I got to thinking about my great-grandpa last night. He died when I was in boarding school; two days before I came home for summer break. But I grew up not far from where he lived, so I saw him often as a kid.
Before I was born, he sold cars. Then the Depression happened, and he took his wife and several children to a cabin on a lake to live off the land. They ate venison and berries and fish. There are black-and-white pictures of my grandpa and his brothers, holding up the morning's catch with the caption "breakfast!" I won't say they lived just fine out there--my grandpa's growth was stunted from malnutrition, and he and his brother both had heart troubles later on--but they survived it.
But that's all hearsay; stuff I remember from being told. What I remember, myself, is mostly G-Gpa's house.
It was a brick house, not large, with a pretty ordinary-sized lot. But where other yards in the neighborhood sported mown lawns and hedges, G-Gpa had raspberries and grapevines. He had fruit trees and a greenhouse. He had beehives and a big clump of pine trees in the back.
G-Gpa didn't really go to the store, except for ice cream. He lived off his land, and in the winters he went down to Baja California to fish. He caught big marlins bigger than his boat, fed pelicans, spotted breaching whales. He was featured in a magazine as the crazy old man who rowed his own boat and intended to row till he was one hundred.
His kitchen was where the adults gathered. It smelled like fish, and we would be served odd things like venison liver or giant salads with salmon in them. But after the gross adult food, he would bring out cardboard cartons of ice cream out of the deep freeze. He would hack straight through the carton with a machete, peel of the cardboard, and dump a slice of it in your bowl. Then pour over the sweet, tart raspberries and hand it over.
G-Gpa was hard of hearing, especially at high pitches, so we kids mostly didn't talk to him much. We'd let him comment on our height, admire his white hair and his big, bushy eyebrows, and then make ourselves scarce while the adults shouted back and forth. We didn't want to hang around in the fish-scented kitchen.
The upstairs was oppressively quiet, with heavy, dusty air. We always felt like we weren't supposed to be there, though no one had ever told us no. But still, we weren't about to touch the heavy chimes by the unused front door, or the knick-knacks in the dining room. The living room, we did have things would could play with: polished stones that my great-grandmother had polished, in a big box. You could stick your hands under the rocks and feel the weight of all of them. Or you could pick out your favorites and trade them. On the mantle were an ostrich egg and an inlaid tray decorated with blue butterfly wings. More things from G-Gpa's travels.
I don't remember my great-grandmother, though I am told I have met her. Her name was Dorathy, and she polished stones and bowled competitively. The stairwell was full of her trophies.
Downstairs was where the house got seriously weird. There was a wall by the furnace with all the great-grandchildren's heights measured, and a box of wood blocks you could build with. And beyond that, the main room, where the ping-pong table was. There must have been about thirty big sets of antlers, with names and dates of the people who had shot the deer, and styrofoam cubes stuck on the tips so that you wouldn't gash your head on them while playing ping-pong. Apparently that had to happen a few times before the styrofoam was added.
There were glass shelves full of fish skeletons and birds' talons. A big pufferfish skeleton hung from the ceiling, forever inflated. In a chair, there was a fox pelt; you could put it on and terrorize the cousins with it. It smelled old and musty.
A folding screen separated out an area where a cousin slept; later it was a different cousin in the same spot. G-Gpa's house was a place you could live if you needed a place. On the screen were pinned birds' wings, dozens of them in different sizes and colors. It was like a natural history museum, only with ping-pong. I was awed by it, wondering how many places G-Gpa had had to go to find these things.
G-Gpa sometimes took us around the yard to show us different things he was working on. He showed me a spinach leaf for the first time, and I remember being amazed because it looked so different from the dark, shriveled stuff that came out of our freezer. Sometimes he sent us home with big boxes of food: tomatoes, corn, honey, and milk jugs of grain. For a family that was used to ramen noodles with frozen spinach, those boxes were like Christmas.
Our family reunions every Fourth of July were partly to celebrate his birthday, which fell near then. I remember him wearing his Uncle Ernest's bathing suit, an old-timey singlet in red, white, and blue, ready to start the festivities by jumping in the lake. Someone from the shore shouts, "Wait, did he take his hearing aid out?" His son, my Grampy, shouts back, "Yep, he can't hear a thing!" G-Gpa jumps into the frigid glacier water, and I jump in after. Nobody else comes in, and G-Gpa shouts affectionately, "My little swimmer!"
One of the last times I saw him, we were at a park where he did his daily swim. He already had cancer then, but he explained that he still swam five miles a day in Lake Washington, regardless of the weather. His body was like a wiry piece of leather, scraped almost clean of flesh but still strong. I felt like he would never die, not G-Gpa.
At his wake, we all laughed and talked and played games. It seemed right, because G-Gpa wasn't a somber man. And after all, he'd lived past eighty and seen his children's children's children. No tragedy, not really.
But sometimes I wish I could take my kids to the old brick house, show them the smooth pebbles and the birds' wings and the old man with the red face and the bushy white eyebrows, and I can't. And I think, maybe it was a tragedy after all. Every death takes something out of the world that can't ever be put back. I like to think his spirit was distributed among his descendants, that I got some of the gardening and the cold-water swimming and the deep desire to support myself without going to the store. And maybe we got fragments. But the greater part of his spirit, the man himself, is gone and I still miss him after all this time.