Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How He Smelled of Tobacco and Peppermint

There has been a lot of feedback from Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech. Did she come out? Is she retiring? All debatable points, but the one thing that touched me, actually made me tear up, was the moment she told her mother, who is suffering from dementia that she loved her. Three times, so the woman lost behind those blue eyes might possibly hear her and remember it. I know all too well the feeling of looking into someone’s eyes, praying this will be the day they recognize me and instead I am greeted with eyes that stare straight through me.
I don’t remember the first time I saw my granddad, but what I do have are snapshots in my head of all the wonderful times I spent with him. After we moved back to Indiana from California, my dad was on the road a lot, so my granddad became a father figure of sorts. I even picked up calling him Dad and did so for years. My granddad owned his own homebuilding business. To this day, I can remember running in to see him in his messy office, spinning in his chair, looking at blueprints and smelling his pipe tobacco. I still love that smell. He taught me to climb trees, swish a basketball and hammer a pretty straight nail. I visited him on job sites and scaled the framed out homes long before there were walls to keep me out. He loved to fish, and he shared that with us.
I remember at four years old climbing up onto the bumper of his truck and telling him to use baking soda to clean the battery posts to “fix” it. We asked him for crazy pills every time we visited, which were actually gum drops. We drank soda from adult cups and sat on the top of the refrigerator and waved at him from our perch. Before Christmas (my Pre-JW days), we would all pile into our cars and follow him to the boonies to find and cut down a Christmas tree. We played basketball with trampolines under the net and he soothed our wounds when we fell off. He took us up in the attic of the garage and showed us a treasure trove of goodies. Looking back, it was all just things in storage, but it’s the reason I love to antique because it reminds me of him.
A recent comment got me to thinking about the year that we watched my San Francisco 49ers play his Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. I remember actually orchestrating it so I could watch the game with my granddad. I bet him a Big Mac that we would win. It was a small wager, but to a child it was the world, especially when I won. I never collected that bet and sadly, it’s too late now. We are probably even though, because he lent me a foldable measuring stick about thirty years ago and I broke it and never replaced it.
My granddad was a very proud and independent man. Years ago, when the homebuilding market stepped away from the traditional custom home to a more popular and inexpensive cookie cutter model, my grandfather refused to stop treating each person and home as an individual. In the end, it cost him his business and his home. When I was 16, he and my grandmother lost their house to foreclosure. We didn’t find out until days before it was final and all we could do was pack as much of their life into boxes and cart it away. I met the woman who bought the house at auction years later and it had sold for a paltry sum compared to its value. I silently hoped that her kids loved it like we did, stood on the 2nd floor and tossed things down the laundry chute to the basement, swung on the porch swing so hard they almost tipped it over, made imaginary calls on the antique phone or slid down the stairs on their stomachs.
He and my grandmother moved into my uncle’s house, salvaging what possessions they could and my granddad, trying to salvage his pride. It was in those years that he developed Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t bad the first ten years but in those final years, he became angry and forgetful, so unlike the man I had once called dad. In the end, one of the few people that could still get through to him was my cousin. He would sit with my granddad for hours and talk to him about baseball and fishing and the kids. He could still break through the wall and get my granddad to laugh.
I remember getting the call that he had passed away. We were driving home for 4th of July weekend in 2010. I refused to break down, instead allowing myself small bursts of tears. Sarah finally insisted I pull over so she could drive. I think I cried the rest of the way home. At the visitation, we children gathered around and marveled at how unlike my granddad the man before looked. His “too busy to mess with a brush” hair had been cut and styled, his normally bushy eyebrows were trimmed to an acceptable length and his perpetually tanned skin was sallow. He seemed very lonely all decked out in a suit that wasn’t his and surrounded by nothing. So we scheming children, behind the backs of our aunts and uncle, outfitted him with a fishing pole and several pipes for the road, all discreetly tucked away for later.
I was never more proud of my cousin than when he walked up and messed up my granddad’s hair and tweaked his eyebrows. He walked away with the telltale family smirk and said that’s the way granddad would have wanted it. We spent the night of the funeral at my parent’s house…a reunion of the family he left behind, dancing to scratchy versions of “Brown Eyed Girl” and old Bob Dylan hits and singing into whatever utensil we could find. My grandmother, who has begun her own battle with dementia, was at times dancing alongside, forgetting why we were there and at other times, hiding her sad blue eyes. I brace for the day her eyes don’t see us. For now, I will enjoy her while I can.
Though my granddad may not have remembered those of us he left behind, there are a lot of people that remember what a good and kind man he was and that he always smelled of “tobacco and peppermint.”  
It may have seemed a small, random gesture to express her love to her mother three separate times and so emphatically, but I understand how she feels. For there comes a time when you can say it one time or a hundred times and it doesn’t matter. I applaud Jodie Foster for baring her soul, however brief it was.  

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