Semper fi, Grandpa — and thanks for all the stories
Recently, I received the most extraordinary and unexpected gift. My mother and my uncle handed me an old book, the binding long gone, titled Columbia Standard Illustrated World Atlas. I was touched because they know I adore and collect interesting maps.
But my delight at first seeing it paled in comparison to the emotions I felt when I opened the cover. Their full given names were handwritten on the first page in a script I recognized before my eyes moved to my grandpa’s signature with “1942” written next to it.
As I turned each page, careful not to tear the aged and delicate paper, I saw many place names underlined. “He underlined every place he’d been when he gave it to us,” my mom told me. “We were kids, of course.”
China, Chosen (“formerly Korea” written in ink beside it), Cuba. The nations were listed alphabetically with brief overviews under each name: England, Finland, France, Hawaii, Japan, Mexico, Labrador, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Philippine Commonwealth, Puerto Rico, Sweden.
Grandpa didn’t spend time in these places as a tourist. He was a United States Marine, enlisting when he was 14 years old, lying about his age, convincing an elderly aunt to sign documents giving a year of birth several years earlier than his own.
He stayed in the service for as long as he could, becoming what is known as a “lifer” Marine. Young soldiers called him “Top” and “Sir.” When he finally retired, he became a professional writer, authored several books and wrote a weekly column in his local newspaper. But to me, he was just Grandpa.
We lived far away from him, and because he didn’t like talking on the telephone, he insisted that we correspond — as in writing letters. From the time I learned the alphabet, we wrote to each other every single month and kept it up for decades, until his passing more than 20 years ago.
Grandpa was a brilliant — and often hilarious — storyteller. He had a deep, booming voice and made expressive faces when he spoke. And, despite his barely legible handwriting (at least most people found it so), I had no trouble reading it. I could spot the stroke of his pen anywhere.
Every week, he clipped his newspaper columns and pasted them into a scrapbook. When I visited him, after a round of family storytelling, he would quiet down, get himself a bowl of vanilla ice cream, settle into his recliner and motion for me to sit on the ottoman next to him. The scrapbook lay nearby.
I would pick it up, eagerly turn to the page marked since my last visit and read his most recent columns aloud, accompanied by the soft clink of his spoon in the bowl. We laughed, cried, discussed the affairs of the world and complained about the typesetter’s frequent errors, page by page, story by story. I would read until he drifted off to sleep, snoring in that Grandpa sort of way.
After Grandpa’s funeral, his last will and testament sorted out, my uncle lifted the stack of familiar scrapbooks, then turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Krys, looks like he wanted you to have the greatest gift of all.”
At the time I probably didn’t fully understand how profound Grandpa’s gift really was, but as the years wore on and his voice faded from my memory, I took care of the scrapbooks. I gradually came to realize that his stories and their significance not only stayed with me but that they’re part of who I am, warts and all. My uncle was right. Grandpa left me the greatest gift.
Stories connect us, teach us, define and inspire us. Stories have the power to unite and strengthen us, to soften and remind us.
A biographer friend once told me, “When an old person dies, it’s like an entire library closes forever; we need to capture and listen to their stories while we can.”
To all you older folks out there, I do hope you will tell your stories — whether on paper, computer, recording device, or simply by sitting back in a chair and sharing with those who will listen. And to the busy younger set, I hope you can sit for a moment and allow yourself the gift of stories told by those who lived them — meaningful, real-life stories captured before they’re gone forever.
Now I’m going to scoop some ice cream into a bowl and listen for an old, familiar voice telling stories from the brittle pages of some dusty scrapbooks left silent far too long, a 1942 world atlas close at hand for reference. Priceless.