Last week, I was angry. I shared my pain and I appreciate every single one of you who listened.
Today, I want to share with you just a few of the ways I remember my G-pa. Today, I want to make you smile and understand why my grandfather will be sorely missed.
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The most powerful sense tied to memory is the sense of smell. Thanks to over forty-eight years working for Tone’s Spices, G-pa remains the most fragrant person I have ever met. The web of memories we have shared over my lifetime have linked us together forever. I catch the faintest scent in the air and a strand is tugged, transporting me back to our many moments together.
Pepper tickles my nose. It is 4 PM and the back door of my grandparent’s house opens. I dash from watching cartoons to greet G-pa, but quickly back away. He carries his lunchbox in one hand and a thermos in the other, placing them on the small kitchen table as he enters. He wears his navy blue Tone’s uniform—“Paul” stitched across the pocket. I want to hug him, but today I cannot get within five feet of him without my eyes watering. Somehow he doesn’t notice the smell.
“I need my wash lady,” he says. We do our nightly routine. I am allowed to trek to the basement and turn on the washing machine, carefully adding detergent. I wait proudly for it to fill, then yell to the workshop next door, “It’s ready Grandpa!” He joins me in the laundry room, reaches into his pocket, and hands me a quarter: my hard earned fee. I retreat upstairs and leave him to shower in the chilly damp air, a single bulb his only light.
It was just how he liked it.
My grandparents moved several years later and had a nice master bath. The only home improvement they made was to add a shower, down in the basement. For G-pa.
Cinnamon teases my tongue and many strands are tugged. G-pa coming home from Tone’s, teaching me how strong fresh cinnamon really is as it dusts his work clothes. Walking into my pantry to grab the cinnamon he bottled just for me, the label etched in his handwriting, clearly marking the variety and date.
I had no idea so many different kinds of cinnamon existed.
I cannot use cinnamon without thinking of G-pa. He is with me for every bite of French toast and every batch of pumpkin bread.
I smell cinnamon and I am seven years old. G-pa runs behind me, gripping the back of my bike’s banana seat, giving me a quick push as I pedal away on my new bike.
I am five, playing with my baby dolls, laying them in the wooden crib or feeding them in the wooden high chair he crafted for me in his work shop.
I am a teenager, plopped on his floor trying to watch MacGyver, shouting out, “G-pa, wake up!” because he snores louder than the TV. Two minutes later and he’s snoring again. He could nap anywhere, at any time.
Then I catch another familiar smell: Old Spice. It is a nickname at work and grandpa’s choice of fragrance every evening and day off. It was the perfect fit for him.
I inhale Old Spice and I am at my wedding, slow dancing with him. Watching enviously as he jitterbugs with my sister, something my wedding dress did not allow. Taking in his grin as he welcomed my husband into the family with open arms.
I watch him hold my infant son, transfixing him with the same Donald Duck impression I begged him for as a child. I see him lay on the ground next to my children, completely ignoring his bad knee, soaking up every moment. My son pulls G-pa’s Tone’s hat off of his head and examines it, giving it a taste test before using it as a face mask.
The scent of Old Spice shows me G-pa on a playground, swinging on a swing, following my daughter down the curly side, cane still hand. He crawls through a tube, nearly getting stuck. He rocks a toy ATV, wide grin on his face as my children race around.
He acts decades younger than his 87 years.
Old Spice brings every birthday, dance recital, theatre production, and graduation to my mind. He never missed one while I lived in Iowa.
I hear every joke and cheesy punch line and groan or laugh in response. His eyes crinkle as he tells me, “I’m six foot two, I just stand deep in my shoes.”
The scent of pine unrolls the Christmas memories. G-pa fumbles with the live tree, trying to get it just right in the metal base while G-ma gives directions and my tiny fingers try to untangle the bubble Christmas lights. He is on a ladder, hanging lights at my house while the bitter wind blows and we watch from the windows. We warm him with coffee. Black. No cream and sugar allowed.
I see G-pa in his chair, waiting for the “Grandpa, help!” cries, as overzealous toy packaging thwarts opening our gifts. With each call, he reaches into his pocket, pulling out his Swiss Army knife, saving the day as he slices away the offending tape and cardboard.
He cackles as he unwraps his present, gleefully revealing the prize: another Calvin and Hobbes cartoon book.
A sniff of peppermint and he is the magician, pulling candy canes from his pocket and making our noses disappear.
He shares the largest collection of Nerf toys I have ever seen with me and my cousins. Each time we gather, we dip into G-pa’s toys and go to war with darts, tanks, and mini footballs. Sometimes against him.
Bleach and antiseptic hit me and I am with G-pa in the hospital last May. All the family has left and it is just us and the night. He unleashes memories of World War II and of Zeke, who was a brother to him in all but blood. I learn of shenanigans and mischief pulled between battles—things a cocky-twenty-year-old with nothing to lose excelled at pulling off. He wasn’t a guy to cross, but his loyalty knew no bounds.
I see tears in his eyes, his voice breaking as he remembers those lost. He gives me a notebook full of these tales, scrawled in pen, passing the torch of memories to me.
“I am not proud of everything I have done or had to do as you had to take care of what you were there for, and your men in your charge. You were never looking to make good friends in your group, as it’s hard to send a good friend on any patrol—that he may never come back—unknown to your mind and heart you loved each and every one of them.
To all of the young kids that helped me survive—and a lot of you didn’t—two little is all I can say.
To my 38 men that made our start. You may be gone, but still in my heart. You are still with me. I can look at a blank wall and see your faces all in a line. Someday there will be 39.”
The wonderful smell of baking bread fills the air and I am at our Monday restaurant, The Speakeasy. I am nine years old and my grandparents declare I am old enough to slice the bread. I cut into the bread, trying not to smash it as G-pa hits the salad bar. He returns with his plate piled high. He graciously eats the heels of each loaf while the rest of us devour what is in between.
I smell picnics and barbecues and holiday feasts. At every one, G-pa’s plate is stacked high again. Perhaps it is a holdover from living through the Great Depression and never having enough food. Whatever the reason, he always devoured each meal as if it was his last and if the pile of food proved too high, there was always the “after a while” box to take home.
I see the bench he crafted for my sister, slid into place on the picnic table so she could perch at the perfect height.
My grandfather never saw problems. Only solutions. Nothing went to waste. A metal pole is bent for the perfect gymnastics bar in their backyard.
Metal wafts to my nose and I see the plastic jar labeled “Emergency Kit: A little bit of most everything you may need”. Each son, grandson, and grandson-in-law-to-be receives one for Christmas and it still reigns as the most useful gift. Full of all-sized nails, screws, washers, bolts, and nuts, it always has what we need.
Just like G-pa.
He was our little bit of everything.
He was the pepper, cinnamon, and every spice in between, seasoning everyone’s lives bit by bit—making every moment a little better and each bite of life a little tastier.
I had over three decades with him and wish I had three more.
I know G-pa watches me now, grinning from above, probably telling me when I should use bay leaves and basil or to give his great-grand children another hug.
He would want to give thanks to those who helped him survive to 89 years old. He wrote in his journal:
“For all of those that didn’t come back, whatever you did coming up the line, without your help things wouldn’t have turned out so fine. To all of you, my best to the marines. Semper Fi. Always Faithful.”
My grandmother was presented with a flag at my grandfather’s internment for his years of military service. As the Naval Commander handed her the flag he said:
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
To my grandfather I say, “Today, there are 39. I love you G-pa. You will be missed.”
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Please share a scent/smell and a strong memory you have of someone, alive or not, that you will always remember.