**ATTENTION** This post is tearjerker and not for the faint of heart, but I think it’s worth it. Grab your tissues and enjoy.
As I get older, I find myself thinking about my grandparents more frequently. I lost all of them before my freshman year of college. I have one grandparent who I never even met. However, I do have fond memories of the grandparents I knew.
Recently, I’ve found myself missing my Popeye (my Mom’s father) the most. I’ve submerged myself into this community that he loved so much, and it makes me feel closer to him – but it also makes me miss him. I’m always wondering if he’s looking down on me, or what he thinks about all I’ve done. I speak to people that remember him and it brings me joy to hear how much they loved him. I love the stories of his compassion and commitment to his family. He loved my Grammie and he would do anything to make her the happiest woman alive.
On what would have been my Popeye’s 94th birthday, I ran into an old family friend (I think we might be related through marriage, but I’m not sure). I instantly started a conversation, reintroducing myself as Norman Kaake’s granddaughter. She lit up and said, Erika? We spent 20 minutes talking about how kind he had always been, and we both teared up as she shared how much she missed him and my grandmother.
She make a joke, and I couldn’t help but throw my head back and laugh. In that moment, she paused and said, “My God, you look so much like Norman – and that laugh. Oh, I am so glad I saw you today. I needed this.” I watched as she walked away and as soon as I got back to my car I burst into tears. I realized it was his birthday, and in that moment I felt so close to my Popeye.
They might be gone now, but I still write Grammie and Popeye letters regularly and visit them in their final resting place at Forest Grove. The ground surrounding them is filled with decomposing notes and candid ‘conversations’ that we’ve had through these letters over the years. Camden and I love the quietness and the comfort of being there – not mention it’s got one of the best views of Augusta in town.
As kids, I remember going there with them to water the flowers. My sister and I had our own special bucket pails and the greatest intentions, but let’s be honest, we mostly spent the time playing hiding seek or making up stories about the lives of the people that were buried there. In our minds they were former kings, queens, doctors, and people from the olden times with lives that were far more adventurous and exciting than anything we could imagine. We would guess how they died or what they looked like – it sounds morbid, but to us, it was normal. It was the same thing our Mom and her siblings had done as kids. It was a family tradition, since it’s where our family is buried.
On one particular day, we got bored with the usual routine so we decided to explore the car. We rolled up the windows (yes, there was a time before everything was automatic) to see how long we could stay in the car before we got too hot and passed out (boredom + children = bad). We started going through the glove compartment and found a pretty cool looking spray thing. Julia had a pine cone and we thought: This would be something cool to spray. Well, pepper spray on a hot day in an enclosed space is never a good idea.
Our poor Grammie was so upset and raced us home. With both of us screaming and rubbing our eyes, Popeye came running into the kitchen and held back laughter as he helped rinse them out saying, “This is why we don’t play with things that don’t belong to us. For God’s sake, stop rubbing it in. Hands down! Open those eyes, flush it out!” The whole time Grammie is telling him to be nice and stop laughing and asking how are they going to explain this to our parents. I remember Popeye saying, “Some life lessons are learned harder than others. They won’t play with pepper spray again.” For some reason, I don’t think that made Grammie feel any better.
We shared so many great times and I always remember being so drawn to him. He had an energy that made you feel loved and warm.
My last memories with Popeye were the week of my 11th birthday. I remember it so vividly because it was the week of the Columbine school shooting. It was on the television every time we went to sit down and watch anything, and on every newspaper during our trip. I also recall the conversations between my Mom and her parents. They would express their concerns about our own schools and how the world was changing. They’d say that we were living in a time where kids had so much access to violence online that it was only a matter of time before things got worse. I would say that almost 18 years later, we’re having the same conversations… but that’s a post for another time.
I remember we celebrated my birthday. The cake was vanilla, with white frosting and those really awesome rainbow dot sprinkles. There was a balloon tied to a chair. And it rained. It rained a torrential downpour like only Florida can do. I remember Julia and I swimming in the flooded streets and laughing until we were forced to come inside.
Julia and I were obsessed with alligators, and Popeye insisted that there were no alligators in the lake where they lived (I think he said it mostly so we wouldn’t be scared). He would say, “Well, I’ll be a blue elephant if you ever see a gator out there.” He lied, because on our next fishing trip we saw gators and he did not turn into a blue elephant. On that same trip, I also accidentally hooked his special edition hat (it had a matching mug and everything) with my fishing reel and he was so mad. I remember him casting over and over again trying to get it back, but eventually we watched as it sank beneath the surface never to be seen again. It was a very long and quiet walk home. Popeye took of the rest of the night for adult time.
I was an avid journal keeper, and on April 20, 1999 I wrote, “I saw what I’m getting for my birthday. Mom said she’s sorry for having no surprises, but the greatest gift is being with my grandparents.” ** Please note that I was also amazed that the plane we took on the ride home had a TV in it! The little things that we take for granted nowadays.
My Popeye passed away unexpectedly on May 16, 1999. I had no idea at the time that it would be the last time I’d see him. I had no idea that my Mom spent most of the trip talking about leaving my Dad. I had no idea that my Dad didn’t come because of the struggles he and my Mom were going through. I didn’t know that Popeye had spoken to my Mom about taking care of my Grammie if his health declined, or that they had discussed the planning of his funeral.
What I did know was that it was a great week with my grandparents. I know I wrote in my journal about missing my Dad and trying to not get upset because I didn’t want to make my grandparents sad. I know that I wrote about going to their favorite beach in Clearwater and the sunburns that made me look like a cooked lobster. I know that I cherish that last hug from Popeye on the day we left. I know that I will never forget him standing next my grandmother and waving goodbye as we drove away in our taxi to the airport. I know that the greatest way to keep him alive is to remember him every day, and to be grateful for each moment of laughter and comfort we shared.
I feel so blessed to have been given the time I had with him and selfishly I just wish I had more. I wish he could have met Bill – the man of my Mom’s dreams because I know he would have loved him and they would have laughed together for hours. I wish that he could have been there when I graduated 8th grade, high school, and college. I wish that he could have offered me advice when I felt lost as I started my life in the ‘real’ world. I wish he was here for me to pick his brain on community service and giving. I wish that we were able to celebrate more birthdays together, and I wish that he could be there on the day I say, I do.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to know when the last time with those we love is going to be. We only get the right now – this single moment as it’s happening. Life is short, but if we do it right, it’s long enough. Put down your phone. Be present. Surround yourself with those you love and that love you back. Actively listen to the stories they share with you. Keep a journal, because I guarantee you won’t remember everything. I mean, I totally forgot how much I loved NSYNC until I re-read my journal from the early 2000’s tonight.
Our legacy is what continues long after we’re gone. Be brave, be humble, be kind, and make sure yours is a great one.