Saturday, December 20, 2008
I've been meaning to write for quite some time as I've had lots of exciting experiences I've been wanting to tell you about. As a matter of fact, I had just come home from the last evening of an ARZENU conference, which was very very interesting, opened my e-mail and gained a very different kind of perspective.
Not the kind that academic exegesis enables or political activism allows for. The famed cultural relativism went flying down the wadi and brought me to Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The e-mail message was from my Dad. He wrote: "Dad died this morning about 11:30 eastern time. I'm en route to Oklahoma."
My paternal grandfather died on Wednesday. Robert Emmet Sharp. I've collected a few memories sitting here clear across the world, amidst palm trees, hummos and failed cease fires, and I feel very far away from all of my family. My husband says I have a memory like an elephant. But like many of us this particular talent only kicks in for the things we want to remember. I have a lot of memories of Grandpa Sharp.
Grandpa would sit in the armchair in the living room on North Grand, with the bookshelves behind him, and sometimes he would read to us with his sonorous voice and oddly British accent, reserved for story time and saying grace. Sometimes, if we begged him enough, he would cross his legs and give us a horsy ride; a little kid perched on his foot, being tossed wildly up and down, his knee cranking the "horsy". I must have been very little.
We would come to visit in the summer, commuting between grandparents. It was always, very, very hot, much more so than in New York where we lived. Grandpa would sometimes set up the sprinkler in the yard and we kids would cool ourselves in the refreshing shower of water, racing in and out of its spray.
Grandpa used to take is to a country store, outside of Okmulgee, and there was an Indian man who worked there. This is where Grandpa used to buy us turquoise bracelets, the kind that I could bend to fit around my little girl wrist. No one at my school had bracelets like these. I liked the store with all its seemingly coincidental wares and foreign smells. Grandpa was talkative with the Indian man. I was curious, but I never learned anything more about him . He was just the Indian man with the bracelets. I wonder where he is and if he remembers Grandpa?
Grandpa had a garden. One summer we found a zucchini that had managed to grow to an enormous size, unnoticed by Grandpa's otherwise careful attention, hidden under a big leaf. Grandpa and I proudly presented it to Grandma in the kitchen, who said she would have to make a lot of zucchini bread out of it. I thought that bread and zucchini sounded like a strange combination.
One summer we made homemade ice cream from Grandpa's strawberries. Even though we took turns, our hands got tired from the crank. In the evening, Grandpa would tell me about the freight train that passed near their house. I loved the sound of the whistle, mixed with the racket of the crickets on those warm balmy Oklahoman nights. I remember a thunder storm on a night like that, and we were allowed to stay up with the grown-ups on the back porch watching the meteorological drama unfold.
In the morning we would get ready to go to church with Grandma and Grandpa and I had to get dressed up. I thought it was too hot to wear tights, but they told me I looked real pretty. There was a fountain at the church and Grandpa would give me a coin to throw in. I always sat next to Grandpa in church while Grandma played the organ. Every time I went to church with Grandpa, his bass voice ( the one reserved for grace and storytelling, and not at all like his everyday voice), warm and impossibly low, singing the hymns, never ceased to amaze me. Grandpa was always chatting with the people at church. The men laughed at his sometimes slightly off-color jokes and the the ladies were charmed by his gentlemanly manner and flirtatiousness. By the time we left, the muscles in my face hurt from smiling at all the new people that Grandma and Grandpa wanted me to meet.
Sometimes we went to a restaurant after church. They had a big buffet and I always got jell-O and fried chicken. But sometimes we came straight back to the house because of the dog and Grandma would make me a pimento and cheese sandwich, which I never told her I didn't like. Then we kids would bolt from the kitchen and explore the house on North Grand, the backdrop for many fantasies and adventures: Like dropping my doll down the laundry shute, about a thousand times. My sister tried to convince me that I too could jump down the laundry shute. "Grandma has lots of laundry down there, it would be a soft landing..." I showed my kids the laundry shute, too, and I think they thought it was a little strange that Mom was having so much fun throwing their toys down it.
We would rummage through the old and mysterious tools in Grandpa's garage, looking for the croquet set. Sometimes we'd go up the rickety stairs to the abandoned apartment above the garage. Someone told me once that it was for servants or for slaves - my childish perception of history made this seem like a possibility, and set me off on fantasies of myself as a southern belle, like in those movies about the Old South. But it made me feel bad too, because I knew that the people who lived on the other side of the railroad tracks, just near Grandma and Grandpa's enormous house, whose houses were much smaller, whose kids we weren't allowed to play with, were the descendants of the previous inhabitants of this apartment, in a time when Grandma and Grandpa were children.
Grandpa's war stories fascinated us. Sometimes he showed us his war mementos, but he was always a little reluctant to talk about it. He brought out his Japanese flag and the medals he earned once and showed them to my son Emil. It was amazing to see those two, each born on either end of the century, sharing a piece of history together. Grandpa said he still had a bullet shell under his skin, I think on his hand (was it the right one?) and he could jiggle it. We loved how gross that was.
We had secrets together sometimes, like the time he let me drive the car when I was 14. I had no idea how to drive, but we practiced a little and then we hit the streets. After Grandpa's heart attack he wasn't allowed to eat candy, but he showed me his stash in the kitchen and said I could have some. He liked Babe Ruth candy bars. Once he came to visit us in Connecticut and he showed me the long scarlet scar along the length of his leg from his bypass surgery.
Grandpa made everybody laugh when he took on his falsetto voice and "spoke" for the dog. "The dog" - Collette, Chipper, Lili or Brandy - always teased Grandma and it was Grandpa's chance to say things that were a little scandalous. Sometimes I wasn't sure if he was joking. When the dogs "spoke" in that treble southern twang, they were always very impressed with Grandpa and us grandkids who were "little lambs." Grandma admonished him, but I could tell she thought it was funny. Grandpa used to say in that same voice that Grandma was "a real piece of work". But once he returned to his normal register, he would say to her "You are good, mate." My husband thought that was such a funny and nice thing to say, that he says the same thing to me today, which sounds really funny, because he's Danish. Now it has a sad ring to it, too.
I saw Grandpa for the last time a few years ago. He didn't know who I was, but I think he sensed that he should. My daughter Ella was with me. It was a hard visit, because I felt the same way about him and I was filled with all these memories, but he didn't know me. He seemed confused a lot of the time, but he still whooped with laughter when we caught him streaking to the bathroom in his underwear at bedtime, just like he always did. And like always, his voice was still filled with that bassy gravity and warmth when he said grace over our Sunday dinner.
In the last many years, Grandma has had to help him with just about everything. If any of us can manage to be as strong as Grandma, at any time on our lives, then we can count ourselves among the elite few.
The last time Grandpa saw me, I mean really saw me, was a few years before our last visit. I've lived in Europe for a long time and it's hard to get back to Oklahoma. When we said good-bye, standing in front of the house on North Grand in the round driveway, I wanted to make sure that Grandpa knew how I felt about him. His whole face lit up, and he laughed a little shyly and responded, "Well honey, I love you too."