Thursday, July 7, 2011

Five Days in The Grand Canyon State

I've spent the past five days in Arizona.

I was born in Tucson, and most of my family have either never left Arizona or have left and found their way back. My mother; my brother and his family; my grandparents all live in the state of 100-plus degree temperatures, stone yards and this dust storm we happened to find ourselves driving through for half-an-hour on the interstate Tuesday night. While I can admire the beauty of the desert landscape, the colors of an Arizona sunset daubing the distant mountains, or the Mexican restaurant we discovered driving through that dust storm, I don’t think Brenda and I could live there. We’re more acclimated to the weather, foliage and politics of the Pacific Northwest. We fit in in terms of culture, entertainment and public transit in Portland, and the Arizona heat/dryness/barometric pressure/Native American mysticism/killer bees didn’t agree with Brenda’s rheumatoid arthritis.

We flew to Arizona with little planning. My 91-year-old grandfather’s health has been declining in recent years, and was hospitalized last week. An injury he suffered serving in Europe during World War II left him missing half of a lung, and when pneumonia creeps into the picture, it gets a little scary. He received a pacemaker not too long ago, but he’s still suffering from heart disease, and when he started retaining water and the phrase “six months to live” came across in a text message from my mother, we knew we had to fly from the Pacific Northwest to the Southwest. I worked through the end of my shift on Friday, and by the time I got home, Brenda has already booked a flight. We left early Saturday morning (after an all-night-no-sleep stint of packing and making arrangements for our four cats) and returned early Thursday morning. As I write this, the plan is for us both to return to work that same Thursday morning.

We stayed at my mother’s house while in Arizona. Our days typically consisted of us fighting through the melting heat to get up out of a sweaty bed as early as possible, eating a quick breakfast/brunch, driving to my grandparents’ apartment (they moved into an assisted living facility not too long ago after having lived in the same house for the past forty-plus years), visiting with my grandmother, driving her to see my grandfather, spending time at the hospital or rehab facility (he was moved to rehab on Sunday), having a meal with family, taking my grandmother home, spending time with my mother for a few hours and then slinking into bed. Occasionally there were trips to my grandparents’ old house to help my mother in organizing, boxing up, arranging, making final decisions on, etc., etc., etc., everything that’s built up at that house over the years.

I’ve long had pack-rat tendencies. I thought it came from my mother, but after spending time in my grandparents’ old house, I’m realizing that my mother wasn’t the first pack rat in the family. My grandfather did a lot of things after coming home from the war, and one of them was making plastic key chains, bolo ties, paperweights, etc. for mail order. Growing up, we always had a handful of these around the house, and it seems like we always were given a new one every time we visited my grandparents. I might have been told this before, but I learned that this was a business my grandfather ran with his father (a man I never knew, but I’ve heard him referred to as Gramps by my mother and Pops by my grandfather). Eventually, this business ended, and we discovered a cabinet at my grandparents’ house in which all the supplies, leftover inventory, old business cards and return envelopes were left. It was as if when that part of their life came to an end, they simply closed that cabinet and went on with their life. (I took the leftover business cards and envelopes.)

We found thick layers of dust on old appliances still in their boxes, old tools long neglected and other artifacts from my grandparents’ life, and by extension, my mother’s life. They weren’t Arizona natives, but when they moved there, my mother grew up in that house, and my grandparents saved a lot of her old toys, old homework, yearbooks, letters and cards. My mom left a lot of her college life behind when she married my father, and the remnants of her college career lay in that house as well, but not under nearly as much dust.

When I was growing up, we’d either fly or drive to Arizona to visit my grandparents regularly. To entertain us, they’d break out my mother’s old toys and board games, and I remember putting in several hours of play time with some of those board games. I also remember seeing the yearbooks and pictures, but they never really sank in as something important to me. They were of a time before I was born. (I remember looking at the wedding album, but when my parents divorced, my brain started shutting off a lot of any memory involving my father.) I heard stories about my mother growing up, but nothing really stuck as, for lack of a better term, important.

This time, though, they mattered. As a family, we’re staring at the mortality of my grandfather, and something about seeing these old photos and hearing these old stories felt more important. We found a picture of my mom during her senior year of high school with a group of other students. I asked her about the picture, and she said it was her school’s yearbook staff.

