Saturday, October 06, 2012
PapaPapa used to tell me about his father all the time. That's PA (as in "pass")-paw (as in a dog's "paw"). Well, he told me about every single detail that ever happened to him, right down to how he once stole condoms from the corner store and then sold them for a quarter a piece to seamen on shore leave. (Very lucrative business in those days.)
But I think the stories he told me about his father were the ones that stuck with me above the others. My favorite was how he said his aunt had told him and his sisters that they needed to calm down and not be so rowdy or Santa Claus wouldn't bring them any presents this year. He said his father quite dramatically slapped her and said, "Don't you lie to my kids about no Santa Claus. If you want to lie to them, lie to them about good things like God and Jesus. Don't lie about no Santa Claus." I had a habit as a child of exaggerating the stories I heard, so that may not be quite how he told it, but it's how I've always remembered it.
My grandfather is alive and well today. I speak in the past tense only because a few years ago, an event occurred that changed my grandfather forever. The house he loved and cherished and inhabited for 60 some-odd years caught fire.
As the walls were burning all around him, so were the walls of his mind. The life he had built and perfectly maintained for so many years was warping and turning to ash in front of his eyes. The fire fighters arrived, and my reasonably hysterical grandmother told them her husband and the dog were still in the house. They rushed in to find my grandfather beating at the flames on the walls of the living room with a wet rag. At no point was his brain able to accept that his sacred temple was being defiled by a greedy force of nature that cared nothing for him or the memories hanging in neat little frames all over the walls.
One of the firemen forcibly dragged Papa out of the house, while the others looked everywhere for my grandmother's Satanic dog who hated everyone and hid from them in the farthest corner under a bed in the back of the house. They somehow managed to grab the dog as it fought with it's heart and soul not to be taken, and grabbed every single family photo off the walls on their way out. They then proceeded to put the fire out, which had already burnt a hole in the roof that wrapped through the kitchen, bathroom, and the living room already, without seeming to get so much as a gallon or two of water in the house. The water damage was negligible. Those men from the Houston Fire Department were god damned heroes.
After that, my grandfather's mind started to slowly slip away. The man had been immortal before that day. That was the exact moment that his brain gave up it's noble, unwavering resistance against the forces of time and began to deteriorate. Mema ("ME-maw") started to stress out terribly shortly thereafter, to her own mental detriment. She has since stabilized, after a long and arduous struggle to accept that Papa would never be the same man she had been married to for so many years again.
So that's half of my family. Mema and Papa. They're some of the kindest old coots you'll ever meet. And apart from a few vices and quirks that are near universally shared with minor variation by all grandparents, by most humans anyway, they're really wonderful people. I love them to death, and it will be extremely difficult to accept when they're gone. The other half of my family is myself and my mother.
My grandmother was 40 when my mother was born. My mother was 18 when she had me. So when I was growing up and my mother was as much if not more of a mess than I have been this decade, it almost felt like we were siblings, and Mema and Papa were our parents. Now my mother and I have to find ways to keep my grandparents from hurting themselves or each other, to keep them getting dressed and to keep my grandfather clean shaven. It's like year by year, the dichotomy is being slowly flipped around on us, and suddenly we're the parents, inheriting all the responsibilities therein.
As rough as it's been, it's been a moving experience. My mother and I have both grown psychologically, or spiritually (if you'll permit the term) by leaps and bounds as we've fallen into our new roles, though she's admittedly had the worst of it.
But I still think of all the stories Papa used to tell. Now he only has a new handful that he remembers, and he tells them so many times we can't help but stop him from telling them. It's sad, but life has to go on. As they've gotten less and less present, I've more and more had to come to terms with the fact that my mother and I will soon represent the entirety of my family from top to bottom in my mind. And my friends have become more and more valuable to me as time passes, because I realize that moving forward, my family will consist of my mother, myself, and the people with whom I am able to manage and maintain close relationships with. And as this knowledge has slowly dawned on me, my friends have become ever more precious.
One day, I hope to be a Papa myself, and to tell my grandchildren a hundred stories about my Papa before me.
Posted by Ian Bowen at 10/06/2012 01:33:00 AM ::