I don’t remember which year my grandpa Lee Guy Johnson died, but it was close to 30 years ago—long ago enough that dates didn’t matter; not long enough that I don’t remember. I loved playing backgammon with him and cooking Hillshire Farm Polish sausages with him on the BBQ while my grandma and the “ladies” were inside making cakes from boxes and pea and peanut salad with “the tasty zip of Miracle Whip!”. We all come from somewhere specific; a certain place and moment in time…
My grandpa was one of 8 children. He was tall, as were all his siblings; as am I. At one point, he owned a farm implement business (re: he sold tractor equipment) in Montana and was respected in his field on a national level. Lee was especially loved for the way he treated his employees. This was the Important Story I knew, but because he was my only living grandpa in our small nuclear family, I also knew him in a less Important, quieter way.
When I think of my grandpa, I think of a backgammon board and the color blue. Backgammon because we played it together and I think he let me (sometimes) win. Blue for Ford tractors, whose rival color, green, was frowned upon as competition (John who?).
Both of these things I have seen here in Georgia, a place I think—although I don’t know and can’t ask—my grandpa would be surprised I’d come to…so far away and so unknown from the wheat fields and winds of Montana.
Backgammon, or ნარდი (nardi) in Georgian, is one of the first words we learned in our language class (and for the 80s and 90s nerds, you know I giggled my way through that lesson). It’s more popular than chess here. Men play it on the sidewalks like they would cards somewhere else. Sitting down and interacting is still a value here.
Both of these things—images—bring my grandpa back to life for a moment, taking me down a blissful rabbit-hole of my childhood and sausage smells and sun on the dining room table and my grandpa’s head of white hair which stuck up straight always; memories of his wide-striped sweater I sometimes wore in college; memories of the mystery of being young and not understanding how it must have felt for my mom to lose her dad.
The thing is…it’s not about “holding your loved ones close” or “tell them you love them” as many times as you can … (if they know, they know); it’s not even “about one more minute” or “I wish I had told her” … (if she knows, she knows)…
It’s about remembering the present so you can recall it in the future. Savoring the light which hits your favorite tree and preserving it in your cells; inhaling deeply enough to smell and taste the coals in the Barbecue.
It’s about preserving the time you have rather than clinging to that which is not guaranteed.
Although I only ever had bit parts in actual movies and TV shows (I was the first pixel from the right in I Am Legend, and a stellar member of the jury in Law and Order), in my “real” life I’ve starred in quite a few dramas.
I see myself sobbing; sitting next to my mom after my husband had died, although he was still breathing—artificially. Intubation; an “induced coma” they said, to give him a chance to come back from his inevitable fate (mine, too; yours, too). It didn’t work, of course.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye. We didn’t have enough time…” I gasped to my mom who, I know, wished she could have taken his place even if she hadn’t told me so.
“You could never have said goodbye”, she said.
“There would never have been enough time”…
Moms are always right when it counts.
You will need it in the future, this past. The blue tractor, the new word for backgammon, the way your husband made hot dogs with pieces of wheat bread and too much ketchup, the exact shape of your mom’s fourth finger on her right hand, the pitch of the beeps in the hospital with which you harmonized in the wee hours, the boxes of blueberry muffin mix with the tin can, a pink flower waving to you from the sidewalk crack—these memories will save you from the depths and sustain you through the most beautiful moments and your most terrible losses.
You will need this past. Go ahead against the advice of your meditation guru: play them on repeat.
The blue tractor is your future.