Everyone called him Joe. His engineering co-workers at Exxon, my grandmother, and my mom. No one ever told me not to call him Grandpa or Granddaddy. I knew to call him Joe.
I have strung together my memories of my maternal grandfather, using each fragmented, hazy scene to construct a three-dimensional Joe. As a young girl, his height so impressed me that I told my kindergarten teacher he was the tallest man alive. Every time we visited my grandparents in Baton Rouge, I couldn’t wait to ask Joe the same question: “Can you touch the ceiling?” When he reached up and touched the paneling over our heads, I delighted that this marvel was my Joe.
The built-in bookshelves at my grandparents’ house were packed with pulpy paperbacks Joe was always reading. I understood that there was something vaguely “adult” in those pages when I saw the cover pictures of old-fashioned women wearing layers of skirts and riding black horses with bare-chested men.
While he read, he also drank bottled Coca-Cola that he poured in a glass. He told us it was “pine cone” juice so we wouldn’t ask for some for ourselves. I endlessly wondered which part of the pine cone held the syrupy drops that Joe liked to sip.
When I plumb my memory, a scene plays where he watched me roller skate up and down the driveway, long after the sun set behind the magnolia trees. Everyone else was in the living room watching The Facts of Life. I don’t remember him saying much to me that night as he stood watch over me as stern as the old farmer in American Gothic. I knew he appreciated my obsessive drive to learn how to skate the turns– foot over foot in one smooth motion.
His taciturn nature scared me, the young girl who grew up trying to read people’s minds. What was he thinking that day in the New Orleans airport when he found me and my brother looking at Playboy? He did not speak– he simply came up behind us and closed the magazine. I watched him walk slowly back to his seat where he was waiting for my mother’s flight. Plumes of shame threatened to consume me. I wanted to scream, “It wasn’t my idea! I didn’t know! Please say something, Joe.”
I once found him on the couch with one of his books. I was supposed to be napping. He clearly preferred his book to my company, but I insisted on engaging. I lifted his pant leg and pulled his leg hairs. He asked me to stop, but I didn’t. How else could I play with this giant, quiet man? When I pulled his leg hair again, he slapped me. Cowering on the far end of the couch, cradling my stinging cheek, I waited for him to speak. “I asked you to stop, and you didn’t. That’s why I slapped you.”
It was the most he had ever said to me.
Years later, Alzheimer’s scrambled what few words he had left. I didn’t care anymore whether he could touch the ceiling. As he grew ever more addled, I mourned the lost opportunities to ask the question that loomed over us. If I thought he could understand, I would have asked, “How come you didn’t want me to call you Granddaddy?”
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