Remembering Grandpa Robinson
“En junimorgon då det är för tidigt
att vakna men för sent att somna om.
Jag måste ut i grönskan som är fullsatt
av minnen, och de följer mig med blicken.
De syns inte, de smälter helt ihop
med bakgrunden, perfekta kameleonter.
De är så nära att jag hör dem andas
fast fågensången är bedövande.”
–Tomas Tranströmer “Minnena ser mig”
“A June morning when it is too early
To awake but too late to sleep again.
I must go out into the greenery that is brimming
with memories, and they follow me with their gaze.
They’re impossible to see, they blend in completely
With the background, perfect cameleons.
They are so near that I hear them breathing
Though the birdsong is deafening.”
I woke up at 6:00AM on June 11th and walked out of my hotel room into the open air. Perfect weather. Sunny with a chill. And the perfect place. Parowan calls to me with its summer birdsong and its small town quaintness. Daniella and I will run around most of its perimeter in just under an hour and may well see wild turkeys, deer, cows, horses, chickens, geese, and dogs. We’ll run by the cemetery, the pioneer memorial park, the grocery store, the pool, and the road to Paragonah. And I’ll be seeing all of these things in summer splendor–but in my heart, it’ll be November everywhere I look.
Grandpa Robinson died last Thursday on the seventh. We’re here to celebrate his nearly ninety years of life and to say goodbye. But instead, everywhere I go, all I can do is greet him afresh. Because he’s there, waiting for me, wherever I look. We run by the pioneer memorial park and, though it’s green and calm, I see November storm clouds and feathery snow flakes flurrying down. I see me running here and discovering Parley P. Pratt–my mission hero–standing here in little Parowan, ready to build a city.
Today I’m running down old highway 91–and in my mind, I’m back in the car with Grandpa, driving the other way to go and try and find the wild turkeys. “Piano! Piano!” he says, slowing me from thirty miles an hour down to fifteen. And we’ll find the turkeys, too, and stop the car and watch them awhile, both wearing our baseball caps. And on the way back, a truck will pass us, determined to go faster than twenty miles per hour and Grandpa will shout, “Sick ‘em! Sick ‘em to hell!”
Now, June 11th, Daniella and I run all the way to the cemetery and I see the orange and red brick wall and archway and live in three times at once. I’m here, in summer, and I’m here in the car with Grandpa in November 2010. We’re driving up and down the rows in the cemetery and he’s telling me of all the people lying here that I’m related to and how he knew them and where they lived. And eventually we drive by Louise’s grave. We can only see the back of it from the car–the back where the names of her children are listed. But we sit there awhile looking at it, the resting place of Grandma, before we go on home. And I’m here in another time as well, back in that same November, running here on foot in the chill to go and see the front side of the gravestone. I’m standing quietly in the graveyard, alone, looking at her name spelled out and thinking about her–about how I never really knew her, since she died when I was so young. About how, despite the fact that I never got to know her, there were times on my mission when I felt so close to her, like she was there, supporting me. How strange it was to feel her presence and recognize it when I didn’t even know I knew her well enough to have anything to recognize in the first place. So I stood there at her gravestone, saying thank you to her for her help and thinking how strange it was that we were so connected, all of us more connected than maybe we ever fully knew.
Daniella and I run right on by down 300 East. We run along some houses and, as we do, a tiny dog begins to follow us. I can’t help but smile. And in my mind, it’s that same November and I’m out running, being followed too, only its a different dog–a larger, rottweiler-type dog following me home. I’m not afraid, just amused. I get back to Grandpa’s house and pet the dog a few times to say goodbye and then go inside. But the dog isn’t as willing to call it quits. It begins scratching at the door. Grandpa asks what’s going on. Panicking, I fling open the door and run outside, shooing the dog off of the porch. And then, ten feet away from the door, I freeze. The dog and I both have a moment. Together, we look behind me at the wide-open door. Together, we realize my mistake. “No!” I shout, as the dog bolts around me and straight inside the house. Grandpa lets loose a string of curses around something like, “Get this dog outta here!” I run inside and seize a broom, trying to shoo our surprise guest out. But he thinks that’s great fun and starts biting at it and lunging around me. So I forget that idea. Finally, I straddle his back, sticking my knees into his ribs and grabbing his ruff with my hands–and I walk him right on out the door. Grandpa calls the police who come and take the dog–still scratching at the door–away. And as I sit in utter shock in the living room after it’s all over, Grandpa looks at me and says, “Didn’t your mother ever tell you be careful who you bring home?”
