My grandfather, whom my brother and I called Papa, passed away back in 2002, and I was one of the people who got up and spoke at his funeral. I told a couple stories and cracked a couple jokes. It was about what you’d expect. Nothing terribly heartfelt. It seemed to go over well enough with the audience, which as always was what I was shooting for. My Uncle Rick thanked me for providing some needed comic relief, especially since he and most of my cousins had all busted out crying at the podium mid-speech, despite the fact that they too had delivered material that was predominantly amusing. Even at his own funeral, Papa wasn’t the kind of guy who inspired a serious speech.
Despite the generally positive reaction, every now and then, usually while lying in bed not being able to get to sleep, like tonight, I’ll rewrite the speech in my head, and take myself back to the summer of 2002, to the podium at First Baptist Church in Bangor, and try to come up with something that actually did the guy justice. Nothing overly profound or climactic. Just stand up there and let that church full of people (and it was PACKED, there had to have been a couple hundred people in there) know how much I liked the guy, and loved the guy, and would miss him.
Talking about people I actually care about is a horrendous ordeal. It makes me feel embarrassed and disgusting. Conjuring up a genuine sentiment about a relative or friend is about as appealing to me as the idea of seeing that same relative or friend stripped and beaten in the street, screaming fruitlessly for help. I can get started on a better speech for Papa, but it never amounts to anything I’m satisfied by. All I can do is remember stuff and describe it.
I have a lot to thank Papa for, not the least of which being my very existence, in a roundabout way. Wanting desperately to get Bart, his shiftless son who spent most of his time smoking cigarettes and repeatedly washing his hands, out of his house, Papa decided to set him up with one of the receptionists at the Armour Factory (the company responsible for Treet, a generic Spam knockoff you’ve probably made fun of at your local supermarket), the depressing building where Papa worked pretty much his entire life. Papa asked the pretty and personable young woman if she liked bowling, one of Bart’s few interests. She replied that she had nothing in particular against it. Papa went home that night and told Bart that there was an attractive bowling fanatic named Anne at the Armour Factory who wanted to go out with him. A bona-fide date was set (probably by Papa), and Bart surprised everyone by sweeping Anne off her feet with his not-too-shabby bowling skills and self-effacing wit, and within a few short months he had proposed to her, by that time having apparently gotten over the fact that she didn’t know a 7-10 split from a 7-11 convenience store. So through an intricate web of subpar potted meat production and bowling-based deception, yours truly came into being, and it’s all thanks to the late great Edwin Wesley Stover.
I always envied the way my grandfather behaved around people. It was always the same. Whether the person he was talking to was a stranger or someone he’d known all his life, those people were both talking to the same Ed Stover. What you saw was always always, unfailingly,what you got. Being that I was related to the man, I fancied in the past that I possessed a little of that quality myself. But I don’t think I do. By and large, I am a different person around everyone I know. I figure out what makes you laugh (which is one of the few things I’ll readily admit to being decent at: instantaneous sense-of-humor recognition) and I do and say those things whenever you’re around, with varying degrees of success. And that’s what I do, almost exclusively. If I can’t get you to laugh every now and then, I’m not going to be particularly comfortable around you, and we probably won’t end up being very good friends. Papa didn’t care, though. He said the same stuff to everybody, they liked it or they didn’t, and that was that. Maybe it was an attitude he’d been honing his whole life, and had pretty well nailed by the time I entered the picture. Whether that’s actually the case or not I’ll never know, but it’s a comforting thought. Something to shoot for. In the back of my mind, though, I know it came naturally to him.
