“All of these lines across my face tell you the story of who I am. So many stories of where I’ve been and how I got to where I am. But these stories don’t mean anything when you’ve got no one to tell them to…”
— Brandi Carlile, lyrics, “The Story”
On a hot summer day in 1968, I was a kid swinging around the grapevines that grew so effusively that a shaded arbor was created.
My mother sat in that shade, talking with my Dad’s maternal grandfather.
We were visiting Grandpa Charlie, sitting outside because the heat had driven us out of his little home.
Mom was trying to convince him to go for a ride in our car, any place he wanted, and even an ice cream cone had been mentioned. Because of that rare, sweet offer, I was on high alert.
“I have out-lived all my friends,” he said, great sadness filling his voice.
I had never seen sadness in this happy chap. He was a couple of weeks away from turning 84. Those words stayed with me because they stung.
I loved our Grandpa Charlie, and I knew he loved us. Why was he so sad when he had all of us, joining us every single day if he wanted.
My mother, who clearly had her hands full raising five children while helping to run a growing and prosperous dairy farm, feeding her own plus extra hired hands three meals a day, never once complained about driving to get her husband’s grandfather.
Mom knew his tastes, cooking and baking for him, welcoming him into our home on days both ordinary and special, and sometimes drove him to appointments when his more immediate family was busy.
I remember Mom’s calmness that day under the grape arbor, taking her time reassuring him with kindness and understanding.
He did not go for a ride with us that day. He wanted to be left alone with his dog, sitting in the grape arbor. It nearly broke my heart, Skippy chosen over us that day.
It was a rare and troubling development. I asked ‘why’ in every possible way a kid can ask.
“He is sad today. Some days are just like that over a long life,” was my Dad’s answer when we got back to the farm.
Grandpa could no longer drive his red, Studebaker truck, his vision fading. Dad had taken his grandfather to funerals for his peers and witnessed his loneliness.
“We can try to cheer him up, but we don’t know the stories he shared with his oldest friends, no matter how we try,” Dad attempted to explain.
Less than two months later, on a late August afternoon, I remember exactly where I stood when we received word that Grandpa Charlie had died, and it was my turn to know that broken sadness that crushes so deeply.
I adored him, and the loss was great. I miss him, still. Over a lifetime of stories, some of my earliest favorites include him.
My father was not given 84 years. He was the friend lost too soon at age 63.
My mom, having just celebrated her 85th birthday, remains happy and spunky and filled with great stories. She has, quite recently, mentioned many people she misses every single day.
“It is just unbelievable that I am the last of all my siblings and the last of our little neighborhood here… all of them gone but me,” she told me.
Lately, I often contemplate the stories. Dad was a master of keeping family and community stories alive, and we treasure them, even more as time marches on.
I spend my days helping my mother navigate new issues, and feel her momentary sadness at changes she continues to bear witness to, and moments later I watch her revel in the moment of feeding a bottle to my tiny grandbaby, swaddled in a blanket by her experienced, loving hands. It is all lovely; it is all fleeting.
“Stories really don’t mean anything if you’ve got no one to tell them to, it’s true.”
Live with a heart wide open to all of it. Build friendships to carry you along the journey.
We never know how long, or how short, our journey will be.
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