Now, the dog running back and forth around us, Daniella and I are running on the same road that would take us to Paragonah. And I’m back in the car with Grandpa. Every day we’d have to go and get the mail at the local post office and then he’d tell me where to drive–out to the farm, on highway 91 to see the wild turkeys, all around Parowan, once out to the canyon to see the Indian writing, and oftentimes to Paragonah. We’d drive on up the road and see by the large orange wind sock which way the wind was blowing. We’d drive around the city and he’d tell me who had lived in each house. Then we’d drive back to Parowan through the fields, seeing the cows and horses and he’d point out the different sages and grasses and tell me how much the sheep liked each kind.
Now we run down Main Street a short ways, right on past Grandpa’s family doctor’s house–who now works in Cedar City and lives in Paragonah with her horses. And I’m back with Grandpa at Dr. Crouch’s office, having the doctor talk to me instead of Grandpa and feeling uncomfortable. I’m listening to Grandpa complain about Dr. Crouch and praise his “Negro doctor.” I’m riding with Grandpa to Cedar City and, after an appointment, being taken out for lunch. I’m panicking as I look at the menu, trying to find the cheapest thing and seeing only steaks. Finally, I order a steak–only to wither inside as Grandpa orders something from lunch menu hiding almost out of sight to my left. So I end up taking Grandpa for all he’s worth and as we’re eating, he looks up at me and asks, “How’s the steak?” And I want to slap myself in the forehead with my hand. Instead, I try to smile. “It’s great.”
We run through the houses and down 600 west, past the one Joshua Tree in town that I’d stand staring at sometimes, thinking about my childhood home and how it compared to this place, where Dad grew up. We run past Food Town, the grocery store where Grandpa and I would do our shopping and he’d get himself his bean and pork soup, his bread, and his orange marmalade and where I’d stop sometimes on my way home after a long run for a powerade.
Our run ends, but the memories don’t. This day will be saturated with them. They say every day is new, a brand new canvas ready for painting. But today–the day of the funeral–is already so stained with memories that the canvas is saturated and heavy and each new action, each new stroke is merely a burden. We go the viewing and watch slide shows and look at a table display and look down on a sleeping Grandpa in his coffin–only that doesn’t look at all like Grandpa, even after cousin Austin sticks his red handkerchief in his hand. Then the coffin closes, the veteran’s flag is pulled over the top, and they take the casket into the chapel for the funeral. And suddenly I’m listening to everyone else’s memories–memories I don’t even have. Suddenly Grandpa is also a father and a husband and a soldier and a farmer and more than just the little old man in the little old house in the little old town who traditionally greeted me with, “And here’s Kezia-Jane.” It was hard enough to bury the wry grandfather. But to bury the man who wrote love letters to his young wife from the front lines of WWII in Europe, the man who fought against twenty years of hard times in the farming business, struggling each day to make ends meet to support his nine children, the man who could’ve been a physicist but chose farming to support his father’s business–this man that I knew but never knew is impossible to say goodbye to, even more impossible than the grandpa I can’t actually place in the coffin at the front of the room.
Even after we’ve been to the cemetery, even when we go to his house and begin sorting through his things, I’m mortified in his place that everyone’s moving his things from where they belong. Don’t they know he hates that? I expect him to walk in each moment and yell, “What’re you doing?!” I remember first coming in November 2010–remember hearing him griping about how his daughters came and refurbished his house, buying him a new chair and a new bed, rearranging his things–and how much he detested it. “They’re killing me with kindness,” he said, “but that doesn’t really matter to me, does it?” And he disliked the new bed because he felt like he was going to tumble out of it. And the chair–the new chair he despised most of all. He would sit in his old chairs and glare at it. “What am I going to do with that chair? Shoot it?” he’d say. And once, when I made the mistake of sitting in it, he gave me a look and said, “You like that chair, do ya?” All things had their place. I knew that his toenail clippers belonged on his radio on the kitchen counter. The screwdrivers and tools are in the kitchen drawers. And don’t mess with his stack of mail in the middle of the kitchen table or the keys he keeps in his little box above the fireplace. It was easy to keep Grandpa happy. Just sit at the table and eat his meals with him. At breakfast, bring him the paper and when he hands you the funny papers, chuckle a time or two or he’ll say, “You’re not laughing.” And whatever you do, don’t move anything from its place.