I knew my mom worked on her high school yearbook, but again, I didn’t know more than that. She looked like a teenager in this picture, smiling, joking with her fellow students, being something other than my mother in that moment. I wanted to know more, so I asked more questions and learned that my mother wanted to go to school to be a fashion designer after high school, but it was ultimately deemed too risky of a career.

Growing up, my mother made a lot of our clothes. Not surprisingly, I have very strong memories about her making my Halloween costumes, but she made a lot of other clothes for me and my brother as well. Many childhood afternoons involved waiting in the fabric store looking through the pattern books while Mom shopped. Back then, I just assumed that’s what mothers did.

Since fashion design was out, my mother looked at going to a journalism school in Missouri. This was deemed too costly and too far away, so this was also out, but not completely. In our family photo albums (before the divorce), my mother was always writing captions beneath the pictures. Again, I thought this was just something people did. I didn’t realize it was a holdover from the yearbook class and journalism aspirations.

I’m looking at my mother in a different light now. She’s not just a mother; she’s a, again, for lack of a better term, a real person. She mentioned that she’s considered writing something now, and now I know I can trace some of my creative writing interests back to my mother.

I don’t know how much I can trace back further than that, but after going through a number of old photographs, I’m definitely interested in trying to find out. We hauled a medium-sized moving box’s worth of photos from my grandparents’ old house, and they’re amazing, and even that word doesn’t do what we found justice. Not only did we find pictures from my grandparents’ lifetime, but photo albums (some with captions written beneath the pictures) from my grand-grandmother’s lifetime.

I’d seen some of these as a kid, but they didn’t mean anything to me then. Now, Brenda and I are mesmerized by some of these photos. Through most of my childhood, I only knew Gramps as my Granny’s deceased husband. I only remember seeing one photo of him – it was a picture of him with my Granny. These pictures we found, though, go back to a time before my grandfather was born, and I find myself wishing I met this man. The pictures show what Brenda and I keep referring to as “a character.” My grandmother said he was “ornery.” When asked, everyone talked about his booming laugh that would “fill a room.” Almost every picture, save the one I remember seeing as kid, show him chewing on a cigar, and he almost always looked like he was posing for the camera. (We also found my great-grandparents’ Certificate of Marriage. It’s practically a piece of art.)

We also discovered another relative we wish we had known. Lola, who I believe would have been my great aunt (I could be wrong), had such a twinkle in her eye in every picture we found of her that Bren and I want to know if she has any descendants of her own that might have inherited the spunk she obviously had in these pictures. My mother called Lola a “spitfire,” and my grandparents both said similar things about her.

Another discovery we made at my grandparents’ house were a number of old books from the 40s, 50s and early 60s. As a kid, I didn’t pay much attention to them. I barely paid attention to the old encyclopedia sets stored on the bookshelf in the front room of their house. (When we were talking about them, my mother said she was very popular during finals week at college – she ended up going to school at Arizona State University – because everyone wanted to use her encyclopedias.) During this visit, I paid special attention to the fiction books and found that my grandmother had written her name in most of them, along with her address. She used her maiden name, so they predated my grandparents’ marriage, and, yes (with the blessing of my grandmother who, it turns out, was part of a book club back then), they are now somewhere in the mail system making their way to our home.

In those books, we found one that didn’t have my grandmother’s name in it; instead it was the name of someone who would have been my great uncle. He died from complications of diabetes at the age of sixteen, and when we presented my grandmother with this book at her apartment, she said she didn’t remember even having this book of his. She said she didn’t think she had anything that belonged to him, and while we were happy to give her this, as well as the two photos of him that we found at the house, we were struck by the sadness in her eyes as she told us the tale of how he was stricken with diabetes and the stash of candy wrappers found under his bed after his passing.

This sadness has stuck with me. There are photographs and memories here that are fading. My grandmother came from a big family; she’s the only survivor now. My grandfather was an only child (as was my mother, and we found out that was due to medical issues, not by choice). These photographs and the artifacts we’re finding at their house are all that’s left of some of these people.

