Memories of Grandpa, Made Whole Again

By Anne Valente
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 28, 2008

The bullet splintered the white plaster wall above the couch in my grandparents' basement, leaving a dark, hollow cavity that was never repaired, as if mending it would concede what had happened.

Its presence alone meant my absence thereafter from the basement where my sister and I had once watched Saturday morning cartoons and built furniture forts, hiding inside them with flashlights and blankets.

It was a dime-size, concrete reminder that those moments were over, tangible evidence that exactly two weeks before Christmas in 1997, my grandfather had retreated downstairs in the middle of the night and, enclosed deep within the silence of walls that he himself had built, ended a struggle he could no longer endure.

The struggle was against lung cancer, an acutely aggressive form of it caused by the asbestos my grandpa never knew he was inhaling as he built the churches of Alton, Ill. Once the pain grew too intense, the tumors forced my grandpa from his favorite end of the yellow paisley couch to the sturdy backed wooden chairs in the living room. And then, that December night, Grandpa took a loaded gun from his days as a soldier in World War II, proceeded downstairs, and ended that pain -- and the humiliation I know he felt -- with a single bullet.

For years, the path that bullet charted in one isolated moment forced me from everything that came before its violent divide. It hardened me against my own memories, driving them deep inside.

Now, however, this hole, this hollow, is not what I remember. Instead, I remember everything else -- everything within the fabric of my memory that has woven the complicated patchwork of the man my grandfather was.

I remember him for the eternally reassuring smell of cinnamon raisin toast that would drift into my mother's old bedroom to wake me when we stayed at my grandparents' house. My grandpa fancied himself a cinnamon toast connoisseur, and each morning he seated himself alongside a toaster, and across the kitchen table from my sister and me. Grandpa engaged us in morning chitchat, and he tolerated the growing pile of crusts on my plate. His whiskered face lit up each time one of us requested another slice of "roach bread," the nickname he lent our breakfast for the way the dark raisins resembled tiny bugs.

He was also a master of grilled corn, its savory flavors wrapped in tinfoil and roasted over the backyard barbecue pit while he stood watch with a pair of metal tongs. He always cut the corn from the cobs for us -- standing them on end and carving, their kernels falling in neat blocks to the plate -- to spare our baby teeth.

The ice-cream stand at the end of their street served as a convenient destination for strolls on summer evenings. Grandpa loved going on these "nature walks" with us, pointing out bird and plant species. My sister and I often couldn't resist running ahead, the crunch of gravel beneath our feet in the fading twilight.

Nature walks sometimes turned into day-long trips up the Great River Road, Alton's scenic thoroughfare along the banks of the Mississippi. As we navigated the road's weaving contours, we scanned barren trees for nesting bald eagles in the snowy cold of January, and we stopped at fried-catfish stands in the warmth of June.

Grandpa also took us fishing in the lakes of Alton's Sportsmen's Club, and my favorite part was stopping at the bait shop along the way. Grandpa sometimes cracked open the Styrofoam container so we could peek at the heap of tangled earthworms. My sister and I divided front-seat privileges in Grandpa's beige Buick, she on the way there and I on the way back.

I knew other things about him, outside the realm of grandfatherhood. He was a great dancer. He ate salted peanuts on the back porch as he listened to Cardinals games on a crackling, hand-held radio. He relished his retirement years, taking up bonsai and sketching, and traveling with my grandmother to Egypt and France with money they had long saved for that purpose. He was a romantic, which hit me with subtle warmth when I learned my grandmother once mailed him a handwritten poem during the war. He kept it in his wallet for more than 50 years, its edges yellowed and worn.

I have kept many things as well, including a small box of mementos hidden on the uppermost shelf of my bedroom closet. I now hold that poem my grandmother wrote so many years ago, retyped by my grandfather and delivered to each of us as a parting gift shortly before he died. I have the letters he sent me years ago at summer camp, printed in his boxy, all-caps handwriting. There is another in the same neat script -- his final letter.

"If I should ever leave you and go along the silent way, grieve not," he wrote. "When you hear a song or see a bird I loved, please do not let the thought of me be sad, for I am loving you as I always have." This is the man he was. And my burden, the guilt of allowing a bullet hole to cloud my memory of him for so long.

When a bright, red cardinal perched in a tree reminds me of our nature walks, I think of the man who held my hand as we crossed the street to the Cream Machine, of the romantic who took care not to scratch my grandmother with his sandpapery whiskers when he kissed her.

I hope my grandpa knows that this is what I remember. I also hope he knows there is no forgiveness to bestow. I hope he knows that although I still grieve, it is not for the way he left us.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company