my favorite memories
| “Only the winter hawk remained.”
When you’re holding on by the tiniest of threads sometimes you learn just how sharp words can be. For the past few days I had been automatic like I wasn’t in control and when my grandmother uttered those words in her frail whisper that had been aged for 84 years, pointing to the tree where I spent many summers up in its’ branches or on the tire swing that had hung there for as long as I could remember, the marionette version of me collapsed. As I knelt on that front porch in the cold thirty-degree temperature of a West Virginia winter, trying to find the strength to stand and failing, the memories and the tears overtook me.
Like too many others, my father left when I was young. Perhaps that was a bad thing but those circumstances could not have left me with a better role model than my grandfather, a role that he accepted without any hesitation or complaint. He was a patient, compassionate, and content man which, at the risk of sounding hubristic, I like to think he instilled in me. To all eight grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren he was known as “Popaw”. To everyone that ever had the privilege of conversing with him, he was known as “friend” and with that label came an awkward, yet endearing hug and the insistence of a shared meal.
It seems funny to me how the memory of someone so important in your life can be reduced down to the most unimportant details but those are my earliest memories of my grandfather: how he used to tickle my feet, his poorly and somehow comical imitations of cartoon characters like Popeye or Woody Woodpecker, him sitting in his recliner reading the Sunday morning comics, his love of yard sales and how he always had to buy something because he had an irrational sense of guilt if he didn’t. Then there were the annual family trips to the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee. Every summer we piled into his yellow Volkswagen van, affectionately known as the “hippie van” and made this trip, a trip that was always filled with laughter and song and a genuine enjoyment of family.
As I grew older life happened; college, marriage, kids. I moved away for the promise of a better job/better life but I thought of my grandfather often especially around Christmas time. I always thought of the breakfast feast that my grandparents prepared as part of our family tradition. I thought of my grandfather sitting in front of the Christmas tree and mountain of presents, reading glasses in hand, struggling to read the names on the gift tags (a combination of bad eyesight and even worse handwriting). I was filled with memories of Christmas carols and Christmas movies.
I always looked forward to our weekly Sunday afternoon conversations and every chance I got I would make the trip to visit. We would sit around and watch the Cincinnati Reds and if the Reds weren’t playing then any baseball would do. I didn’t particularly enjoy baseball but I enjoyed the enthusiasm which my grandfather always had for the sport. If baseball wasn’t on then I had the pleasure of watching old western movies and listening to my grandmother complain about the violence. Of course, the only thing my grandmother found worth watching was game shows. My grandfather would pull out the VHS tapes (always preferred to that new-fangled DVD stuff). He had quite the collection of John Wayne films but there was one western we seemed to watch more than the others, “Winterhawk”.
I finally gathered my composure and stood up as the weight of emotions began to lift from me. I took my grandmother’s hand. I was doing my best to console her, knowing that she could no longer stay in the house where she had lived the majority of her life. When you spend 71 years with someone, it’s hard to find a reason to go on when they are gone. I had gathered a box of those old westerns I was fond of to take with me and before we left I dug one out and left it there for my grandfather. I turned back to my grandmother and gently said…
“Only the winter hawk remained”.