There's great danger for the loneliest ranger of all.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

I spent Thanksgiving with my aunt, my uncle, my youngest cousin, and my grandmother in Whittier, California, where a much-younger version of me once roamed. Ever since I moved back in 2000, Whittier's had a rather surreal quality in my life, being both a part of my distant past and foreseeable future. There are patches of memories scattered about, spread like shiny winks of glass against a busy backdrop of litter and progress: I'll occasionally find myself in familiar territory, but it's not familiar enough for me to associate it with anything specific, just the breath-long blur of a passing thought. About two years ago I was riding with my uncle through a part of town where certain things--the grooves of a fence, the shape of a rooftop, the space between stoplights--at once leapt out at me, somehow fitting perfectly a jutted outline that had always seemed to be part of me, a subconscious committal to memory. "Why is it," I asked my uncle, "that I know this place?" "Because," he replied, "I think your old house is about three blocks from here."

This Thanksgiving was a somewhat bittersweet affair for us all. It was our first without my Grandpa Sundin, who could not make it this year because he did not know it was Thanksgiving, he did not know it was Thursday, and he does not know who any of us are. He's in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, a cruel, lingering disease that's slowly been eating away at everything he once held dear or took for granted. When I first moved to California four years ago, he was fine--he could still drive a car and ask me about my job and tell me he was proud. The last time I saw him he had to be introduced to me. "This is your grandson!" my grandmother told him. "Grand-SAHN?" he asked tentatively, trying to wrap his slipping grasp around the word and what it might mean. Then it seemed to register, and the tears came slow but sure. He shook my hand like we hadn't seen each other in years, and might never meet again.

This is really difficult for me. He's my last grandpa. My Grandpa Frye died of brain cancer in 1999, and it hurts that one day I will only be able to use the word "grandpa" in the past tense. There's something very magical about the word ("grandfather" just sounds too pretentious): it evokes wisdom, cantankerousness, sweetness, mentor, teacher, friend. I wrote about my Grandpa Frye for the now-extinct online mag, The Guy Code, slipping him the moniker "Grandpa Scurv" to associate him with my nom de plum, Francis L. Scurvy, but the man in those paragraphs was definitely "Bud," as he preferred to be called. He was gruff but lovable, and even now I can hear his gritty windpipe railing about the decaying school systems and corruption of politics. My favorite Grandpa story is of the time I told him I wanted to be a writer. His response was "You do like girls, don't you?" Imagine a collision of Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford (add an anchor arm tattoo), and that was my Grandpa Frye: old world, old school, and damn proud of it.

Grandpa Sundin, on the other hand, could hardly be described as curmudgeonly. He had a gentle demeanor, the softer side of Mr. Rogers without the pandering. He was a brilliant, unassuming man who could take an armful of boards and transform it into a playhouse, a backyard deck, a woodshed, an intricate folding table with cabinet, a birdfeeder, or a separate building entirely. He was a carpenter by trade, and many of the neighborhoods in the city of Whittier are his handiwork. He built the house he still lives in shortly after he married my grandma, and it's difficult for her, because every inch of every room bears his stamp. Some of the walls still bear his many accolades, many of which eventually had to be removed because as his condition worsened he'd knock them off as he passed them by.

He's led an enriched, fulfilling life, and he can't remember any of it. As strange luck would have it, however, about 12 years ago he began compiling his "memoirs," hunt-and-pecking his legacy--not as an exercise in vanity, but to give us a little piece of him and a link to our own history. The final draft, which he completed in 1995, was an impressive document, thick with photographs, maps, letters, military memos, and yellowed newspaper excerpts that followed him from birth through World War II to the present day. I met his mother and father and cat, I saw the house where he lived, I learned how he and my grandma met, I matched faces to names that had previously existed solely in family lore, and though he often dismissed his own skills as a writer, the Grandpa Sundin I know and love leaps fully-formed from the page.

