“How much do you weigh?” Granddaddy asks.
It’s fall, 1985. We sit at the breakfast table — a perfect circle of glass covered by a flowery tablecloth made of plastic. Between us, on this perfect circle, is a plate of biscuits stacked in a pyramid, a plate of bacon stacked in a greasy, messy pile and homemade strawberry jam with real strawberries in it. You can see the strawberry seeds through the glass that contains it. Granddaddy shakes out salt and pepper on the fried eggs that are already on his plate.
“According to your scale, I weighed 172 this morning,” I say.
“Eat up, then,” he says and pushes the tower of biscuits in my direction. I butter a biscuit with real butter and spoon the goopy strawberry jam on them before dropping two pieces of bacon on top that form an X. I eat the biscuit and make myself another, just like the first. Granddaddy sops up egg yolk with the last of his biscuit. With his plate clean, he looks up, satisfied, as if he’s accomplished exactly what he’d set out to do when he got out of bed this morning.
“How much do you weigh?” he asks me.
“I weigh 195 pounds,” I say.
“You weigh no such thing.”
“I still weigh 172, Granddaddy.”
“Hmmm,” he says.
After breakfast, the biscuits having cemented us to our chairs, we watch a hummingbird outside the window, its tiny wings beating a blue-green blur. And then, as quickly as it appeared, it’s gone.
Granddaddy pushes back from the table, the chair squeaking against the linoleum floor. He stands over me. Blocking out the overhead light, he is a shadow.
“How much do you weigh?” he asks me with a natural curiosity as if asking me for the very first time.
No to Hope
It’s an October Saturday afternoon in Mississippi. I’ve been raking dry leaves and gathering them in a dusty pile. Three years ago, all of this was underwater from the Jackson Flood of 1982. People floated down the state capital’s streets in canoes and rowboats. Granddaddy stood his ground. We called and told him to evacuate, to come on up I-55 and stay with us in Oxford.
“I ain’t going anywhere,” he’d told us. And he didn’t.
When I was done raking, I stopped. Granddaddy had been watching from the patio where he sat spitting Redman into a plastic cup. He hefted himself out of a green lawn chair and surveyed my work. Or what I called work. I was, after all, a city boy from a college town. Granddaddy had been an agent with the department of agriculture before retiring.
“You call that done?”
I started to nod my head in the affirmative.
“That ain’t done.” He took the rake from my hands and combed it through the Zoysia grass. With every stroke, he picked up clumps of dead leaves that had been invisible to me.
“Like this,” he says. “OK?”
“OK,” I say and pat at the grass crumbs like I’m petting an animal at the Jackson Zoo.
“Hmmm,” he says.
Eventually, with neither of us happy with the progress that’s not being made, we go inside and watch football until the Annual Bob Hope College Football Special comes on.
Granddaddy looks at me sitting in the recliner chair and his face lights up.
“Well, why didn’t you tell me you were coming over?”
“You should have told me. I don’t think we have anything to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You got to eat, you’re skinny as a rail.”
“We’ll eat in a bit. OK?”
He doesn’t seem to listen to me, and opens the refrigerator door and gets out cold fried chicken.
“We’ve got this chicken,” he says, “but I don’t know if it’s still good.”
We eat the chicken and it’s fine, it’s better than fine, it’s wonderful, it’s finger-lickin’ good, my apologies to Colonel Sanders. As it grows dark outside, I watch the light of the television flicker against Granddaddy’s face. Bob Hope makes a joke as he announces each football player. The players seem to laugh whether they get the joke or not. Granddaddy doesn’t move a muscle. In profile, he reminds me of a cigar store Indian. During a commercial break he says to the room, as much as to me, “I never did care for Bob Hope.”
Grip of Death Match
Though arthritis would eventually bow one of his legs at a 45-degree angle, my brothers and I never could take Granddaddy in a handshake. Between visits, we would go into training, lifting weights, working our hands through bags of rice, preparing ourselves for the next Grip of Death Match as we had billed it and built it up in our minds.
At 85 years old, Granddaddy wasn’t getting old; he was old. We knew it was our time. We had spent all summer training. “That ole dawg is going down,” my oldest brother said on the drive over.
When we got to his house, Granddaddy needed help getting out of his green lawn chair. My brother winked at us before slapping his palm to Granddaddy’s.
It wasn’t a fair fight.
“Anytime you’re ready,” Granddaddy said.
My brother was already giving it everything he had. His face was twisted and red.
“Anytime,” Granddaddy said. “Anytime.”
“I give. I give. I give.”
Granddaddy let go and my brother walked away shaking his hand like he was fighting off bees. My other brother and I were defeated before we even put our palms to the old man’s.
Are we there yet?
Late in 1985, my Mom would take a leave of absence from her job at the university to care for Granddaddy. He would live another eight years and his memory would grow worse. I would see him every few months and there was a little less of him with every visit. We would eventually have to steal his car for his own protection as the disease stole other pieces of him.
My older brother saw him in one of those later years. The man he couldn’t beat in a handshake, reduced to a scarecrow in pajamas that no longer fit and a mind in all its folds and creases no longer able to recall my brother’s name.
Watching Granddaddy in that defeated state I was reminded of a line from Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick,
“No. Oh no. No. No. No.” My brother would say, tearing out of that dim room in much the same way he had after the last Grip of Death match. He couldn’t stand to see the strongest man he’d ever known this way. None of us could. He left us, left his physical body, in a room among strangers, because everyone, at the end, was a stranger to him. But I won’t leave my memory of him there. None of us should. Any one of us who has had a loved one struck by this cruel disease and seen them have that part of them that makes them them should grab for one of those times when they were whole or at least closer to it.
For me, it’s Granddaddy’s last road trip. All of his trips, before and after his mind began to wander, were labyrinthine adventures, filled with anachronisms, laughter and tall tales.
A dove hunter and bass fisherman of great repute, he’d honed his storytelling skills through countless hours of waiting in blinds and on still waters for his prey to give its tell. In those swamps and backwoods of Mississippi, he’d created the mythology of Jake The Coon, a furry bandit who, miraculously, took on the personality traits of anyone who listened to Granddaddy’s tales.
On this last adventure together, I wanted him to tell me one last Jake The Coon story, but Granddaddy could be as irascible and hardheaded as the raccoon he spoke about.
His hunt, that day, took him in another direction. His mind locked in on a destination.
As I drove Granddaddy to Florida with my Mom and best friend in tow, he refused to utter more than four words from the backseat: “Are we there yet?”
We hadn’t yet crossed the county line when Granddaddy asked for the first time of what, over the next eight hours, would seem like a thousand times.
Are we there yet?
I looked in the rearview mirror. Granddaddy sat back there just as solemn and sincere as he could be; there was no irony in the statement; thrumming his cane impatiently, he genuinely wanted to know.
“No, sir,” I said. “We’re not there yet.”
“Are we there yet” became Granddaddy’s mantra over the next eight hours (including pit stops). At that moment in his life, Granddaddy might not have known the Buddha from Bob Hope, but during that trip he was as one-minded as a devout meditation practitioner.
Are we there yet?
Sometimes it was my best friend, nudging me in the ribs, who said it. Once, I think my Mom even asked. Twenty-eight years later, “Are we there yet?” has become part of the family mythology and what I remember most, and best, about that vacation.
It is, after all, the journey, not the destination, that really matters, and all we can do is hold on to the best of those moments as we experience them and as we float along through life until those moments cease to exist…
As I got up this morning to write these final words, I stepped on a scale before sitting down at the desk. Granddaddy, if you’re still wondering, I weighed 172.
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