Christmas Eve 1997
Ever year just before Christmas we piled into a tan conversion van and drove from Cincinnati to Wuakesha, Wisconsin. Apparently it hadn’t gone too badly because we had all survived and were now just a few minutes from our destination. We drove slowly so that the tires crunched on the snowy roads and then we turned into a trailer park tucked between pine trees. Grandma and grandpa’s street wasn’t a cul-de-sac. It was a dead end. The street just stopped and at the end of the street was a pile of recently plowed snow reaching almost to where the branches of the pine trees above it began, covered yet again with a fresh coat so that the pile was a hilly smooth continuation of the snow around it, twinkling in the light of street lamps. To this day when I hear the lyrics walkin’ in a winter wonderland the picture that comes to mind is of my grandparents’ trailer park.
Meanwhile at the last trailer on the right, grandma and grandpa were surely waiting for us. We hurried out of the car, skillfully ignoring dad’s calls to help carry bags inside, and we rushed to the door where, sure enough, they stood. Immediately grandma hugged us. She smelled like flowers. We hugged grandpa too. But his hug was more like an elbow grab. His hands were very strong and his hair was a smooth backwards-dancing white swoosh. His face, my mother told me, was just like an older version of my face. He had deep set eyes. He was lanky and his walk was just like mine, meandering and wide-legged. But the most important similarity was that his head was too big for his body. He was always leaning it slightly forward as if to hear you say something in confidence or to say something himself, although he wasn’t a man of many words. He could be in the room with you but not always in the room. He would sometimes seem to be somewhere else and then come back just in time to answer a question you’d asked.
Whether in the trailer or out on a frozen lake or at the bottom of a sledding hill, grandpa’s way of relating to us was very tactile. This was in keeping with his personality. He always kept a small notepad in his front shirt pocket with pens lining it on either side and a red Swiss Army pocket knife. These were important items. The pad and pens were for writing down little ideas for us, maybe about how to crack a walnut. The knife was inherently interesting because we weren’t allowed to play with knives unless it was grandpa’s. He would proudly show us the extensions inside—the little scissors, wood-saw, and can opener. We were slightly abstract little children raised with video games and TV, but Grandpa wasn’t an abstract man. He once showed us what baked Coca-Cola looked like. Out of the oven, all that was left in the pan was a sludgy disgusting looking paste. This is what you’re really drinking when you’re drinking Coke, he said. Every emotional bridge to him was via some real physical object or scientific predicament. To grandpa a knife was important because it was a tool; but to us kids that same knife was important because it was an excuse to get him talking. He of course knew this and would extend his explanations of how to crack a walnut beyond what was necessary and if we were lucky he would slip up and show his wry sense of humor or make a more general comment about something else. When I think about him now that he’s gone, the memories that come to mind are these little vignettes.
As Christmases came and went, grandma and grandpa moved from Wisconsin to Cincinnati, close to us, and the nature of our relationship changed.
For one thing, the more I saw grandpa the more I came to realize that when he leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head and squinted at the ceiling, he was often slyly still listening to the room. Sometimes it only looked like he was gone on some vacation in his head, and really he was there, and would pipe up with some surprising comment or a joke when you least expected it. This happened more and more and I began to realize how little I actually knew about him. As his grandson after all, I could only bear witness to the twilight years of his life and only ever from a certain angle.
In the later years I was able to see that grandpa’s apparent distance wasn’t really distance, or, if it was, it was a complicated distance. I don’t think he was ever for a single second indifferent about anything my siblings and I said or did. He would look you in the eyes and say, how’s it going?, and he would physically hold on to you until you told him. He didn’t like small talk. He didn’t want a line. He really wanted to know. And when you told him, if you weren’t giving him a line, or could muster something half-genuine, he’d smile and let you go. I don’t know whether this change was only apparent because I’d grown old enough to see it, or if grandpa had actually changed, or both. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now, but what I do know is that this change caused me to think differently about him. No longer was he a far away mythic grandpa; he was my personal grandpa, my mom’s dad, right around the corner, there every Sunday at church, there for every birthday and holiday, there for my wedding, there to see me become a father, and there to know my wife and son.
These changes came quickly and with them came a realization. I had my direct experiences with him, sure—very precious memories to me. But every grandchild must realize at some point that their grandparent isn’t simply a background character in their life, and if they seem like the background that’s only because the grandchild fails to notice the very terrain they’re walking on. Indeed, now that I have a child, I see grandparents have a double influence. Once through direct experience, and then again millions of indirect times through the influence on their children, who happen to be your parents. In my own case this is my mother. Every interaction I have had with her is in some way a response to the cumulative experience of her life, of which my grandpa played no small part. These millions of conversations, gestures, and events, both conscious and not, form an invisible imprint passed down from grandpa, to my mother, to me, and to my own children, and so on.
This is why to me grandpa isn’t really gone. The effects of his life, this imprint, were there even before I knew about them and will continue to be felt even when I’m not thinking about them. This is perhaps what has always been meant by the word ‘ghost’, a clumsy metaphor for how scary it is that we are all basically making it up as we go along, and no matter how hard we try not to effect our children, in the end we will. Good or bad, our presence will be felt and responded to and the outcome of this transaction will live on whether we want it to or not.
For me the most valuable imprint came at the very end of grandpa’s life. The family was there with him when he was dying. Standing at the foot of his bed, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was all very unreal. Grandma leaned over gently and explained the situation to him. His life support was delaying the inevitable. There was no way around it. And you know what? The man didn’t bat an eye. He matter-of-factly faced down his own death. I saw a truly peaceful look on his face. He was brave and never uttered a single sentimentality, even at the very end. This and the birth of my son were the two realest things I’ve ever seen. When all pretense was stripped away grandpa allowed me to see what was necessary to do a thing like that. Call it German reticence or introversion if you like. But to me it was grace.
At week’s end, after those early Wuakesha Christmas visits, and after grandpa’s many subtle designs to catch our interest, we all piled in the van again. We pulled away and grandma and grandpa waved to us as they stood in the doorway. The plowed mound of snow at the end of the street–a once shimmering pile of possibilities–had inevitably, over the course of our stay, been mutilated by our footsteps and converted into a snow fort. Eventually grandma and grandpa receded out of sight and then the mound was out of sight and we were officially on the trip home. We turned out of the trailer park and onto the main road. Now, I sat down and relaxed in my seat. This trip would be much shorter, smooth sailing, really, because we hadn’t yet learned the art of anticipation. Home was nothing. The seven hours in the van would seem like nothing. And when we got home we would have all year to wait to take the long trip again, and every Christmas thereafter.