I'm amazed that I've been able to write this much about him, because until I moved to California in 2000, I saw him roughly once a year when he and my grandma would come to Oregon for visits and holidays, or when we'd make the trip to California. I remember the weeks leading up to their arrival, the anticipation. Four more days, two more days, they'll be here tomorrow--how can I sleep? Even our pets sensed they were getting closer. That's another thing about my Grandpa Sundin: animals loved him. Our dog, Zuma, would hear his voice and go crazy, no matter how much time had passed since Grandpa had last patted his head. Our other dog, Meika (my mom's dog, a family Christmas gift circa 1966, so man and beast went way back), was right behind, and they'd often encircle him like a wagon train, perhaps to keep him around. Our cat, Trader, would always be around vying for his attention. They adored the man. He was practically their grandpa too.

So I have very few memories of him, growing up. A fishing trip here, a basketball game there, building this and that. But those memories are treasured ones. There was the day at Knott's Berry Farm, probably around 1987-88, when I learned he'd slipped a $20 to some guy in a booth to announce my name through a statue in an Old West prison cell. I'll never forget that: walking cooly around the makeshift town, passing the edifice, and hearing the inanimate prisoner say, "Hello, Cory. How's the weather in Albany, Oregon?" Then there was the time, when I was young enough to still be living in California, when he woke me up one morning to take me to school (usually my parents' task; this is the only instance I recollect of my grandpa doing this) and I tried to convince him there was no school that day. He actually had the sense to play along with me for a while.

Oh! I just remembered the snowy days before Christmas 1980, and the momentous summit of grandparents, where all four of them were in the same room. I don't know about your interfamily relationships, but my grandparental sets seldom crossed paths. Grandma and Grandpa Sundin lived in Whittier, Grandma and Grandpa Frye lived in Lebanon, Oregon. Although I'm sure they'd met on a number of occasions when everyone was still in California, it was still probably only a handful of meetings, and this was the first and only time I ever saw them all together. I don't recall any of the conversations, but I know it was a pleasant experience, with hugs and tears and hearty handshakes, with everyone catching up on what must've been a millennia of good and bad, because I heard them talking long through the night, longer than I thought most grandparents were allowed to stay up.

Ah, but, as much I hate to leave, back we must trudge to 2004. Grandpa Frye is gone, a unique voice silenced. Grandpa Sundin is going, a unique voice silenced. But I am with family, and I am home, and we will all get through this together. Earlier today my grandpa was taken to an assisted care facility near my uncle, a mere three corners from my grandma. It's a difficult day for her, but that woman is strong. We finally convinced her to attend a support group for Alzheimer's widows, and she seems to be doing well. "In the end, I can't complain," she told me. "He gave me 58 wonderful years."

Last night I dreamed about him. We were driving down a familiar road. He watched the passing scenery from his window, then turned to me, perplexed. "Why is it," he asked, "that I seem to know this place?" "Because," I replied, "your house is about three blocks from here."


Blogger DeAnn said...

Oh, Cory, I'm so sorry. I know how hard this all is. My last grandpa (the most important man in my life) died last Thanksgiving -- two days before, actually -- so this was the first real Thanksgiving without him (last year doesn't count; it was more of a mourning event than anything for my family).

And my grandma had dementia for years before she died. She remembered stuff, but only in the past. For instance, she thought her oldest daughter was her mom and that I was her youngest daughter. Some days were better than others, but it's so hard to see these people you love so fiercely and who, really, helped define who you are and who you will become, like that.

My grandpa's death was the hardest moment I've ever endured as a person. I still cry about losing him fairly often. But, in all honesty, I'd take his passing in health over having had to suffer or lose his mind any day of the week. (Especially since my other grandpa died of Parkinson's, which also was a horrible thing to watch happen to such a healthy and brilliant man.)

I'm not trying to trample all over your own story. It just brings up thoughts of my own.

December 1, 2004 at 9:53 PM

Blogger Pugnacious Spirit said...

Cory, dear, that was a beautiful story. Really, I'm amazed by your writing. It flows, it picks you up, wraps around you and squeezes, joy, pain, tears, always something.

Thank you.

December 2, 2004 at 12:13 PM


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