Only now, everyone’s sorting through everything and walking away with things under their arms. I feel sick inside to think that Grandpa’s not here to protest, that each moment is one second longer that he hasn’t stopped all of this. I feel like a vulture, taking his things after his death, walking out the door with the treasures he kept each in their respective place. It was so easy, I think, to keep Grandpa happy, even when he was sick. He greeted the hard things with a dry humor that none of his nurses understood. “How are you doing today?” they’d ask. “Oh, wonderful,” he’d say in his dry way. And they’d smile. “Oh? That’s good.” But they didn’t understand that he didn’t mean it. They didn’t understand that he stayed up all night watching westerns in his old chair because he almost fell out of the new bed. They didn’t understand that he’d shuffle around the house muttering, “Hell’s bells” under his breath. Still, he was friendly to them and to me and would constantly make jokes. “This one,” he told the nurses, talking about me, “she’s gotta walk around with cotton in her ears,” referring to his swearing. And he always told the story of me letting in that blasted dog. And of course, when they left, he’d say, “I’ll see you when the roses bloom again.” They didn’t always get it. Some would look at his little rose bush, wilted and frozen that November, and say, “Well, that won’t be till spring!” Or “this rose is dead.” But I always smiled, waved goodbye, and closed the door behind them.
It’s strange how many memories there are everywhere in the house, and that when I only lived here for a month. I think about the nine children who grew up all their lives here–think about how strange it must be for them, how each and every item must have as many dusty memories as this whole house does for me. But mostly I think of Grandpa. I think of all the things he called me. There was Kezia-Jane, his all-time favorite. And then, that November I stayed with him, there was many many more, including his nursemaid, Richard, and Richardaphine. I think of him muttering about Eve and how all this hardship was her fault because “she ate that damned apple” and feeling slightly guilty since I was of Eve’s sex and happened to be thankful to her for choosing a little misery–and because I happened to like apples myself. I remember later, after my month-long visit, when Daniella was there with me–who Grandpa always called “Josephine”–I saw the exercise bike up in the living room, when it was normally in the basement. And I smiled and asked, “Grandpa, have you been exercising on this bike?” And he gave me his funny Grandpa look and said, “Every damn day.” Another time, as Grandpa was watching one of his westerns and I was sitting on his couch eating an apple, Grandpa muttered that same traditional, “Everything was fine until she ate that damned apple.” After that, I crunched another bite and Daniella leaned over and said, “Kessia, stop eating that! I don’t think he likes it!” And I laughed and said, “No–he’s talking about Eve.”
All of this as we sit here, rifling through his things, taking his plates and his books and his albums. Memories. Memories. Everywhere. In the backyard where the cherry trees grow. Over the fence where we would always go to feed the horses, which Krista, as a tiny toddler called “meows.” The grass out back where the corn used to grow and where pipes used to crisscross. And out front, by the front porch with the railing that was added on when Grandpa got sick, there was the rose bush, now in full bloom. I look at it and think of all the times I could’ve visited and made the roses bloom for him and didn’t. And I say silent thanks to God for all the times that I did.
As I drive out of Parowan that night, I think about the little town that no longer seems to call my name. I think of all the things, the memories, that used to pull me here that aren’t here anymore. This day, this canvas heavy with rich colors, though completely filled is filled in such a way as to show one gaping, glaring absence that I’m finally beginning to feel inside me. Something was here that is not here–a grandfather, a father, a farmer, a soldier, a patriarch. Something I didn’t even really know that I had. The anchor to one side of our family. A root that gave more life than I, an upstart branch, ever acknowledged.
As I get on the freeway, I wonder when I will be back. I wonder what will bring me here now. And I think of the archway–the red and orange stone archway in front of the Parowan Cemetery. One day, I will stand again amidst the gravestones. I’ll run there, maybe, like I did one cold November day and stand in front of a particular tombstone, one shared now by not only Flora Louise but Leon. Maybe it’ll be cold then too, a chilly autumn morning and I’ll be alone, me and them. And I’ll stand there thinking about how we’re all more connected than we ever fully know. And I’ll be able to say not goodbye, but thanks.