Everyone has a story. When I think about mine I think of it as an imaginary whiteboard filled up with black marker etchings of all of my experiences. At the end of our lives the whiteboard is full of stuff. Some of it is written in big bold letters, some of it is scrawled in tentative, uncertain or illegible handwriting and some of it we have tried to erase because we want to pretend something didn’t happen, but it’s there. It’s all a part of us. Each whiteboard carries our history and the history of our family experience.
Here’s a story from my whiteboard that I can’t get out of my mind, because it’s April.
My grandfather lived into his 90’s. I knew him as a valiant fighter of backyard muskrats, a terrific black berry picker and the man who dismantled my stilts one summer to use them as tomato stakes in our garden. When we were little he would regale us with stories about his best friends Darcy, Clayton and Oscar and a Chief named Paccyu-Coccyu-Waccus. He would weave tales about the chief and the boys’ escapades, each one designed to impart some of his Yankee, hard-earned, New England wisdom. The foursome were supposedly sustained by grass cookies made by Clayton’s mother and their adventures were awesome if somewhat suspect. Amongst the family there is some debate as to the validity of these tales and the real existence of these characters but they were real to us as kids and they were great stories.
At some point in or around 1920 he pulled himself out of UNH and left a goodbye note for his mother along with an apology to his brother, whose train pass he had stolen. For the next two years he jumped trains back and forth across the country. He wrote many letters home to his mother. He saw the his first automobile coming down the road and by his own account became a hitch-hiker before there was a word for it. He met great men along his journey. He took odd jobs and witnessed the horrible treatment of his fellow hoboes who had not chosen to hop the trains for adventure.
He married my grandmother, Nyn and had 6 daughters; Mary, Connie, Judy, Carol, Kathy and Margaret. Perhaps as a distraction from raising six girls, the habit of writing letters from his train-jumping days was something he kept up his entire life. When his handwriting couldn’t keep up with his thoughts, he would type them. He would stuff as many pages with mimeo paper in between as would fit into the typewriter. Then he would take out the letters and cross out the name at the top and write in 6 or 7 other names. That way one letter could be sent to many family members. When I was at college I would receive a letter intended for my Great Aunt Kay, it would be filled with news of people and happenings I knew little about but felt a part of because I got his letter. And because of his gift for story-telling they were enjoyable to receive despite the fact that they were originally intended for someone else.
He was a man who seemed to always say everything he needed to say whether through his stories or his letters or his Christmas poems. He seemed to hold nothing back.
He died in his 90’s just five months after my grandmother had died. I think he may have been ready to die a little earlier than that. He’d had a full life. When my Uncle Greg died at 43 I remember my Grandfather telling me that he wished it had been him, why did he get to live when a young man with so much living ahead of him was taken. That’s not how the whiteboard gets filled though is it.
When it was finally his time, I travelled to Louisiana with my cousin Amy and my son Sean to say goodbye. Grandpa Scott was lying in his hospital bed and he hadn’t really spoken much in the prior days. He had said good bye to all of his children except for my Aunt Mary, his oldest daughter. Standing by his bedside we could all feel that he was holding on but no one really knew how or why. I called my Aunt and left a message on her phone to call me on my cell. I didn’t mention that I was with my Grandfather in Louisiana. She called right back. She was an awesome lady, so funny and generous, a fast talker with an even quicker mind. I chatted with her for a bit and then told her there was someone who wanted to talk to her and I held the phone up to my Grandfather’s ear. He slowly said, “Mary, Mary, Mary, I am sorry, I love you and I am sorry.” Tears streamed down his old face slowly working their way through whiskers that could no longer be shaved. I heard her say that she loved him too.
He died a few days later. Despite a lifetime of speaking and writing his mind, his last whiteboard entry was saying he was sorry to his daughter. I can’t tell you what he was sorry for but it had apparently weighed heavily on his heart and he needed to tell his daughter how much he cared for her before he died. This has stayed with me for the past 20 years, he died April 8, 1995. My Aunt Mary died this year. She and my Grandmother both lived their last years trapped behind the cruel haze of Alzheimers. I feel so fortunate to have had all of them in my life. My whiteboard is very full of lessons learned from people I love. April reminds me to say I am sorry quickly and always tell the people closest to me that I love them very much.