughed with me about the many times I "killed" him, twenty years ago, to get a few days off of work. (Grandma wasn't amused by such things, but Grandpa loved it.) He'd have reassured me that his eventual death wasn't my fault, that I hadn't somehow cursed him with my young man's lies. I'm not a superstitious man, but I'm not entirely sure I'd believe him.
I'm also not a religious man, but I'd give Grandpa an afterlife if I could. One where he could stretch out all day long on the shag carpet, resting against his favorite bean bag, watching an endless stream of college football games and John Wayne movies on his cabinet television set.
Meanwhile, I know this wave of missing him will recede a bit, at least until the next time it comes crashing in again. Between now and then, I've got a song to learn, and a little girl to sing it to.