We generally become aware of our grandparents when they’ve turned a whitish-grey. Well, not all. My grandpa had a head that was as shiny as a billiard ball kept warm by one of those old-school velvet hats. It was grandma whose hair had turned white and if she snuggled you up close, her chin stubble would scratch a little.
When young, we sat atop their laps to carefully study the wrinkles, pits, and scars. Our unfiltered curiosity would poke the age spots and tug at their gnarly ears. We’d ponder ever so briefly what might have caused the disfiguration and decay. Then off we scamper to find something else to torture.
When young, our olfactory senses are at their peak. We remember their smells- the coffee breath and grandma’s perfume- stale but not offensive. Not yet, anyway. Sometimes we grew tired of all the hugs they wanted us to give them and the same questions they asked us over and over. “School is still good and I still hate girls, grandpa.”
It didn’t take much encouragement to get me into the back of his big blue Chrysler with a white vinyl top. Grandpa’s 60’s era boat of a car with a twenty-foot-long bench seat and not a safety belt in sight. I think it was the snow-covered roads that taunted him to load me up and go slippin and slidin. If he had a reason, it wasn’t a good one. At least that is what grandma told him. A wave without a smile meant she was concerned. A lone daredevil launching himself into the white abyss is one thing, but he had precious cargo in the back.
It was blowing and snowing hard, but all was going well. Gramps navigated the town streets expertly, and soon we were floating across a country road. I saw it first. Something ahead appeared to be blocking the road. A snow drift the height of a fence stood like a distant rogue wave. Menacing powdery snow was being swept across the top making it look impenetrable. Standing on the back seat, I leaned over so I could study Grandpa’s face for any sign of concern. How else would I know if we were in trouble? Would he turn this cruise ship around or was that rogue wave going to sink us?
For a brief moment, I thought we might be, but then grandpa’s lips curved slightly up. He pinched his lips and squinted his eyes- determined almost. Years later, I would recognize that look. It’s the look one has when about to push off downhill on a ski slope, or when a kid is about to launch himself and his bicycle over the thirty-foot ramp he just built over a thicket of wild blackberries.
Well, maybe the ramp was not thirty feet- kids can die falling that far. Maybe it was two feet. At some point in every boy’s life will be an attempt to escape the surly bonds of earth. To soar free and, for a brief moment, experience a sense of dreamy weightlessness. Unfortunately, that brief moment of ‘air’ usually results in a collision with the bicycle bar. Tearfully holding what hurts, we’d go find our mother to tell her that it ‘hurts real bad.’ Gently, she’d suggest we do things that are less dangerous. “You want to be able to have your own children someday, dear,” she’d explain. “What?”
At first, I thought he’d slow way down and approach the snowdrift slowly, size it up, and then gently go over. But then I felt the car accelerate. Startled, I took another look at grandpa- his smile had widened. As he gunned his big blue boat, the rear let loose just a bit and then caught again. We were on a collision course with a big white barrier going maybe 300 miles an hour. Maybe it was less.
I do remember leaning way forward. I wanted a front-row seat to this collision. I wanted to see the snow fly over us. I wanted a little ‘air.’ I’d thrown enough snowballs to know that a snowdrift wasn’t going to bring us to a brutal stop.
But I also want to watch grandpa. I wanted to see his face as he careened through the snowbank. Would he explode in full-throttle laughter when completely engulfed in snow? Would his chin jut out even further in stony daredevil resolve? If we became airborne, would he throw up his hands and scream ‘weeeee’ as if on a Disney ride?
All I remember was the first flurry of snow flying across the windshield followed by a big bump. Then I remember looking up from the floor on the front seat next to grandpa. I had leaned so far forward that the jolt from hitting the snowbank catapulted me forward over the front seat onto the floorboards. I had gotten some ‘air.’ Sadly, ironically, I don’t remember the weightlessness. There was no slow-motion replay of me hurtling through space like an astronaut It happened all too fast.
Grandpa was still driving and when he saw me clamor back to the seat unhurt. His determined grin turned into warm laughter. He grabbed my shoulder and held me next to him as we continued down the road. We were two daredevils having just survived a collision with a snowbank. We had gotten some ‘air!” And when I asked if we could do it again, he held me tighter and laughed even more. Evidently, the thrill he was looking for had been fulfilled. We found more snowbanks but he rode over them slowly like he was teaching me how to do it.
Like bicycle bars and snowbanks, we’re always colliding into our memories. We randomly recall various moments that hold special meaning to us. Moments that touched us, defined us, enriched us, and have us wanting more.
Grandparents tend to slip the surly bonds of this earth when we are just old enough to shoulder the weight of their casket. We have reached the age where curiosity occasionally supersedes our fixation on self. We want to know more about others and especially the one we just buried. Perhaps part of the sorrow we’re experiencing standing alone amidst family, friends, and the heavy oak box is the sorrow of no more snowbanks with grandpa.
“Hey kids, what do you say we go for a ride?”