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My grandfather is bad and I guess I did not know how bad that meant. Not bad like misbehaving, bad like he doesn't understand the word Thanksgiving anymore. Not the meaning of it, the sentimental values attached, but the word itself. He also doesn't know where his coat is or his gloves or why we have him out in the hallway ready to go out a door. As my parents and I are helping him into the car someone says something about grandpa and he says, "I'm not old enough to be a grandpa!" 

When we start driving he screams "NORTH WEST!" from behind me and I wonder for a moment if he knows my next travel destination before I realize he is reading the electronic direction off of the rearview mirror.

What he remembers is to salute every American flag. That he was in the army. My mother sits in the back seat and says, "Good job, Dad" each time we pass the familiar red, white, and blue. I think how strange it is, what we remember. How the military must bark orders and routines enough to make something stay, even through this.

He reads the names of things. "Play and Learn Center", "Episcopal Church", "North". I choke on tears and laughter when he shouts, "McDonald's!" with disgusted emphasis placed on the Don part of things. He remembers McDonald's is no good. 

When we arrive he settles into a brown leather chair not unlike the one he used to have when I was little, the one that was so big and smooth that my cousins and I would sit straight up in it and let our bodies slide all of the way back down to folded knees on the floor. Again, again.

He reads an atlas. Conversation carries on around him, my newest cousin arrives in a turkey onesie and I hold him and smell his head and wonder if anything is more soft and perfect than a baby, and my grandfather continues to read and call out places where he has been. He announces that he needs to go get his other son. Says his first, middle, and last name. Bobby is in Australia, Dad. With Sarah and Anna and Andrew. 

At dinner he points at things and tells us what they are. I know this song. That dresser is from Norfolk. Not Virginia, but the Buffalo street he grew up on. He can name my two cousins in the frames behind their heads at the dinner table. I am the third girl sitting next to them. 

"Is that a little cup?"

"No, Dad, that's a little candle in a jar."

My mother talks about the troubles of getting him here, how he went to bed and loudly refused to get out. He sits directly across from her and I realize he is not listening or, more likely, does not know it is him we are speaking about. He is not being offended. My grandmother says how hard it has been, the times he has scared her. They met when she was 22 and he was 20 and, on their first date, he spent most of his time speaking to another girl. She had not planned to see him again, but they ended up married with eight kids.

Two months ago, my grandmother was in the hospital with pneumonia. When I visited I asked how my grandfather proposed. She laughed and said, "There was no proposal. That man doesn't have a romantic bone in his body." When my grandmother was very sick for many months eight years ago, my grandfather kept a small black leather notebook filled with what she did on those days so he could tell her about it when she was well again. He has beautiful penmanship. 11:31 a.m. You tried jell-o today. I wonder now if he ever showed her.

When he is given coffee, he dumps more than pours the milk until it reaches the very top of his cup and, afraid he will keep going, afraid he will soak himself in hot coffee, my uncle takes the spoon and cup and creamer from his hand and says, "No, Dad. Stop, Dad." I can see my grandfather fighting back yelling. I can see my uncle fighting back everything. When the excess coffee is dumped and brought back to him, he immediately puts the cup to his lips and I start to say HOT! like trying to teach a toddler this new concept, but my mother tells me he is careful.

At the end, for his last two sips and since his pie is gone now, he says, "How am I supposed to finish my coffee?" 

I remember how his hair used to be neatly cut, carefully parted to the side, how all of his books were about some matter of history, how his conversation was minimal unless it deeply interested him, how his entire attitude and appearance commanded respect, how an infrequent joke of his own caused him to laugh most of all. How an untucked shirt on someone else unnerved him. How he prided himself on his neat appearance and good posture.

I remember being seven or eight, opening a paint-your-own-bird-house kit from him on my birthday. I remember when a bee stung him on a hike and then came for me with no stinger left. How he frantically searched my hair like it might still hurt me. I remember being a freshman in college and learning he kept a file in a locked drawer in his basement, neatly labeled Mandi’s Writing. I remember him in all of the ways he will never be again while he is sitting right in front of me.

And I do not know how he is supposed to finish his coffee.

Amanda Oliver is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Washington D.C. You can find her website here. She last wrote in these pages about her parents and her summer.

Photographs by the author.

"Laughing With" - Regina Spektor (mp3)


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Reader Comments (1)

My mom. They can fix the heart and cure the cancer but when the brain starts to go they got nothin'. I remember an interview with Katherine Hepburn where she noted that we just rot away and "it's too goddamned bad we do." It is, too goddamned bad.
December 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNoam

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