Papa’s first wife, Betty (Granny to us), was a round woman who was boisterous in everything she did. She laughed loud and cried loud, yelled loud when you made her mad, screamed loud when surprised. She was loud. My grandfather was gangly and on the frail side, and somewhat resembled popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher. They were a funny-looking couple. I guess grandparents are just innately funny, in the long run. It’s difficult not to remember them fondly, because (for me anyway, but I suspect it’s the same for most) you tend to associate them with the holidays. Happy times. That’s when they turn up, toddling down the driveway toward you with endearingly goofy smiles and arms outstretched. They’re pretty good about getting you something relatively big and expensive off your Christmas list (even if they do have a hard time finding it at the mall), they know your date of birth better than you do, they let you stay up late and spoil your dinner, and they always seem extremely, almost unaccountably, happy to see you. They want to know how school is, what you’re learning, if you like it or not, and your vague and disaffected answers appear to both fascinate and delight them. It’s nice, but it’s also a little annoying and creepy. These are old people, after all. It’s a bewildering relationship, the oldest members of the family cautiously making themselves known to the most recent additions. People on their way out pausing briefly to wish the new people the best of luck. How could they ever even begin to make sense to each other?
When I was around 8, which would have made my brother 4, my mom came into the living room and told us that Granny was dead. We were probably playing with action figures. It’s all we ever did back then. I had known that Granny was sick, and had been warned in advance of this possibility, so this news didn’t come as much of a shock. Mum went on to say that it was worse than just that, though. I asked if her head had fallen off. Not to be funny or gross or anything. It was simply the only circumstance I could think of that was worse than “just dying”. I get the feeling that Mum wasn’t too psyched to have to fill us in on the details, but she knew we weren’t complete dummies and that we’d eventually glean from overheard conversations that Granny had intentionally taken well above the recommended dosage of whatever medication they had her hopped up on, and killed herself. Papa returned from Shop N Save to find his wife of 47 years floating lifelessly in the bathtub.
Think of that. This is the love of your life, the person who knows you better than anyone else, the person who liked you so much that they agreed to spend every single remaining second of their life with you, you of all people, and you come in the house, and you call out to them, you tell them the store was all out of the cereal they wanted, so you had to get the generic kind, you hope that’s all right. They don’t say anything back. You say their name again. Nothing. Maybe they’re asleep. You go upstairs, saying their name again on the way up. Still nothing. You check the bedroom. Nope. Would they have gone outside? Or to visit someone? They didn’t mention any plans, but you’re not always the best listener. Maybe they left a note on the table. You’ll have to go downstairs and check. While you’re up here, though, you might as well go to the bathroom…
To this day I don’t what Granny had been diagnosed with, whether it was mental or physical or what. I’ve never thought to ask anybody, and really, what could it possibly matter now? From what I understand, though, it was the medication itself that was taking her mind, or at least that’s what my family seems to think, and I have no reason to doubt them. Granny loved her family, and if necessary would have successfully engaged in hand-to-hand combat with battalions of army tanks for us without giving it a second thought. And though he annoyed her daily with the ridiculous things he said and did, she loved her husband. Wherever she went after she died (if that’s how it works), Granny arrived there confused and pissed off. It hadn’t been her idea to do that. Something bad got hold of her brain, it did what it did, and in the end there probably wasn’t much anybody could have done to prevent it.
My dad was out picking something up at the store or something when my mother got the call, and when he pulled into the driveway Justin and I each grabbed a couple toys and went to our respective rooms. I don’t remember if Mum told us to do this or not, but I know that I didn’t actually see my dad crying. I just heard it. Actually, first he yelled SHIT! and then there was some high-pitched sobbing. He sounded just like any kid I’d ever heard crying, and for me at the time this was the probably the worst part of the entire experience. Unless you hate them and you’ve just caved their heads in with a bat after years of abuse and neglect, a parent crying is about as bad as it gets, soundwise. As I recall it’s the only time I’ve ever heard Dad cry, thank God.
