To Papa Don

August 25th, 1929  – February 20th, 2016

You were honestly the least judgmental person that I have ever known, and you would openly and willingly invite strangers into your home to sit around the table and have a cup of coffee. The coffee that was often burnt, from cooking in the coffee pot all day, because you never know when you may want another cup. I thought of you as I drank my coffee this morning, simple with a little more sugar than you probably should and cream. I definitely inherited your sweet tooth.  As a child I was pretty confident that you were going to die from some strange stomach illness, considering you ate the rabbit that I cooked, partially covered in fur. You also consumed the fruit cake that I ate; the one that after one slice I had to go to the hospital for food poisoning.

I would cringe a little when we had to take the truck as you drove me to Middle School, all too aware that the other kids might see us, the wooden planks standing up from the bed to hold in whatever debris you had collected. The rattling engine and the disheveled driver with pork chops and bushy eyebrows (Reminder to self: schedule eyebrow appointment). Now I would give anything for one more ride, one more chance to learn about your childhood and to hear your family stories. To stop by the Dairy Del and get an after school snack, or to ‘help’ you get parts from one of the millions of baby food jars or Tupperware containers in the garage. I was such a girl, so worried about what other people would think, that I didn’t necessarily mind when you didn’t come to school events, but I remember the ones that you did. Where I could see your beanie in the audience, or see you wearing the same polyester suit that you had to have gotten in the early 80s. Dressing up meant nice Dickie pants and a plaid shirt, I guess we aren’t too different after all.

I remember your yard across from Lincoln park and how as a child it seemed like a maze, walking on the wooden sidewalk in search of the next treasure. Entering your garage with the smell of oil and the dark damp spaces that were covered with parts and tools, cars lined the sidewalk awaiting your attention. Your hands were always stained from a hard day of work, often coming in just as dinner was done, damp and cold from a long day under the hood of a car. The smell of orange goop that you used to try and clean up before dinner. I was always intrigued by your ability to make things work and felt like you were the king of auto store whenever I went along for the ride. There were always little trinkets and parts lying around the front porch, that when you entered the house you already felt like you had gone on a journey. Not to mention the fact that you also seemed to collect the world’s misfit pets, from Stubby to Sheba, to Mosely and his ginormous growth. Obviously, I remember when Sheba died and was ‘sleeping’ on the front porch for probably far too long. Stubby would follow you to the moon and back while snapping and barking at anyone in his path. I tried to walk Mosley a couple of times through the park and obviously, he hadn’t been on a leash that often, his preferred spot was under the table so that he could clumsily grab whatever fell onto the floor.

I remember the back room through the kitchen that as a child I thought for sure was haunted, well actually I still think it is haunted. The all too narrow stairs leading to the 2nd floor. I remember the bullet hole in the glass from the gangster shoot-out in the park. I remember playing Monopoly with cousins on the floor in the 2nd bedroom. And sharing the upstairs with my mom and brother when the tenants wouldn’t leave our house. Every nook and cranny had something to explore. From the typewriter to the old cigarette machine, your house was like a child’s dream.

The side of the yard was a secret little garden that was overgrown from lack of care but had beautiful roses that climbed the side of the house. Your house was the one that we could always play in, that it didn’t matter what we wanted to build with the blocks in the front room or drag out all of the toys from the bin. You genuinely wanted us to be happy. I can honestly say that during those times I had never seen you mad, or upset. You seemed content with the chaos that was around you, and in your willingness and capability to do good for others. I remember building things in the front yard with pieces of pallets or attempting to make a lemonade stand with my cousins and it would stay until the next time we came over. Helping with yard sells, and trying to sit at the table to be part of the adult conversations.

When you moved something changed, the memories were lost, and the focus was no longer on your family. You disappeared in the chaos that once helped to control your life. You let the outside influences take over, you were once so strong, and then you appeared weak. I wanted to continue to visit with you and took the time to drive the hour plus to come and clean your house, which you know was just an excuse. A time for us to talk story, for me to feel like I was helping you, and to make a little money, but really it was an excuse for use to have a connection. Then you let her take over your thoughts, she convinced you that I was stealing from you, which I know you didn’t believe, but it was easier for you to not get involved in the conflict. These were the first times that I saw you frustrated when I came to visit and you knew that there was tension, by this time I don’t think you knew what to do. I don’t think you realized that your fate was riding on the decisions that you made, to choose outsiders over your own family. Connections were lost. It became a struggle to get you to attend events, even with the concession of a ride, or transportation. You became isolated in your own little world, miles away from your family. I don’t think you realized that you would be pulled further and further into a deep dark hole, one that would consume all of your worldly possessions, and ultimately your life.

It is sad when you realize that each individual choice that you make in your life can drastically change your entire world. I would like to believe that you were just trying your best, that maybe you were scared to be alone. This fear allowed you to close your eyes to the destruction around you, to the lies, theft, broken promises, and pain. Closing your eyes to the world and allowing someone else to dictate your choices, buy your houses, spend your money, and further shelter you from reality left you homeless, wandering the woods stealing condiments to survive. Closing your eyes and shutting out the world left you in a nursing home where they didn’t even know your name or the accomplishments that you had within your life. You were simply a withering old man, disheveled, shell of who you once were. Your memories were stolen from you, and you were stuck in a time of your life that you chose to remember.

I am going to choose to remember you in happier times as well. As a strong caring man, who would rather do for others than himself. A man who wants other to be happy and share in a great meal at a Chinese Buffet, a man who will gladly listen to a cassette of his granddaughter’s rock music in the car while driving her to Middle School instead of talk radio or a good ‘ole country station. A man who would choose a good piece of lemon meringue pie and cup of coffee over a bowl of ice cream. A man who dresses up in a sturdy pair of Dickies, a button up plaid shirt, suspenders, work boots, the occasional cowboy hat or good reliable beanie. A man who would sit down to dinner with the evidence of oil and hard days of work remaining after scrubbing away the day from his hands. A grandfather, father, husband, son, and brother who loved to talk about the past and share his insight into the world. From turtle soup to building cars. You will be missed, Papa Don.

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My grandmother Heid, My amazing Husband, myself, my grandmother Myrtle, and my Papa Don. July 2004

 

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