Our synapses start firing as we form and recollect anecdotes or events that have impacted us throughout our lives. We lose and regrow important brain connections that may lead to a forgotten smile or worse. There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief when we listen to a recounting of such stories, especially when the elocutionist is a charming storyteller, past his centennial year. I hate to admit that part, questioning how clear or fuzzy a memory appears. Most of the time, it isn’t difficult to believe the stories, but, rather, the age of the storyteller.
They unfold in snippets at the dinner table. My three-year-old son asks for watermelon—nay-nay is what he called it at 18 months. Great Grandpa Bob recounts that as a teenager he stole watermelons from a farmer’s plot and got met with a shotgun. They could grab a watermelon and cool them off in the horse troughs. Wandering into a field longing for a taste of something cool stretched out in front of him. Watermelon and a shotgun: two images that now seem unavoidable together. Will I forget?
Great Grandpa Bob slept through the first night of shelling. He slept that soundly, and still, it seems, does. At the time, it was known as The War, later we’d call it World War II. If you look for it, you can find an interview with him in the Library of Congress. You might even learn how he got paired up with a murderer — someone who’d been in prison for killing another person, not in war. This person kept my grandfather safe and helped him to stay alive. They had an understanding.
Someone in the village outside of Dachau, Germany gave him a camera with film in it. He used it to document the conditions of the concentration camp where he helped get the remaining people to safety. The black and white photos were a surreal tableau of bodies like mannequins, piled one on top of the other — arms and legs at unnatural angles — in heaps. Evidence of so much lost but recorded in a way that left no room for denial. I’m one of the few people who have seen these photos and it feels like a fading memory, a tucked-away piece of historical proof.
Great Grandpa Bob doesn’t drink enough water at the age of 101. When I ask whether or not he would like a glass, he shakes his head. We sit together, all five of us, family members from four generations. Most of us are known to him as grandkids or great-grandkids. A while later, I ask again if he would like a glass of water, this time he answers, “No, it’ll rust the pipes.” It takes me a moment to understand what pipes he is talking about and I smile, laugh. I crawl inside that answer, a glimpse into what is still rumbling around inside his head; wit and humor at a situation that is less than ideal. Hearing loss, vision loss, muscle loss, but still shuffling toward observing the world and people in it. Not wholly an abysmal existence when watching the grandkids play mini golf or air hockey in a too-loud room of music and joyous shouting.
I missed his 100th birthday when he still lived in Ohio. Now he lives with his seventy-four-year-old daughter in Arizona, my mom. This year I was there with my husband and son for his 101st birthday. We drew in primary-colored chalk — balloons, a sun, and streamers.
We talk about Aunt Kit and Grandma Betty in past tense. How Grandma taught preschool, lost her sense of smell, and loved the color red. How Aunt Kit loved owls, sent postcards signed “peace,” and gave me a book I now read to my son (Dear Zoo). They’ve been gone for years now. A wife and daughter departed before him. And he’s trying to keep his pipes from rusting.
More anecdotes and stories wash through my brain, so much lost, past recollection. Wishing I could hold on to the important bits, the stuff I think might come in handy or give me some insight into a family history of the pieces that make me who I am. I remember certain striking images the words evoke or the way the storyteller performs them.
There’s one about his dog, Popeye, when a traveling circus asked if they could pay him for the beagle who was too smart for his own good. A black and white photo accompanied this story. Popeye, mostly white with a black circle around his right eye, sat upright on a stool with his paws up, performing some trick. He could play dead, twirl around, and many others that I can’t remember. The details are hazy. My brain’s synapses are no longer firing quite right for this memory to emerge into sharp focus.
In Ohio, we’d sit on the porch of the green house and drink root beer floats, talk. In a small town, people walk by and stop to talk. A wave isn’t sufficient. I recall the easy feeling of being there and the sweet taste of the vanilla ice cream on my tongue. Something like a memory feeling, not a specific time or incident.
Breaker, breaker, come in, breaker. My grandfather taught us how to call truckers on the road from his CB radio on our way from Ohio to Michigan in his silver Oldsmobile. Citizen Brand radio — an anti-language or argot— secret only to those who knew what mama bear or pizza and murder meant. His call name, Gunner. I don’t remember what we’d ask the truckers, but many answered. Most conversations were short and ended with over and out (and sometimes the addition of good buddy). Maybe it was the novelty of being able to talk to someone while we were driving, but I suspect that was only half of the equation. The lingo excited me. It felt special and unusual. We got a kick out of motioning with our hands to the truckers to pull their loud horns, too. Decades later, the functioning radio isn’t in the Olds anymore. That car, long gone and the other relic put into basement storage to rest.
The electrical and chemical signals in his brain fire up neural pathways to the days when he worked in a bowling alley, setting up pins before that part was automated. He’d been talking with someone who’d been watching him (he told us the name, but I don’t remember it). The man made a crack about the futility of setting up pins only to have them knocked down again. Apparently, back then in Ohio, people carried around shotguns. This story ended with that same man shooting at the pins and narrowly missing my grandpa. Both of them were shocked to find his gun was loaded. Well, he was kicked out, of course. A grin followed by a hearty chuckle ended the story. Grandpa Bob joined a bowling league years later and may have been one of the star players.
All of this is to say, I’m one of the people holding on to him, the last family member of his generation. I’m holding tight when I want to let go. I want to say we’ll be alright if he must go, but I’m not convinced I’ll remember enough or the right things. I’m worried I missed something, didn’t get what he meant when he said he didn’t talk about the war with the other veterans he ate dinner with at the Legion. Or the time he sold large blocks of ice when the army stationed him in Oregon. Or how he wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force, but it wasn’t in the cards. I didn’t listen when I was twelve and too busy savoring my grandmother’s strawberry jam on toast, playing Mouse Trap, or chasing lightning bugs. Or about how he couldn’t learn—though he tried—to swim. He sank time and time again until everyone gave up. The anecdotes I remember are the impressions I’ll keep.
A greedy irrational need forces me to acknowledge all of these years of accumulated stories, and yet, I don’t feel like I’ve learned enough from him. I want more. Tell me about the generations of us. I am aware of how much I’m asking from the oldest person I know and when that realization sparks the electrical and chemical synapses to form a new pathway, I hold my breath for an extra second. Until the letting go flows out of me and presence fills the space.
And so, I inquire whether Great Grandpa Bob would like a glass of water to rust his pipes. With a grin, he shakes his head no. Water — is not what he needs.
Christi R. Suzanne is a writer, crochet addict, and sleeping dog enthusiast. She is currently working on a novel with speculative elements that focuses on unconventional familial relationships and how to repair them. Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Midwestern Gothic, the online journals Variant Literature, and Foliate Oak, and elsewhere. She was nominated for Best Small Fictions in 2023. She is a member of The Order of the Good Death founded by Caitlin Doughty. More work can be found at www.christi-r-suzanne.com
Behind The Clouds
Clarissa Cervantes is an outdoor travel photographer. Clarissa also supplies freelance travel articles on a variety of travel destinations for newspaper, blogs, websites and magazines such as USA Today and LA Times. Clarissa’s photo gallery includes photographs from all over the world, where she finds inspiration to share her images with others through her creative lens, inviting the viewer to question, look closer, explore more, and follow the sunlight.