For a few months following Granny’s death, we moved in with Papa at his house on Essex Street in Bangor. I’m not sure whose idea this was, but it actually made the situation worse, and we only ended up staying there a month or so. It was especially hard on Justin, because he was just starting kindergarten, and to have to do that in a big city school must have been pretty daunting, especially coming from a town with less than 80 people in it. I believe he actually missed the first day of school because he ran off and hid behind the barn when the bus showed up, screaming and crying and hurling his new backpack into the field. Bangor is no one’s idea of a metropolis, but we’d grown up in the middle of the woods, quite literally, and for us any locale sizable enough to boast a grocery store, let alone a mall, was big time. I myself had to start fourth grade at Fruit Street School, and I have no idea how I successfully got myself from class to class. I had never seen that many kids in one building. I’d been previously attending a Christian school that had a grand total of about 30 kids, so Fruit Street was giving me panic attacks on a daily basis. On my first day of fourth grade a little black kid sat next to me on the bus, and I was petrified. I’d never seen one in real life. Thankfully the kid looked almost exactly like Webster, which made communicating with him easier, and we became fast bus seat pals. I seem to recall we had similar green raincoats, so that might have given us something to talk about. My teacher, Mrs. Ingalls, was very understanding about my situation, and I remember one day in class she gave me a little handwritten note of encouragement that had an “I’m Proud” sticker on it, a kind gesture that I made sure to conceal instantly from potential onlookers. She had terrible breath but seemed like a good teacher, certainly better than anyone at the Christian school, which I learned later in life was operated entirely on a volunteer basis. My large and newly multi-cultural homeroom was certainly intimidating, but seeing as how I was the only one in my class with one of those awesome orange four-color pens, I had little trouble making friends.
At first I’m sure Papa was glad to have the company, but in the end an entire family invading his limited living space probably did little to alleviate his stress. Though we were all trying to be good sports, and the change of scenery was intriguing at first, the sudden upheaval was too much for Justin and I to bear without complaints and freakouts, and Papa absolutely despised our dog, Lucy, who had a skin disease of some sort and rarely came when called. It wasn’t meant to be, and though all four of us had been guilty at one time or another of whining about the lack of anything whatsoever to do in Maxfield, we were all desperate to return. Home’s home.
Not long after we moved into the Bangor house, however, I have a standout memory of milling around in Papa’s living room by myself. Everyone else was outside or upstairs. There was an unfamiliar fat little notebook on the endtable by the couch, and (even as a child being the type of person to rifle through other people’s belongings) I picked it up and leafed through it. The words “Dear Betty” were not what I expected to see. One time in the mail we had gotten a flyer from some foundation trying to stop people from clubbing baby seals, and I opened it up, expecting a few cute Ranger Rick type pictures and instead getting an eyeful of gory baby seal heads that kept me up nights for about a week straight. “Dear Betty” kind of felt like that, that hot and mean little stomach squeeze you get when you see some unexpectedly graphic footage on the news, or when a severely deformed person brushes past you in a department store. I pretty quickly recognized the book as Papa’s diary, written in the form of letters to Granny. He was writing his way through everything. Question marks were, unsurprisingly, the prevalent form of punctuation. There were apologies in there for things he’d done and said to make her mad, situations and information I knew nothing about, then or now. But mostly he just told her what he’d done that day. He’d mowed the lawn or he’d picked some blackberries or he’d talked to Uncle Rick about this or that. The boring day-to-day stuff she was missing out on. He was keeping her up-to-date, and I’m sure she read every word of it, if that’s how it works.
I read more than I should have and then set it back down before someone could come in and catch me snooping. Though I couldn’t have told you why at the time, I felt like I should not have done that, should not have seen those words. Throughout the duration of our stay, that little book remained on the endtable, and I didn’t look at it again. I’ve never talked to anyone about it, but I imagine someone other than me must have taken a look at it out of curiosity (respecting the privacy of others is historically not a trait Stovers can lay claim to), or maybe even actually discussed it with Papa. But I’ve never heard it mentioned. Part of me wishes I would have brought this up when I was talking at his funeral. I don’t know why. It’s not the greatest anecdote in the world. At any rate it probably would have been better than the story I did tell, which was about how when I was three or four I ate some of Papa’s Ben-Gay one time, mistaking it for an interesting new brand of toothpaste, then descended the stairs and nonchalantly announced to everyone: “Well, I just ate some Ben-Gay”. Not having prepared the speech beforehand, it was the first thing that came to mind, and I ran with it as best I could. I believe I also told a story about how this one time that Papa laughed really hard because I somehow managed to pour Tab on my Count Chocula. Real poignant stuff.
