This is a picture of Eric and me shortly before I left for Britain. Although it's not the most flattering (we both look like dopes), it is one of my favourite pictures of myself because in it one can see a resemblance between me and a younger version of my Papa.
Papa died Wednesday.
Having spent all my life living relatively large distances from Papa, I find myself now scrambling to collect in my mind every single memory I have of him. Because even though I saw him far less than the other grandchildren, he has strongly influenced the person I've become and that I try to be.
Perhaps that's somewhat by design. I was remembering today the time when he refused to let me take his golf cart out for a drive, and the strangely brilliant logic he used in so doing.
Papa lived in the gated golf resort community of Columbia Lakes, where golf carts are the mode of transport de rigueur. No childhood visit to Papa and Joie's house (a) was complete without forcing one of my grandparents to take me for a ride on the cart. Often the other grandkids would come along, which meant that I got to stand on the back of the cart where the bags were supposed to go. For reasons that now escape me, I always envisioned that we were storm troopers out on patrol. Other kids grow up wanting to be firemen; I wanted to claim East Texas for the Galactic Empire (b).
When I was 12 or 13 years old, my cousin, Shawn Jr., and I were allowed to take the golf cart out by ourselves to go fishing at one of the resort's lakes. When I say that we went fishing, what I mean, of course, is that Shawn fished and I watched. To this day, I have never caught a fish. I am such a bad fisherman that Jesus would lose his patience with me. Shawn drove the golf cart because he is a few months older than me and, more importantly, he can kick my ass. Shawn decided that the best way to the marina was via bumpy fields, where he simply mashed down the accelerator and tore around in circles, treating the golf cart as if it were some kind of off-road sport vehicle. Obviously, my reaction to such blatant mistreatment of my grandfather's property was an immediate and acute desire to do exactly the same thing.
A few months later, I found myself back at Papa and Joie's and with no Shawn around to act as the Responsible Grandchild, so I immediately made my case for being allowed to take the golf cart out on my own.
"Well, hoss, I don't think that's a good idea," Papa told me.
"Why not?" I asked, indignant. "You let Shawn Jr. drive the golf cart. I'm the same age. Almost."
"But I see Shawn Jr. more often, stud. We don't get to see you very often. If you do something stupid with the golf cart, and I get mad at you, that'll be something that just sticks with you. If Shawn Jr. does something stupid, well, I'll see him again in a few days and we'll get over it."
I love that line of thinking. And to his credit, I don't have any negative memories of him.
I also love that he was taking it as a given that I wanted to drive the cart around like a maniac. It's a defining characteristic of Papa that he was so subtly straight-forward. He was honest, but in that veiled manner that comes from a career in public relations.
I remember when Sara and I were down in Texas and went to see him. One of the first things he said to her was: "Well, you look pretty smart. I hope you are smart. We don't need any more babies. I like the things, but we don't need any more of 'em in this family right now."
Actually, he probably said it a little more cleverly than that. My grandfather was good with words and especially good with brevity. When I was in my 20s, I would write to him often and his letters back were like news bulletins. Whole events were put into single sentences.
That brevity, though, and the limited times that I saw him -- especially after I moved to Minnesota -- leave me with little to remember him by. I feel frustrated and upset that I don't know more stories about him.
I know that he grew up in West Texas. When he joined the Navy they sent him to San Diego for training and the journey was hot and he hated it. I know that he spent most of World War II in the Marshall Islands. After the war, he bounced around Florida and ran into Joie, who was, in my dad's words (c), "probably a little too fast for him." Somehow they landed back in Texas. There was Denton, and San Angelo, and then Papa got work doing PR for the company that gave the world napalm, Agent Orange, and faulty breast implants. He retired and rarely left Columbia Lakes. He drank whiskey. He smoked Merit Ultra Light cigarettes. That's a life in a paragraph, and there is so much I don't know and probably won't ever know.
I am left with soundbites -- a collection of cool slang and maxims. And I am trying now desperately to gather them in my faulty brain. I am afraid now of losing these things, wondering how I can hold them in. But at least I know I'm always carrying some part of him.
Once, when I was in high school and my Papa was in a rare chatting mood, he showed me a picture of his football team in college. He pointed to himself and said: "Shawn Jr. saw this picture and said that you look a lot like I did back then. That was a pretty mean thing for him to say."
I took it as a compliment.
--- This post gets its title from a phrase that Papa would use in place of "goddamn it" -- to be said as "Gar-den seed!" ---
(a) Joie was my cantankerous grandmother, who died in 1993. I say "cantankerous" because that's how everyone seems to remember her. I take a certain glee, then, in the fact that she was always sweet as pie with me.
(b) This pro-Empire stance is almost certainly at the root of those really bad years when I was voting Republican.
(c) My dad often displays his father's talent for stating things in amusingly polite terms.