I once had someone ask me if it was possible to miss something you couldn’t remember, and I said “Absolutely.” Memory is a funny thing, mostly because of it’s fluidity. You’ll walk into the kitchen and forget why you went there in the first place, but you can recall half of the lines in The Breakfast Club. You’ll wish you could remember more about that trip to the Rockies with your friends, while wishing you could forget every little detail of pain you felt during your last break-up. Memory is a gift and a curse, a teacher, a source of discouragement and motivation. But, above all of those things, it’s a thing we cling to for comfort in hard times.
My grandfather Luther Phillips died when I was two years old. I have no real recollection of him. The only images I have are the frozen window’s of photographs and my own mental constructions based on what I hear about him. I can’t visualize his face, mostly because my mind cannot reconstruct something I haven’t seen in the flesh. I have no recollection of his voice, or his mannerisms. I only have stories and little images, snapshots and quick snippets that form an incomplete picture, like one of those abstract paintings that make you tilt your head whenever you look at it. The man is a complete mystery to me, and yet I miss him.
There’s a photograph of him walking and holding my tiny hand, and I try to imagine what it must have been like on that day. The crunch of the crisp leaves in the driveway, the colors of the sun emanating through the fiery orange in the trees, the sound of his voice as he talked to me, and I can’t put myself there. I’ve tried, even come close a few times, but I can never get the feeling to materialize.
I only remember one thing about my grandfather, and it was his hands. Somewhere deep in my brain the memory of his hands has stayed with me, even from two years old. I remember they were calloused on the fingertips and raised dimples of his palm, but soft in the center of the palm. There was a combination of textures and feelings, of hard and soft, of roughness juxtaposed with a gentle center. I imagine those hands were a perfect image of who my grandfather was, based on what I’ve heard about him. He had a quiet way about himself, a sort of understated presence that never tried to steal a spotlight. He was funny, but not loud. Dry, but not coarse. Quick to laugh, but slow to speak. He was brave and caring. He loved Looney Toons. He served in the second world war as a medic. He worked with his hands afterwords for over twenty years at a wood flooring plant. He was dedicated. He was also a pipe smoker of fine tobacco.
People have told me he was a voracious reader. He would get a book for Christmas and sometimes start on it before opening any of his other gifts, leading him getting chastised by his wife and him sheepishly putting it down, only to begin devouring again after finishing his other gifts. He’d have to be dragged away from it to come eat with the family. The Last of the Mohicans was his favorite book. Mom says he probably read it at least ten times. Maybe that’s where I get my love of reading, and possibly writing.
My mom once told me that he would often say whenever he saw me running wild through the house or in the yard: “That boy won’t do anything in his life unless he can have fun doing it.” I find it amazing that he was able to nail me down at two years old, probably because he saw a lot of himself in me
I guess this whole exercise is just an attempt to sort out all of these vague notions of who my grandfather was, at least in my mind. I know he was a good man, but I would love to have known this good man. My grandmother gave me one of his old tobacco pipes, and every once in a while I’ll pack it gently and let the cool smoke flow through it. I’d let the smoke sit for a moment, then slowly blow it out into the atmosphere, and when I felt the subtle ridges of the wood and the soft heat of the embers, I’d feel a little closer to him, because I know he’d had the same moment. I’d sit quietly and look up at the clouds or the stars and think back on how we are all formed by the people who came before us. The DNA, mannerisms, and intangible traits that made up his character were passed to me through my mother, and I am all that remains of what he was, until I have a child of my own. He may be gone, and he may be like that smoke coming out of the bowl of that pipe, wispy and full of empty space, but he’s not completely gone. He lives on in the stories, in the memories, in the pictures, and in the imaginary moments I share with him now, where he tells me about how he pursued my grandmother, or his stories from the war. I sit in a chair across from him in the living room, while he quietly cleans his glasses and with a smile, asks me, “So, what kind of fun are you getting into lately?”