Wednesday, May 6, 2009

No one is so old that he does not think he could live another year

I have vivid memories of my grandparents’ place. A big old house, some unnamed shade of green bleached by the sun, sitting at the end of a short gravel road, the massive yard dropping down behind it, rolling hills and all. I remember running around on those vast expanses of grass, with my brother and cousins and one in a long line of dogs my grandfather had.

I only really remember one of those dogs, Manne, a golden retriever that my brother called his cow. This was never questioned nor explained, it was simply one of those things that children say and that adults take for granted.

To me it seemed that the yard and the basement was the domain of my grandfather, while my grandmother ruled the house proper. She ran a very tight ship, though this is mostly a feeling and not the result of a series of hard facts that I can point to. Most of all I remember her cooking. The soft chocolate cake, the fish dish now named “Grandma fish”, and the peas. There were always too many peas. And my brother always ate them all. For those that know my brother, this should come as no great surprise.

The basement was a land of wonder and mystery to us. This was where we watched 8 mm films that my grandfather had shot with a handheld. This was where he had built a model railroad, landscaped with trees and buildings and tiny people. This was where the big boiler that kept the house warm lived, a massive monstrosity that smelled of grease and burning wood.

Watching films down there was like traveling in time. We would all walk down the stairs and then stare in awe as the pictures flickered to life. The color was off, everything was tinted red and the people captured there bore only a slight resemblance to my father and his brothers and sisters, as they gallivanted around on the shore of some lake, sunned themselves on the cliffs and boogie-boarded behind a boat. That’s all I remember from those films, though I’m sure we watched others as well.

The model railroad was a rare attraction, something we only got to see on a few occasions, and always displayed to us with a note of pride in my grandfather’s voice. It was a complex construction, twists and turns around a large room, and activated by an old-fashioned switching box, which brought the whole thing to life. That box seemed truly magical to me. Looking back, I think I might have expanded the size of the railroad construction in my imagination, and made it into something it was not, a fairytale land where tiny people came alive at the flick of a switch and trains always ran on time.

The boiler also took on aspects of the fantastic, of magic and the unexplained. My grandfather purchased a valve or controller or some other kind of thingamajig, a tiny little box that would somehow enhance the performance of the boiler, and told us that a small Japanese was working down there. In my mind this meant that a small man was actually working inside the boiler, throwing switches and splicing cables and shoveling wood chips. It wasn’t until years later that I understood what he had actually meant.

There was one other place in the house that truly belonged to my grandfather. His chair, in the corner of the living room right in front of the TV. He would sit there, stuff his pipe with tobacco and smoke. Always that smoke.

My grandmother passed away in 1984. It was sudden, and by all accounts very peaceful. By then they had moved out of the house and to an apartment. I have fragmented memories of the night the call came, and remember nothing of going to a funeral. Perhaps my brother and I were deemed to young to attend.

It’s been over twenty years and my grandfather is still around, just a few years shy of a hundred. There’s a theory that men rarely last long after their wives have passed away. Whoever coined that theory hasn’t met my grandfather. The river of life has simply parted around his blocky frame, and only started eroding him in recent years. And he still smokes.

In many ways the smell of pipe smoke is more a part of my memories than any visual input from that house. It permeated everything, and followed my grandfather wherever he went, like an extension of his body and soul. Movies, model trains, the dogs, the yard, everything is secondary to that smell. It has come to represent a feeling of contentment and happiness, the essence of family and summers, and the youthful innocence that is only a memory now.

This text was written a few years back for my creative writing class. I unearthed it from the depths of my hard drive today, like hidden treasure, and polished it a bit. I'm posting it today, since my grandfather Olof, now 98 years old, is in the hospital, and is in a bad way. He's lost 20 pounds in two weeks, and is deteriorating. Knowing him, he's probably furious at the thought.

He is the last of that generation left in my family, on either side. I love him dearly, and writing this now, I feel like crying. I hope he goes in peace.


ege said...

I hope he goes in peace, too.


Steelwheels said...

Om det är hans tur hoppas jag att det går snabbt. Det är det bästa man kan hoppas på.

beardonaut said...

Thanks, and tack.