When I was a little girl, he and I played school bus, lining up smooth wooden chairs in a neat double row and carefully placing a doll or stuffed animal in each seat. We took walks through the fields behind the big red barn, my hand in his leathery one, avoiding cow pies, to visit with the goats and horses. We went swimming, and he threw me up in the air so I’d land with a splash and a shriek and sink into the icy-cold lake water.
As I got older, there were stories. They begin in his high school days, how he struggled with shyness and undiagnosed dyslexia under the shadow of Dan, his track-star big brother. He tells of being a young Marine stationed on an island in the Pacific during World War II — how beautiful it was, like Paradise; how he supervised some island women on laundry detail, how sweet and innocent they seemed; how he wishes he’d written to his dad more after Dan was killed. After the War, he enrolled in a local teacher’s college on the G.I. Bill and met my grandmother in a music-appreciation class. He jokes about how, even though he’d been engaged to another girl throughout the War, he saw her and that was it.
Walking through the woods down to the lake, my dad and my uncles talk about playing football and running track while their father, like his dad before him, coached the teams to championships. They talk about how he threw clipboards in a temper and pushed the boys hard, but always let the second-string play and harped on good sportsmanship. They speak with pride, with obvious fondness — as did my high school teachers, many of whom knew him and taught with him. When I started high school, I was horrifically shy, but he walked me through the cool, silent halls one summer day and showed me where my classrooms would be. On the first day, when the teachers called roll, they spotted my last name and looked up from their printouts with interest. “Emanuel? Are you related to Jack?” When I nodded, they grinned. “Which of the boys is your dad?” Wherever we went — football games, dinner, Disney World — we always ran into people who knew Papaw. And he’d always stop to talk to them. I get my chattiness and my love of the water from him. When he retired as a coach, he took up swimming. He went to the local Y almost every day for 20 years, except when he swam up at the lake, and won medals in senior championships.
He still loves to talk, to tell stories. But now his stories are fractured, interrupted by my grandmother’s exasperated, “Jack, you just said that!” He can remember the War with perfect clarity; three minutes ago is what he loses, so he repeats himself frequently. He still loves to swim, but he’ll disappear for hours and then return to my worried grandmother, unable to recall where he spent the afternoon. When he runs into old cronies while getting his morning coffee, he can’t always remember who they are.
Now, when I tell him I’ll see him in two weeks at the beach, he brightens. “Am I going to the beach?” Yes, in a few weeks. “Did anybody tell me? Did I know that?” Yes, I think so. “You’re coming too?” Yes. He nods, then announces that he can’t remember anything anymore. I say it’s okay; he might not remember we’re coming, but when we show up it’ll be a good surprise, right?
This will be different from the dozens of other beach trips we’ve had over the years. I worry that it will be the last vacation I’ll ever take with my grandfather.
I know he won’t remember it afterwards. I’ll make sure that I will.