Macauley and I went to the flea market last week to pay my booth rent and took a quick look around. I found a little ironstone platter and this set of tiny dominoes in a battered matchbox. The box had no price, and when Vicki at the desk called the dealer to ask for it, the dealer mentioned that the older man she got these from had fought in the Phillipines during WWII and had passed a lot of time there playing with them.
The price was right, but I would have bought them anyway, as they gave me such a strong and sudden connection to my own grandfather who fought in the Phillipines in WWII as well. He survived the Bataan Death March and was held prisoner by the Japanese for over three years, and our whole family has always highly regarded his service to our country. He also taught me how to play dominoes when I was a girl, and I will always remember gathering around the kitchen table with my grandparents and my cousins to play with their glossy red set in its plastic case. It would be a longshot, but as I walked out with the dominoes in the Crusader matchbox, I entertained the possibility of my Papaw playing with this very same set, with a fellow "crusader," a world away from home.
I guess he would have been 90 last month. He's been gone five years, but I still think of him all the time. He was sick for a while, and there at the end, we all knew he wouldn't be around much longer. He knew, too, which was what I thought about the most. I remember calling him in the hospital, knowing I might not get to talk to him again. I froze. There was too much I wanted to say but couldn't, so we ended up talking about the weather and other things that didn't matter. When the minister planning his funeral later offered to let any of us write something to include, I spent a day or so putting down much of what I wanted to say to him that day.
I wish he was here. I'd show him the dominoes and I'd tell him what he always meant to me. I'd tell him this:
11 August 2004
When I got word about a month ago that my grandfather was in the hospital again and likely wouldn’t live more than a few more days, I began to panic, thinking of all I was about to lose. Just a few weeks before, I had visited him in the hospital and had seen for myself that I was already losing him physically, as he’d gotten smaller and thinner as he grew more and more weak. He’d never been a large man, save for his cute little pot belly, but I was completely taken aback by how tiny he looked lying in that hospital bed under the thin, mint green blanket. I was accustomed to him speaking a lot—most who knew him would say that he was a man of strong opinions and countless stories. When I saw him that day, he still spoke sweetly but said very little.
I went home feeling a sadness I had never known before. I thought about how our country was losing another of its great World War II heroes. I thought about how my Nanny was losing her friend, her partner, her roommate of the last almost 60 years. I thought often of my mother and her sisters, who would be losing their father, who I’d always seen them show such affection for. But mostly, I couldn’t help but think of myself, how I’d never get to hear my Papaw say, “Hello, sweet,” as he hugged and kissed me after us not seeing one another for a long time, or hear him in the background offering additional comments or corrections to my Nanny as she talked to me on the phone long-distance. I thought about how I’d never get to visit Colorado with him again or take him to the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. as I thought he deserved. I cried—sometimes softly and only for a moment as I was driving around town and other times with deep sobs as I lay in bed talking to my husband before we fell asleep. I felt angry and frustrated that there was no way to stop him from leaving, uncertain as to how I should act, what I should say, but mostly I was just deeply, incredibly sad.
With his usual spunk and undeniable toughness, he stayed around longer than his doctors predicted. Over these last few weeks, my thoughts have turned relentlessly to him and even though time seems to soften most anything, I still felt a sense of urgency to hang on to anything I could about him. That first day I found out he was very, very sick, on an old envelope on the counter in my kitchen in Missouri, I started to jot down phrases and habits and clothes and places and moments I will forever associate with Archie Curtis, my grandfather.
And I began, as most of us who grieve eventually do, eventually have to do to pull us out of that overwhelming sadness, to grab hold of what I could keep when it came to my grandpa. I knew there were large, abstract feelings and influences—the love I know he felt for me and for his family and for my Nanny, the man he was to his country and on the job, the closeness I’d always felt to him—and those are important to me, but what it comes down to for me are the little things. Many are inconsequential; nevertheless they make up a series of mental Polaroids I can pull up at any time to remember a man I could never forget.
