You tell me, “Dad, I barely remember Great Grandma Sally. The older I get, the harder it is to picture the things I did with her. I know we baked cookies a couple of times, and ate dinner at her house with her, and went to restaurants, too.”
I tell you, I know, Ellen – you were only a few years old when she died. That’s nothing to be ashamed of – it’s just the way brains work.
But your frown is intense and profound. Excuses are excuses, and they don’t help you remember Great Grandma Sally. But that’s no problem, cause I remember her just fine, let’s just fire up the old Virtual Tom Memory Helmet, and you can help yourself to my memories – that’s what they’re for.
Here, put this on – it’ll be just like you’re me. I’ll set it for Great Grandma Sally, Circa 1975. You’re going to be a little boy for a minute here, Ellen, so try not to get freaked out. It’s just a helmet, and I can set it to avoid any time where you might have to go to the bathroom – that’d be awkward.
You’re in the back seat of Mom’s blue Buick – you know it’s a Buick, because there was a big, long conversation about it, right up there in the front seat, between Mom and your Aunt Nancy. A Buick is a car to be proud of, and blue is your mom’s favorite color.
Aunt Nancy’s not here right now. It’s early and you’re getting dropped off at Grandma’s house, so Mom can go to work. What does work mean – where is it, what does she do? You don’t know.
But let’s put the cards right out there on the table – you don’t care, either, because Grandma’s house is one of the top five greatest places on Earth.
You can’t really see out the windows from back there ,being four years old, but you know when you’ve turned on to Acton Road, and you take off your seat belt a few houses away, getting your hand right by the handle so you can erupt from the car the second it stops.
The question “What time is it?” – that’s not in your vocabulary. There is no reason to care what time it is. But you know that it’s early morning and that there’s a whole day ahead of you, and that Grandma loves having you over just about as much as you like showing up.
No baggage for this trip – it’s just until Mom’s finished Working, and there’s nothing that you can imagine wanting that isn’t already at Grandma’s house, or that isn’t within Grandma’s power to obtain. You walk inside with Mom and there they are, Grandma and Grandpa, sitting there at the kitchen table.
Grandpa’s got a white tee shirt on, and he’s smoking a cigarette, and his hair is a crew cut, raincloud gray. He’s tall with arms wrapped in lean muscle, and his skin is like a desert in the spring. Grandma’s hair is short and white as a new sidewalk, and she’s a smaller woman, hunched over the table a bit, wearing thick glasses to read a newspaper in front of her. When you walk in they stop just short of cheering.
“There he is!”
“Hey! It’s Tommy!”
A little Pekingese dog named Tyke is always glad to see you, too, and you drop to the floor to play with him for a little while. A conversation like the one about Buicks happens above you, way up in the stratosphere where adult heads are, and it ends right about when you get up from petting the dog.
And then you get a couple of hugs, and Grandpa wants you to show him your muscle, and Grandma asks Mom if she wants some coffee, but for some reason, she never does. She says, “I’m running late!”
And then she’s gone.
But Grandma gets up and starts puttering around the kitchen while you climb up on the chair beside Grandpa, and he asks you a bunch of questions and you only know what he’s talking about half the time. The smoke from his cigarette makes your eyes water, but it’s a different world. You can go to the doctor’s office and get smoked at, back here in the seventies.
Grandpa’s questions are funny – some of them are really modified knock-knock jokes, and you keep asking who’s there even if you’ve already heard them, because you don’t want to hurt his feelings. Sometimes you do something that hurts one of their feelings, and it makes you feel awful yourself.
Then there’s cinnamon toast sitting in front of you, and Grandma wants to know if you want some cereal, and you do – Froot Loops, without the milk.
The two of them slam down some coffee while you eat a sugary feast, and then it’s time to head in to the living room, where Grandpa settles into his armchair, and Grandma settles into hers. Grandpa likes to watch the television, and so does Grandma, too, but she has to be doing something while she watches it. Either word searches – she has a stack of books of word searches on the floor by her chair – or crochet.
You might not know or care what time it is, but you know how the television works. During the morning, there are game shows on the television. You and your grandpa like The Price Is Right, because the games are exciting, and simple enough for you to understand, and because you and grandpa both like the pretty girls, who point at stuff.
You don’t ever sit on Grandpa’s lap, but sometimes if you’re tired, Grandma lets you sit on hers, and help her with her word searches. You’re pretty good at them, and the two of you are capable of sitting there working on them for hours.
