Today is my Pa-Pa’s birthday.
But he’s been gone a long time now. Almost fifteen years. I can always remember how many years because he died a month after P and I got married. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t make one last trip to Beaumont to see him before he died, but I guess I was busy getting settled in to my new life as a married woman.
And I also believe there was a part of me that was in denial that he was going to die. I’d never lost anyone close to me at that point and I kept believing he was going to be okay. Especially since he’d spent every Christmas of my life gathering all of us around and saying, “This might be Pa-Pa’s last Christmas with y’all.” It became a family joke for twenty-five years.
Then he was gone.
I think about him all the time. Caroline will do something I know he’d think was funny or my dad will make a comment that sounds just like something Pa-Pa used to say to me. And my mind can picture him as if I just saw him yesterday, standing in his backyard with a cigar in his mouth.
Last week while we were in Houston, we invited my cousin Lisa to go out to eat with us one night. I hadn’t seen her in almost four years. Which is so interesting considering that my Me-Ma and Pa-Pa never lived more than a few miles from most of their family. To them, family was the most important thing, the only thing. But that was back in the days before life sent families in all different directions.
Anyway, I keep up with Lisa through Facebook but we hadn’t all been together in a long time. I was the oldest grandchild on my dad’s side of the family so in my mind all the cousins are a lot younger than me. It caught me by surprise when Lisa said she was thirty-two. I would have said twenty-six. But I guess I just felt older than them because I was a very mature eight year old who had moved on to playing with my Donny and Marie dolls complete with soundstage set while they were all just toddlers who still wore diapers.
So we spent a few hours catching up on life and what we’re all doing now, but eventually began to talk about old memories. And we laughed in that way that you can only laugh when you’re reminiscing over shared experiences. Because as many people as God brings into your life over the years, there remain a small handful that know exactly what you’re talking about when you reference your Me-Ma’s spaghetti sauce or turquoise polyester pants with the elastic waistband.
We talked about the formal living room with the sliding door that Me-Ma always kept barricaded except for the most special occasions. And how it was always a special privilege to be allowed to go in that room with Pledge and a dust-cloth to polish the dining room table until you could see your reflection. Or to play with the little porcelain figurines on the built-in shelves.
And how sometimes Me-Ma would call you over in a loud whisper to show you that she had a stash of Little Debbie oatmeal pies that she’d been hiding from the other cousins but was going to let you have one. Looking back, I think she used that same line with all of us to make us feel special. Food was one of her big love languages.
We laughed about how we’d all eat in the garage on Christmas Eve and how Pa-Pa kept the windows of the garage covered up to hide his Friday night poker games from any nosy neighbors. We remembered the picture of the dogs playing poker hanging on the garage wall and the statue of Mary that had a place of honor in the center of their patio. And how the floor of that patio was composed of a mosaic of colorful tile.
There was the white flocked artificial Christmas tree with the snowballs made out of styrofoam and the gray couches that were made of some kind of fake leather. Pa-pa’s black leather chair that he sat in all the time and how he could swivel it around to open the front door without having to get up. The pink bedroom in the back of the house that we thought was the most beautiful bedroom ever.
We remembered Me-Ma’s spaghetti and how no one can make it quite like she did. The black Lamar University windbreaker that Pa-Pa always wore. The way he’d wrap a banana in a piece of white bread, call it a banana dog, and eat it. The Christmases and Easters and just normal weekends when a steady stream of family and friends would walk through the door to visit and everyone would get hugged and kissed whether you were interested in being hugged and kissed or not. It wasn’t optional.
Later on that night, after Lisa left, I couldn’t sleep. I laid awake and thought about how funny it is that things from so long ago can be remembered in such vivid detail. Especially considering that I can’t even remember what time I’m supposed to be at the dentist on Monday morning.
I can recall every corner of Me-Ma and Pa-Pa’s house and the way she used to climb into bed with me and read The Little Match Girl until I fell asleep because she knew it was my favorite. I can remember every bedroom and all the smells and what they had in their closets. I can remember all the lipsticks in Me-Ma’s drawer and the picture of Jesus that hung in Pa-Pa’s bedroom. And I can remember walking through their back door with my sister and our rainbow duffle bags every other weekend when my dad came to town to visit.
What I don’t know is why I thought it would never end. I thought we’d always walk up their driveway and Pa-Pa would swivel around in his chair to open the door while Me-Ma hurried toward us from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. I know that sounds silly. But when you’re young, you take it for granted that things and people will just always be there.
In a way, I guess they always are. Caroline has Me-Ma’s bedroom furniture in her bedroom. My sister has their furniture in her living room. We all have bits and pieces of the things that belonged to them. And, more than that, we have the lessons they taught us, the memories they gave us, the stories they loved to tell, and the way they loved their family. The things they handed down when we we didn’t even know we were paying attention.
For that, I am forever grateful.
Happy Birthday, Pa-Pa. You loved us well.