I spent so much of my time during my childhood at my Nanny and Papaw’s house on South 24th Place, so many of the images of my Papaw in action are set in that house and yard. He was a grandfather to four granddaughters and six grandsons, and he loved to indulge us. He lifted us little ones again and again to join the bigger kids in the mimosa tree out back and aired up bike tires with the air compressor he kept just inside the door of his packed garage. On the other end of the garage were all his tools, some from his days working in sheet metal, days we often heard stories about as he pointed out building after building from Muskogee to Texas that he and his crew had done the roofing or other work on. Just outside that end of the garage was an old tree stump and you could usually find one or more of us sweaty grandkids perched there on a summer afternoon as Pop brushed and saddled Pepper for us to ride. Sometimes there would be three or four of us sandwiched on Pepper’s back and Pop would lead us around and around the yard and down the street. I can see him making laps around the horse pasture mowing the fields with his old tractor, wearing his straw cowboy hat, jeans, and gray, snap-front western shirt. I see him plowing the rows of his garden with his tiller and bringing a bucketful of tomatoes or green beans into the house for Nanny and us to can.
He would sit out back for hours, in an aluminum folding lawn chair, watching us grandkids play wiffle ball or catch lightning bugs or make mudpies. Sometimes he’d let the boys shoot his BB-guns. He’d also sit under the hot summer sun while we splashed and swam next door in the James’ pool, a true highlight of our summers. The real treat for us was the very rare occasions when Pop would put on his old-fashioned, teal green swimming trunks (which might have been from the 50s or 60s and might have been the only times I’ve seen him not wearing blue jeans or a suit) and he would join us in making whirlpools in the pool and then show off and amaze us with how long he could hold his breath underwater.
He would take us to McDonald’s and join us in a Happy Meal and then wait patiently for us while we exhausted ourselves on the playground. He always paid for every meal we ate out as a family, even at Hamlin’s, a place he went to with us even though he didn’t like Mexican food. At Furr’s, he would let the younger grandkids take the change that fell into the automatic change dispenser on the cash register. He and Nanny were both generous to me financially as a child and in my adult adventures and milestones as well.
I have an image of Pop drying dishes after dinner while Nanny washed, one of him sitting at his place at the end of the table in their kitchen, always the first one up eating breakfast and usually the last one to finish most family meals because he had been talking or telling stories while everyone else ate. Nanny would call us into the kitchen for dinner, and Pop would open the cabinet to the left of the sink and take out his medicine. I remember him washing those pills down with water from a paper Dixie cup before every meal at their house, though I never knew what they were for. I still don’t. He liked a small glass of Dr. Pepper with no ice in it with his lunch. In the evenings, he would sneak away and stand out in the yard for a while looking at the night sky, “checking the stars,” he would say. It is from him I learned how to find the North Star and the Big Dipper and I have always believed, as he told me once, that if the dipper’s open end is pointing down, we are about to get rain.
He always sat at the far left end of the couch to watch TV, usually the news but also Hee-Haw and the Grand Olde Opry and, on holidays, football with his son-in-laws. He told me I used to lie on the floor in front of that TV when I was a little girl and color in my coloring books, and when I’d hear him get up from the couch around 9 or so, I wouldn’t even look up, but I’d say, “Night, Papaw.” Some of us would often race to the bathroom to be the one to drop his fizzy Efferdent tablet into the water his dentures would rest in for the night, or sometimes he’d return to the living room after taking them out to frighten and crack us up with his toothless grin.
Next to his side of the bed is a small bench and under it and in front of his dresser, his cowboy boots are lined up and on top of his dresser is a small box with a little drawer containing many of his treasures which he’d bring out one by one from time to time to tell us about—coins, a pack of Lucky Strikes dropped from a plane during the War, pocket knives and other trinkets.
I so desperately want this man back, the man in these Polaroids that make up my memories of childhood and family and love. These memories are my own and my list is not exhaustive. Some may be shared by my cousins and my sisters, though each of them has his or her own patchwork of images and conversations that they will hold onto about our grandfather, just as my mother and aunts have theirs of their father and my grandmother of her husband. It cannot be denied that we have all lost something and someone, and it will take me a long time to get used to the idea that my grandpa won’t be sitting at the end of his couch in Muskogee, Oklahoma, while I go about my life and take care of his second great-grandson, my own little boy. I just might never get over it. But he’s left me with a lot—after all, if he had not existed, none of us would exist. Because of him, I have a large and loving family, a grandmother whose love and faith in us cannot be paralleled, and an invaluable collection of memories of a man we can all cherish and be proud of. I hope he knows how I felt about him. I told him often, I think, that I loved him, but I hope he knows there’s so much more to it than that.
Each night when we stayed at my grandparents’ house, when I was a girl, when I was a teenager, and even when I had become a wife and mother myself, before he went to bed, my grandpa would pull me to him, give me three kisses succinctly on the cheek and say, “Good night, sleep tight and remember Pop loves you.” I will. We all will.