Dear Gramps, You Short Angry Bastard by Tom Griffen

Editor Acacia Blackwell, Editor's Choice, February 18th, 2019

"You slipped into a childhood brogue and cried your little green eyes out like a baby."

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Personal Essay by Tom Griffen

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            Been a while since I thought of you, old man. Proud of all your scars. Of your shoeless childhood and all those bread scraps tossed at you by that old German baker. Proud of your St. Louis heritage and how your unlikely ass linked up with the likes of my grandma. My gram. “She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” you said. Until you no longer recognized her. Which is when she became another face in the crowd. You slipped into a childhood brogue and cried your little green eyes out like a baby. Gram didn’t mind, or didn’t seem to anyway. You were a fraction of the man she married. “He had a good life,” she said before you died. And she was right, you had had a good life. Even if you never saw it that way.

I knew the you you evolved into. Which was a less assholeish version of the you my mom knew. She loved you because she had to. I loved you because, to me, you were lovable. But make no mistake, I spent a lot of time covering for you, too. Because memories never stop bleeding. And gramps, the stuff you did before I knew you hurt a lot of people. Like, a lot.

Family lore is truth, right? Which means you were a verbally abusive narcissist. A misogynist. An alcoholic. A wino. Came home from the service after the war all rigid and heavy-handed. In uniform you found a place amongst similar rule-following men. You lived to obey, and be obeyed. You knew if you bucked the system it was back to the farm with you. Back to the sticks and your stoic family. Everyone a wall. A family who, decades later, came knocking because gram’s family had left her some money and, by god, they needed some of it. Asked you to make it happen. And if what you told me is true, you gave them sons-a-bitches a piece of your mind.

 

I knew a life-loving you. We found arrowheads together. You taught me about volcanoes and the Golden Gate Bridge and obsidian. You loved General Custer even though you called him an “Indian killer.” Your ability to create art was sort of a paradox. You painted with the tiniest of black dots and won heaps of blue ribbons at the California state fair. They filled your studio and over time got covered in dust. My favorite piece of yours was a breaching gray whale. The only place you added color was in the space between air and water. A few dashes of varying shades of blue. Indigo and sky. Your signature changed over the years, yet it always remained in the right corner. Early stuff was all flowy and pretentious. The final one, the one on your last painting—a portrait of the stray cat you took in—was simple. Small and unassuming. Just something to keep it from being mistaken for someone else’s.

You made friends wherever you went. And even though your ice-breakers were terribly embarrassing, often sounding like a bad pick-up line, I endured. Mostly because I loved watching strangers respond to your abrasive words. You craved this limelight. This performance. You were a natural entertainer, a real vaudevillian who missed the call. When you laughed, your wide-open mouth flashed gold and silver teeth, a treasure chest stained by years of unfiltered cigarettes and strong coffee. You’d throw your head back with abandon. Let it all out. Fill a room with your joyous noise. Someone inevitably would look at you funny and you’d be like, “What the fuck’s that guy’s problem?”

When you told me about the time you died, you had to pull over the truck to wipe your tears. Blamed it on something in your eye. A gnat, maybe. Your truck’s cab smelled like a dead fish. Rotten. When I think about the light you saw, the one that said it wasn’t ready for you yet, I think about that smell. I want to roll down the window and take a deep gulp of air.

When I asked you for some generic advice you told me not to waste any time. “If you’re waiting for the right time to do your thing, forget it. It’s already too late.” You insisted I do everything now. “If you ain’t happy, sonny, it’s your own goddamned problem,” you said. I do my best to take your advice, but wonder if you ever took it yourself. Because up until those last days when you still remembered who I was, you remained pissed at the world.

Somewhere along the way you decided it was OK to sprinkle F-bombs into our conversation. I never told you how much I hated that.

On the last day I saw you alive, you had your face in a plate of mashed potatoes. I called the nurse and gave her a piece of my mind. “What kind of place you running around here, huh?” I barked. Which is when you woke up and squinted through cataracts. “Who are you?” you asked me. I told you I was your grandson. “You Irish?” I told you I was. “Well good, then,” you said. “Because if you were English I’d punch you in the fucking face!”

I rolled your wheelchair back to your room. You thought Katie, my partner, was a boy. Kept asking who “that guy” was. I told you it was nap time and you agreed to get into bed. But first you wanted to show me the photos on the walls. I rolled you from image to image. You said one was your mom. “She’s beautiful, ain’t she?” you asked me. Another one showed your siblings. “We had some wild times, I tell ya.” And a few were your wife. My gram. “Best decision I ever made,” you said, “staying out west to marry her. I’m a lucky man.”

But gramps, none of these photos were actually of people. In fact, you were pointing to your own paintings as you rattled off the names of various relatives. And you know that one I liked so much, the one with the jumping whale and flares of blue? That was the one you thought was gram.

Here’s what you taught me by doing the opposite: make sure you tell everyone you love them.

Yep, that’s what you were saying, but in your own messed up way.

So farewell, old man. I fucking loved you.

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Header image courtesy of Joshua Zirschky. To view his Photographer Feature, go here.

Tom Griffen is a writer and artist. In 2015 he received his MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared in PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner and others. In 2018 Tom walked across the United States. He’s now writing a book about it. Follow him at www.mywalkinglife.com.

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Acacia Blackwell

Acacia is a writer from Portland, OR, which suits her because sunshine gives her anxiety. She is currently completing an MFA, despite being recently told by Tom Spanbauer that to become a better writer, she needs to "unlearn all that grad school stuff." She listened, and it seems to be working. Acacia is working on a collection of personal essays that she really doesn't want to admit might be a memoir, and a memoir that she really doesn't want to admit might be a novel.