He gave me a pocket knife, a long time ago.
It was in a box. I forget the exact image of the box—maybe a cigar box—full of those things that seem like treasures to a boy. He took out a pocket knife and gave it to me. Over twenty years and 4,000 miles later, it is still with me, in Oslo.
I’m looking at it now. But that’s not really the start…
My mom’s father, my grandfather, known through my childhood as Papa, died a few weeks ago.
My family made the drive to Florida for the funeral. I wasn’t able to get back across the ocean to attend. I feel bad about this. From here, it all feels cold and distant and strange. I can only Skype and email and remember.
I remember the house. Many visits stamped it into my mind—Homestead, Florida—the southern tip—where the eye of Hurricane Andrew hit years ago.
I remember the road there—the fade out of town to groves and farms—the fruit market on the corner. I remember the fence. They grew fruit trees inside. I remember the various iterations of the pack of watchdogs and Bruno, who always had it in for me, and Bowser who was the biggest and never knew it (am I confusing names already?…maybe it was King—King was the biggest, but Bowser picked on King). I remember bump-thump rides in the back of the pickup truck (sometimes with the dogs).
I remember the thick, humid smell of the place—palm-fruit-dog-reptile—hanging with Nanny and Papa when my parents went to the Keys. I remember all the rooms—the spooky, haunted mansion board game (with audio), narrated by “the ghostly host, Sir Simon Meeks” and how it gave me the name for the protagonist of my first novel, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I remember Papa giving me my first real beer with the adults, many years before my legal age. Governments mean well and all (maybe), but in matters of libation, I differ to the law of Papa. I don’t remember the brand of beer. It was spanish. [*NOTE: This is not counting a beer drinking incident when I was four years old and passed out drunk—that is another story—but one that earned me some drinking respect from some of the Norse folk out here.]
I remember the EVERGLADES—second, wild home, primordial womb—I did a lot of developing there. So many trips with various family members (just minutes from Nanny and Papa’s house). So many day-long wildlife photography outings with Dad. Water and mangroves and bluesy reptile mating croons—the huge, wading birds, egrets and herons—the belching of pig frogs—large apple snails and the birds of prey that eat them—and alligators, alligators, alligators.
Some of my earliest memories are of alligators. I cannot recall a time I was ever afraid of them (though I do have a fuzzy memory of being yanked and hoisted away after getting too close to one). I remember the deep bellow of adults and the high-pitched chirp of the babies (meaning some idiot had harassed them, even though Mama Gator is never far away, if not always visible).
Alligators were always special to me. They were my concession, from the Maker, for never getting to see a live dinosaur.
I remember each and every Florida panther that I never saw.
The Everglades is a Mesozoic soup, and I took many ladlefuls growing up.
I remember the front door that was never really a front door, always sealed, and the front yard that was never a front yard—everything coming in and out happened at the back patio, which was never a back patio, but a the welcoming entrance (later with pool).
I remember the way feeding time for the dog pack smelled.
I remember wielding my electronic Captain Power jet ship and blasting at the interactive video in the living room.
I remember the gigantic cactus that only bloomed at night and going out to photograph the frogs that dwelt there.
I remember apple bananas.
I remember the Godzilla movies that Papa recorded to VHS tapes, whenever they happened to be on TV, mailing them all the way up to Chicagoland. I recall the newspaper clippings he mailed whenever there was a story that had anything to do with Godzilla (because he knew I’d be interested).
But all and still and I still feel bad about not being there for the funeral. I know everyone understands, but it feels like I’m not taking part in whatever ritual I should be taking part in. I’m not there for the official service—not there getting back in touch with the side of the family that I don’t get to keep in as much touch with as I would like—not there talking with everyone till 3 in the AM about memories of Papa and the house in the grove—not there helping to clean up said house n’ grove to get ready to put up for sale. This last revelation is a bit depressing as it dawns on me that I’ll never get to say goodbye to the old place (and it’s an important place in my experience).
I did get a Skype session with the gathered family. My second skype session did not happen due to techno-problems. Instead I got a phone call. Later that night, my phone would ring again and wake me up. I answered, but got no reply, as my Dad’s phone must have accidentally called me from inside his pocket. I could hear everyone gathered and talking and it was five or ten minutes before I realized I’d just been sitting there, listening.
It still feels distant, cold, and surreal from here, and I don’t think it’s supposed to, like I’m not digesting something I should.
All I’ve got is this inadequate key board.
And the pocket knife.
And a head full of alligators.
And, somewhere in a box, those Godzilla news clippings.
We make due.