But usually, you get on the floor, and you play around with Tyke, and with the very limited assortment of generic toys available, in a small box behind the chairs. There are a few matchbox cars, some plastic dinosaurs, and a magnet with a dozen or so things to attract with it – bobby pins, safety pins, and pennies, even though the pennies won’t stick. It’s a big deal, that you’re a big enough boy now, to know not to eat the bobby pins.
Tyke is the kind of dog who likes to take a dog biscuit, and then go try to bury it somewhere, even though there’s no dirt. He’ll put it up against the wall, and then push his nose over it a few dozen times, as if he’s simply crazy, and believes there’s dirt right there in front of him. Later, if you go over to the invisibly buried dog biscuit, he’ll follow you, looking alarmed, cocking his head, and if you pick up the biscuit that he thought was buried, you’ll blow his little mind.
The matchbox cars won’t roll very far on the carpet. You like to lie on the floor between the couch and the wooden coffee table, driving the cars on the smooth surface, parking them beside buildings that are really telephone books, and sometimes jumping them off ramps, on to the couch.
Watch out, when you’re doing that. Sometimes the car clatters around and makes too much noise, and Grandpa sort of growls at you to cut it out, so he can hear the pretty girls, on the Price is Right.
Most of the pretty girls work for Bob Barker, but sometimes the contestants are pretty girls, and when they are, Bob Barker gets to kiss them.
Lying there on the floor on mornings like that, you begin to develop the conviction that the most likely way to make it in this world, to really succeed as an adult and make a lot of money, is to go on The Price Is Right. Usually at the end of the show, someone gets A NEW CAR! And they go flat nuts.
After the Price Is Right comes Family Feud, and you’re awesome at that game. If your family ever went on there, your mom would be driving a Buick made of solid gold. Fred Dawson is the guy who hosts that show, and he gets to kiss the pretty girls, too, even if their husbands are sitting right there.
And then when the game shows are over, the News hits the television like a truckload of powerfully boring rocks. When the news starts, that’s when you get up off the floor, and start talking about lunch.
Grandma’s got you covered – don’t even worry about it. You want a bologna sandwich, with white bread and no condiments of any kind? How about a peeled apple, cut up in slices, and a glass of milk? That’s about the only thing you’ll eat for lunch, so it’s no surprise she keeps the place pretty stocked up with it. What you really like is the slice of bologna with the Oscar Meyer emblem pressed into it, from being at the front of the package – it’s all yours if it’s still there.
One thing about Grandma – she wants what you want. Just the other day, you were watching television with her and you saw that Honey Combs Cereal was giving away a prize in every box, some kind of metal thing that you hook up to your pencil, and it was supposed to give you the power to draw anything you want. You told Grandma that you wanted it, and that you didn’t want any Honey Combs, either.
Twenty minutes later, the two of you were at the store, picking it up, and that box of cereal then sat in her cupboard for who knows how long, after you dug the magic drawing toy out of it. Grandpa gave her a little crap about that, but grandma deflected it like it was nothing. Kind of an exchange of grandparent growling took place, like two dogs and one bone, and then grandpa backed off. You gave him the puppy dog eyes – advantage,Grandma.
And then you found out, the metal thing didn’t work, anyway. That made you start crying, when you realized you didn’t have magical drawing powers. Why is the television allowed to lie to us, Grandma?
Grandma said, well, I don’t know, why don’t you run on out back, and I’ll make some cupcakes while you play on the swings?
Grandma talks with a heavy southern drawl. “I” sounds like the “a” in apple, every time she says it. But cupcakes, for crying out loud – you and Grandma are right on the same page when it comes to cupcakes. Even when it’s not her idea, but yours, she reacts like that’s exactly what she was thinking just then, and then she gets right up.
We’ll have to go out in the back yard and wait for the cupcakes later, Ellen, because the Virtual Tom Memory Helmet is only designed for a thousand words or so, and we nearly doubled that just now – I don’t want it to overheat.
But here’s the point – death is something that everyone’s got a theory about. Everyone will tell you about the wonderful Santa Claus world we go to, where your Grandma waits for you right now. You can’t swing a dead cat over your head in this world, without smacking someone upside the head who’s got a different view of death.
For my part, I’ve always been content without the answer. The answers people always give me tend to sound too good to be true, and above all, I don’t like to get suckered.
I like to think of immortality as the way we live behind in memories, and my memories are your memories sweetheart, so stick ‘em in your head, because that way Great Grandma Sally doesn’t have to be gone at all.