Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tears and Laughter


There were so many tears. Not that I'm surprised that I, or anyone else, shed them. There were just so many tears. When death takes a loved one away it doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are--you’re not prepared.

I recently wrote a post entitled My Granddaddy. It was a mostly a memory piece. Within that post I wrote about how my granddaddy used to take some of the younger grandkids to the local convenience store--The Little Store as it became known in our family--to fill a little brown bag with penny and nickel candy.

I flew home to Kentucky on the evening of February 25th, my granddaddy having passed away earlier that morning. When I got there all the grandkids that used to get that little bag of candy were there. I had an idea. What if we each got a little bag of candy and placed it inside the coffin? Or what if we each got a little bag and wrote our names on it and placed it inside the coffin? There are nine of us grandkids. I realize that nine bags of candy is obnoxious. I mean what do you do with that? You can’t really sit nine little brown bags of candy in the back of the coffin and you can’t really place them around the body. And then there’s the questions from people wondering what all those brown bags are doing littering granddaddy’s casket. Flat, empty paper bags with our names on them just didn’t seem right either. But a tribute in the form of a brown paper bag seemed so personal and right that I had to figure out a way to make it work.

After discussing it with members of The Family Band, my sister suggested we get one small brown bag and write “The Little Store” on the front then place inside 1-2 pieces of the candy we used to get as children. (Searching for that candy was quite the trip down memory lane and more difficult than I had anticipated as the candy choices today are quite different from what they used to be. Discovering which of those candies was still available, however, brought many smiles.) I then suggested that we each sign the bag. My initial intention had been that we--the grandchildren--each write our name. This seemed like the perfect compromise between nine bags of candy and nine empty bags with one name on each. However, the first person to sign the bag actually wrote a message to granddaddy. So that’s what happened. Each grandchild in his turn wrote a message to granddaddy on that little brown paper bag. Words of thanks, inspiration, love, and gratitude. 


I was the bag carrier. On Tuesday evening as we prepared for the visitation to begin I carried that bag from one grandchild to the next asking each in his turn to write a message to granddaddy. I couldn’t stop myself from crying. The idea was so beautiful and the message so personal from each grandchild. Each of us took our turn with that bag and then the representations of love in the guise of candy were placed inside. It was an offering, a gift, a memory ready to be forever sealed away with granddaddy; a symbol from our childhood’s that none of us would ever forget.

Hot, wet tears streamed down my face as I held that bag of candy in my hand and walked it to the coffin that held the body of my granddaddy. One small brown bag given in honor to a man who gave us so much.  

§§§

The day of the funeral I had to keep myself composed. I was to sing “Amazing Grace” with my sister. Tears tighten the throat and tightened throats don’t allow sound to freely flow. There could be no real crying until after the singing was done. I needed to sing the best I could for this man who'd always loved me unconditionally. I couldn’t allow myself to fall apart.

Much like when I sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” at my grandmother’s funeral nearly 9 years ago, the minute the song was over, and I was back in my seat in the front row beside my mom, I fell apart. I took her hand and the tears began to stream down my face. That poor tissue that I used to catch those tears never had a chance. So many tears. Exhausting tears. In that moment it’s almost impossible to believe that there will ever be smiles and laughter again. But there are. 

§§§

The day after the funeral I was not prepared for what I knew had to be done. We were all present: the children and grandchildren. The manpower was never going to be as strong as it was at that moment. We had to start emptying the house. Granddaddy was one day buried and three days gone.

It’s packing a life. It’s voyeuristic in its discovery of hidden treasures and secrets. It’s boxes filled with paperwork that should have been thrown away two decades ago. It’s a lifetime of acquired stuff that isn’t yours to part with, but the owner is no longer there to make the decision on its fate so the living are left to decide.

If I’m honest it was too soon, but when would we all be there together like that again? I quickly realized that not only were we mourning the death of my granddaddy we had to mourn the loss of my grandmother again. Everything inside their house was her--all the pictures, the flowers, the knick knacks. The joke was made that it was her house and she just let granddaddy live there. Hear the laughter? I can. The day before one wonders if they’ll ever laugh again and if it’s okay to even do so. And then there’s laughter. It just happens. That joke is part of my memories now. I can replay it. And as I do so, feel the smile pull up the corners of my mouth. 

It was true though. That joke about it being her house. When grandmother passed away nothing was really changed in the house. People took things, but they were small things. Her clothes had eventually been taken away, but otherwise the house looked the same.

As drawers and closets were opened and emptied so many things were discovered. Most of them pertaining to her. It felt like we had just lost them both.

I opened a cabinet in the kitchen and saw the bowl in which grandmother almost always served her potato salad. Nobody in the family can make potato salad like she did. Using the same ingredients it just doesn’t taste the same. I couldn’t help but smile, but I couldn’t stop the tear from falling down my cheek at the same time. It welled up in my eye before I knew what was happening. It spilled over the rim à la “Nikki Newman” on The Young and the Restless; that single tear that always amazes me. And the Daytime Emmy for Best Supporting Actor goes to... As that tear rolled down my face my mother asked me if I wanted the bowl. I told her that what I wanted was for her to take it. Before she could even respond to me I changed my mind and told her that I wanted it. It’s just a bowl, but it’s a bowl I remember from so many family meals. A bowl sitting on the table filled with the potato salad that everyone wanted. If I squint I think I can even see granddaddy using it for popcorn back when popcorn was popped on the stove. I could be making that up, but it feels right.

So many tears were shed over the course of that week. Sleep was a welcomed visitor every night as exhaustion both physical and emotional took its toll on us.

Amidst the tossable JCPenney statements marked "paid", the bank statements full of cancelled checks, pictures of people no one in the house could remember, and an empty L’eggs brand panty hose egg, the most amazing discovery was found. In a dresser drawer in what had once been my uncle Joe’s room my sister and cousin Casey found love letters. Love letters my grandmother had written to my granddaddy in 1949. She was a senior in high school. He, having graduated the year before, was living in Tennessee where he’d had to move for work. We read those letters aloud and listened to her words. She recounted her day and professed her love. She talked of how much she missed him; how she longed to see him again. 

In one of those letters, adorned by her lipsticked kiss, grandmother mentioned their song, “How Soon” and how she wanted it played at their wedding. She ended that sentence with, “Ha.” None of us knew the song, but I went to my iPhone and started searching the title and the year. I found several recordings of the song “How Soon (Will I Be Seeing You)?” Without knowing the artist’s version she liked the most I bought Dinah Shore’s. Since I know of the song’s importance to my grandparents only through the voice of my grandmother’s words in that letter it seemed only fitting that the voice who sings it to me be female.

Those letters had travelled from Arlington via mail to Tennessee and back to Arlington via, one would suppose, my granddaddy’s suitcase; from the original homestead where they lived as a new family to the house they built in 1978. More than 60 years later they were found stowed away in that drawer. 

One might argue that they were forgotten tokens saved from a bygone era, but I would say they meant so much to my granddaddy that he kept them because he loved her--though tokens they might be, they were tokens of that love. We’ll never know why granddaddy saved those letters or if he even remembered that he had.

§§§

No matter how many “things” filled their house the one thing no one can dismiss is the love that was there. And even though the house is now mostly an empty shell we carry on our lives with the spirit and essence of their love living inside us. 

There is no longer the question of How Soon? lingering between them. There is, however, a bag of candy from The Little Store that will have to be shared.