We spent our last day in Arizona going over some of these old pictures with my grandparents, and I wish I had brought my recorder with me to record what my grandfather had to say about these photographs. Brenda jotted down as many notes as she could while he looked over the pictures. When prompted, his facilities are still there, but his memory is fading. Whether it’s dementia, a result of the heavy medications he’s taking, the lack of sleep he’s experiencing (on top of everything else, one of the doctors says he has a “different” kind of sleep apnea), or some combination thereof, he gets confused easily. He’s called my grandmother/his wife, “Mom,” more than once, and he insists he was taken out to the desert and left there by the hospital staff more than once. The night some remodeling was taking place at the hospital became a night of lids partying outside his hospital room. It’s difficult to watch this happen, and it’s especially frustrating to know there’s nothing we can do about it.

He has two doctor’s appointments later this week with different specialists (one heart and one sleep), and we’re hoping something can be done for the sleep problems he’s been having as this might slow the memory issues. He’s supposed to be going through physical therapy to get some strength back in his legs so that he can use his walker to get around. Right now, he’s fairly immobile, and he won’t be able to take care of himself back at their apartment. He misses his La-Z-Boy chair quite a bit, but until he can either learn to use that walker or further in-home care arrangements can be made, I don’t think he’ll be leaving rehab.

My grandfather has always been a strong, proud man. He’s done a lot for his family, and I don’t think I really recognized that over the years. Of my two grandparents, I always felt closer to my grandmother, and I think that was because she was the one who would come to visit us. My grandfather didn’t like to travel and be away from his own mother while she was still alive, and my mom mentioned during this recent stay that he didn’t like my father much, so that might have had something to do with him not being around as much.

But I didn’t love my Grampa any less. He’s an amazing man, and spending time in their house, playing some sort of amateur genealogical archaeologist revealed more about the man than I had ever known. None of those overshadows, of course, the fact that for years, whether I acknowledged it or not, he was the patriarch of our family. He took care of us. After my parents’ divorce, he took care of my mother in a way that only a father can. When my first car finally broke down, he bought the second one (and bought my mother a new car at the same time). If we needed something, he made it happen.

I have a lot of memories of my grandfather when I was growing up. The one that comes to mind right now is that whenever we’d come to visit, he’d take us to feed the ducks. He would save popcorn until we showed up, I’d snack on it a little bit while we were there, and then we’d load into the car or van and head over to the park and the duck ponds.

It’s hard to think about him in that bed at the rehab center. I honestly don’t know if I’m going to get to see him again. I hope I will. Brenda and I have already started talking about flying down to Arizona again soon and making arrangements ahead of time to make it happen. Even though everyone else knows otherwise, we told him we were planning on flying down to see everyone anyway and it just happened to be while he was in the hospital (“What lousy timing you have, Grampa!”). We need to make more solid plans to get down there again in the near future.

It’s painful to see him in such declining health, and his interactions with his wife are heart wrenching. Whenever we took her to see him, even though she’s in a walker and can’t stand up straight herself, she made a beeline for his bed, leaned over and gave him a kiss. Every time we left, she did the same thing. They’ve been married for over sixty years, and she knows on some level that she’s losing her husband. It’s terribly sad, and it hurts our hearts to see her so frustrated when my grandfather forgets that he’s talking to his wife and starts calling her, “Mom.” I honestly don’t know how much more time he has. No one said, “six months to live,” while we were there, and as I finish this blog entry from here in Oregon, he’s being transported to a doctor’s appointment right now. I’ll call down there after work to see how things went, and I’ll try to be in better touch with everyone in Arizona moving forward (I’d fallen off a bit over the past couple of months as I let other things take over my schedule/life/waking hours/should-be-sleeping-hours, and I’m cursing myself for that now). I want to be as strong as I know my grandfather would be for the family, but the distance makes it difficult, and honestly, I don’t know who can really fill his shoes.


Tracey said...

Family photos are a precious thing, as are the stories that go with them. Powerful stuff.

Derek M. Koch said...

Some of these photographs are amazing, and I wish I could go back in time and shake the young Derek who sat sometimes bored and listened to some of these stories as a kid. I fear that too many of these stories will be lost, and I hope I'm able to help keep some of these lives alive for my niece and anyone else interested in learning more.