As I see it, that little book, which I should not have looked at but am glad I did, revealed to me doddering old Papa, with his suspenders, socks pulled up to his knees, and puffy trucker hat barely resting atop his head, as an actual person, a human being. He thought about people and worried about things. He liked certain TV shows better than others, and occasionally out of nowhere a disturbing moment from his childhood would come to mind for no good reason. Certain smells would remind him of the most unexpected things. There was probably something he’d wanted to accomplish as a young man that for one reason or another had never panned out. People he’d had important conversations with had died. And years and years ago he’d been going through his daily motions in an oblivious haze, wondering what he could possibly say to make that Betty Smart girl give him the time of day. Would she go with him to see a show, or take a ride in his jalopy, or accompany him to the soda fountain, or sock hop or whatever dippy crap people did back then? And would she marry him, and would his job make him enough money to afford the house, and would their first kid come out okay, and what should he talk to the kid about, and should they have another one, and can they afford to feed two kids, and would they all get along, and should he get a new car or just get this one fixed, should they get the kids a dog, are they doing okay in school, should he help them with homework or let them figure it out on their own, not that he knows how to do the homework any better than they do, but still, isn’t that what a father does, and should they have another kid, and am I doing this right, and did I do the right thing, and am I even really here?
It’s a fortunate person that can get close to their grandparents. I can’t say that I ever really did. I saw them on holidays and at infrequent outdoor barbecues, and as I got older my excitement to see Papa and tell him all about the rides we’d gone on at the Bangor State Fair gradually became awkward hugs at Thanksgiving and increasingly incoherent phone calls around Christmastime. I was always happy to see him, but there was never a whole lot to say. Small talk has never been my forte, and when that type of communication became the norm, I said less and less. If he were alive now, I still probably wouldn’t be able to think of much to talk about with him. Thinking back, though, whenever we’d go visit Granny and Papa, they never seemed to gab a whole lot. Maybe it was a different story when they didn’t have company, but if memory serves, they were doing a lot of sitting around, watching TV or reading. But later on, Granny hadn’t been dead a month, and Papa had almost filled up a good-sized notebook. So I don’t think it’s ever that you don’t have anything to say.
It’s got to be weird for a person when their kid has a kid. It’s a pretty monumental occasion for all concerned. There’s a minimum of five lives invested in this situation, five very different people stuck with each other and all of them beginning something new and terrifying and amazing, and when you get down to it, none of them really have any idea what they’re doing. Ten eyeballs, all equally wide. I never gave it much thought before, but Papa and Granny were both probably really happy when I was born, and probably pretty weirded-out as well, at the very thought of Bart reproducing. Naturally I assume that all conversations stop once I leave the room, and everybody just kind of watches TV and hangs out until I come back to talk to them again, but who knows? Maybe that night I was born, lying in bed Papa and Granny talked about me, and wondered aloud about Bart’s suitability for the considerable task of not accidentally killing a child. Could be they just sat around and talked about how funny “Mary Tyler Moore” was that particular night. I just like to imagine them hanging out with each other, enjoying each other’s company, being whoever they were once all the kids left, and it was back to just the two of them, in that house, surrounded by everything there was to say and remember.
The last conversation I clearly remember having with Papa was at my cousin Shawn’s wedding. He was with his second wife Jody at the time, and he had recently fallen down in the garden and hurt his foot (something he did rather often), so he was hobbling around on crutches. I went up to him and gave him a hug and told him he looked like he’d seen better days. “I know,” he said. “Jody’s been beating me”. Funny guy, that Papa.
Ben-Gay tastes like pennies, if you were wondering.