Today, we traveled to western Massachusetts to visit my grandfather. He lives in the town where he was was born, where my dad had always lived until he turned 18 and left. (As is the way with small towns, sometimes you stay in them, sometimes you get out.)
My grandfather is getting old. Visiting him used to always feel the same: arrive late morning, stand around and chat, walk out back, sit down and have supper, talk a little bit more, say something about needing to hit the road, honk the horn as my grandfather stands in the doorway and puts his hand up to say goodbye. Now it feels like each gathering has more weight, each visit like a pick axe holding our place for a second on the side of Time Mountain—OK, we’ve made it to today; here we are together, another chance to absorb a life whose length I can’t possibly know.
My grandfather was a minesweeper in the Navy. During his service, he worked as an electrician, maintaining the equipment on board. From my naïve distance from war I always, always, always try to ask him what it was like, and he always, always, every time tenses the same, certain way and answers, “I don’t talk about that.”
After the Navy, he spent his remaining working years, all fifty of them, working in a rubber factory making shoe soles back when they used “real rubber.” I learned today that the factory still exists in North Brookfield, MA, where Vibram soles are now manufactured. How about that?
My grandfather tells stories from the past as if they’d happened last week. Sometimes he talks about the “college kids” from the city who used to come out to the Quaboag River with their canoes and fancy picnics, and how he and his friends once sent one of their canoes swimming solo down river.
He also tells a story about a time when he and his friends hand-painted a car so it wouldn’t be recognized. He doesn’t get into details, though it’s likely, knowing him, that the details are relatively harmless.
He has a garden in his yard where he grows rhubarb, carrots, garlic, squash, peppers both spicy and sweet, and a very old grape vine that his mother carried over when she came from Italy as a young girl. One summer, he hand-pollinated a whole fruit tree with a Q-tip when the bees weren’t around to do their job.
My grandfather has lived a long life. He met my grandmother when they were young; they were born and raised close to each other. She followed him to Virginia–where he was based for some time–and then back home again for the rest. He’s always complained about how her Irish cooking was “in the beginning” when they were first together; the memory of it still inspires his greatest teasing joy. She’d laugh out loud at this when she was here, and then they’d agree it got better after they were married. My grandmother has lived with the stars now for 11 years. When my grandfather finishes any story about her, he says she’s “the prettiest girl I ever saw,” twists the corner of his mouth, and time stands still.