Saturday, September 02, 2006

"What you remember is not what they think you will remember. It is often not."

When I think about my grandpa - my Poppy Chuck who died almost seven years ago - the image that comes to mind is the placemats he had at his dining room table. He lived in a condo in Munster and bought only the finest things. Every appliance and piece of furniture was the best of its kind, and there are only six mediocre things I remember him owning: two red, fake Tiffany-glass candle holders, the kind you might expect to find in a small, Italian restaurant, and four cream-colored, vinyl placemats. We used to have Oreos and milk at that table, a younger version of me with my legs folded underneath for height, my elbows making round, semi-permanent indentations in the vinyl, and him smiling at me over the rims of his bifocals.

There was a small courtyard out front with wrought-iron patio furniture and pink impatiens, a heavy sliding-glass door that lead to the living room. He lived on the ground floor, and the woman on the second floor loved him - as she should have. He had an electronic scale in his bathroom, the face of which registered weight in red and announced each horrifying pound out in a mechanical voice. I got in trouble once for turning it on and waiting to hear the weight of the plunger - the voice was loud and had sold me out to my parents in the next room. From then on, every time I went in his bathroom, I tried to figure out how to override the voice component. When I finally did, I weighed every object on the shelves, in the cabinets, and along the shower wall.

He collected penguins. The huge entertainment center that took up an entire wall in his living room - and since his death has taken up an entire wall in my parents' living room - was lined with penguins. He had stuffed penguins, my favorite of which was a big, plump guy wearing pleather boots and a hat with a fuzzy ball at the tip, wind-up penguins, penguin pens and pencils, penguin statues, and penguin snowglobes. I always think that I would like to start collecting them, a way of inviting a piece of him to my own home, but I never do.

When I found out he had cancer, I was pulling my ponytail through the back of the burgandy beret I was required to wear to work at Showplace 16, a then-new movie theatre in the heart of The Region. When my mom left my room, I leaned on my dresser and cried, staring at myself in the mirror and wondering, "Why him?" and "Why don't you wear waterproof mascara?" After I reapplied, I called my boss and explained that my family was going to see my grandpa before his surgery tomorrow. She called me "honey" and said she was sorry; I could have the night off.

I drove separately because I wanted to be alone in my car to cry and listen to sad music. I told my parents it was because I wanted to show off my new used car to my uncle Carl and his girlfriend Karen, who would also be there. Inside, on the overstuffed furniture, everyone acted like it was normal for all of us to be together in such a capacity. No one mentioned what must have been on everyone's mind: tomorrow we will trust this man's life to a surgeon who knows nothing about the intricacies of this family, a surgeon whose obligation it is to save every diseased body that is brought before him. I drank diet root beer and tried to commit the scene to memory.

A week later and everything had gone well. In his weakened state, he had developed pneumonia, but that was to be expected, according to his doctors. I went to see him once after school; his hospital was in Hammond, so my mom wouldn't let me go alone. His eyes were closed and he had tubes in his arm. I sat on a chair at his side and answered his questions about school, singing, and art. He always wanted me to be an artist, dreamed that I'd one day have an instructional television show on PBS. Days later, I was at home watching City of Angels when Mom and Dad came back from the hospital. Dad stayed in the kitchen and Mom came to the living room. "How is he?" I asked, and she answered, "Poppy Chuck died." The Sarah McLachlan song "Angel" was playing in the background. It would take me five years to finally watch the rest of the movie.

My dad was sitting in the kitchen when I went to him, hugged him, and moved aside for my mom to put her arms around him. He looked up at her and said, "I'm an orphan now," his eyes so filled with tears that their blue seemed to go on forever. Three months later, his brother finally proposed to his girlfriend of ten years. My mom said that some situations make you rethink the events in your own life, and Chuck's death brought Carl to a lot of realizations about himself. I thought part of it might have been that Poppy Chuck loved Karen and, more than anything, wanted her to always be a part of our family.

His birthday was October 4 - when we'd call to sing to him, he'd always respond, "Ten-four, good buddy." He died at the end of September, just days before his 70th birthday.

Something about a particularly low Saturday evening just made me think of him. It's always like that, though. I can go for days without the thought of him crossing my mind, then something suddenly pops up to remind me.

Like a friend asking why I never let anyone call me Rebecca. "There's only one person who ever regularly called me Rebecca... other people have tried, since then, but it's never felt right." Although I do miss hearing it spoken outloud conversationally, some things are just sacred, I guess.


annie. said...

i hear it and feel it, bec. beautifully put. i'm sure that he would be proud of his artist.

Steve said...

Thank you Becky.

That was one of the few things I've read on the internet (ever) that I really enjoyed.

And I'm not being sarcastic.


gawilli said...

I have come back to this post several times and can't seem to find words that feel appropriate in response to such heartfelt thoughts. Thank you for sharing.

Luke said...

That was indeed a beautiful and well-written post, Becky.

Also, I'm curious about how much a plunger actually weighs.

Melanie said...

wow, you can write!

do it more often, huh?

= )

Brandy said...

hey lady - I love this story! you are such an amazing writer. thanks for making me cry and also wonder why *I* don't wear waterproof mascara :)

Tim said...

Wow, great post Beck. Sad I never read it until today. Thanks for allowing me to remember some of those things...I wasn't as old as you, and I guess I haven't really thought about it in a very, very long time. I think I'll go out and buy a penguin for my room...

Anonymous said...

just going back and looking through your old posts. this one reminds me of my grandpa, and the "grandpa coffee" story. i miss him.