About a year ago, I attended a “coffee and conversation” event at my neighborhood coffee shop. I thought it was a fantastic idea – the basis of which was to allow people in the community to get to know one another. The initial conversation prompt was to come prepared to talk about your favorite childhood memory.
I have a lot of good childhood memories, so it troubled me a bit that the memory I kept coming back to, and ended up sharing, was one with my paternal grandfather. Pawpaw was a zookeeper at the Cincinnati Zoo, and as a result, many of the zoo trips in my first 5 years involved behind-the-scenes animal encounters and sneak peaks of new exhibits. The memory I shared was of one particular visit when I was about 4, which included several relatives on my mother’s side of the family, two of which were older cousins who I was desperate to impress, and who also were dismissive of me, and, being both older and bigger, often pushed ahead of me and didn’t want to include me. During that visit, my grandpa took us through an upcoming addition to the children’s zoo, which included a huge indoor play area with climbing maze tunnels and slides. It was like a McDonald’s playland on crack. (It is, sadly, no longer there, I would presume because parents complained about being unable to retrieve their children from the child-sized tunnels.) As we approached the entrance, my cousins, of course, tried to push ahead of me, but Pawpaw stopped us at the door and beckoned me forward. “My granddaughter gets to go in first,” he announced, in a tone that was at once proud of me and reproachful of my invading cousins. I felt so thrilled and special, and I walked into that play area ahead of the big kids with my head held high, as mighty and regal as any queen.
An excellent and enviable childhood memory, most would agree. So why, you might ask, did it trouble me that this was the memory I kept circling back to the night of the coffee and conversation event?
Pawpaw was an alcoholic. It was a word that I didn’t learn until a year or so after that zoo trip, when he had an alcohol-fueled breakdown – on Christmas Eve, in front of me – that resulted in an extended psychiatric hospitalization. I remember visiting him once at the hospital. And from that point forward, he became an inconsistent presence in my life. Years sometimes passed without me seeing or hearing from him. Some of this was his choice. Some, I learned later, was because my parents, appropriately, limited his contact with their children when it was not safe for us to be around him. Pawpaw passed away from liver cancer in 1995, when I was 16. It took me 20 years to come to some kind of peace with my relationship with and memories of him.
My maternal grandfather, Boppy, on the other hand, was a consistent and loving presence in my life throughout both my childhood and adulthood. It was devastating to lose him in 2014. He was a rock of support for me and my entire family.
So it troubled me that not a single childhood memory with Boppy stood out with the same color as that day at the zoo when Pawpaw insisted that his granddaughter got to go first.
I thought about it a lot that night. And what I finally realized was that the reason that memory was so strong was the very fact that it was one of the few times in my life that I truly felt special to Pawpaw.
I never had any reason to doubt that I was special to Boppy.
I don’t mean this to be critical of Pawpaw. I recognize that addiction is a disease, and his disease was impacting his life well before he ever had children, let alone grandchildren. I loved him, and I still do. And I know that he loved me, too, but alcohol had too strong a hold on him for it to show much of the time. I can look back now and be grateful that I had those moments like that day at the zoo that allow me to know just how special I was to him.
And it’s not that I don’t have special memories with Boppy. I do – many of them – and their sheer number is part of the reason it’s so hard to zero in on one that stands out above the rest.
I’ve been thinking about this recently in terms of my relationship with my nieces, and how it is impacted by my arthritis. I get Facebook memories now of times that my shoulders were sore from carrying Chloe on them when she was 5 or 6, and of places we used to go together and things I was able to do with her that I’m not able to do with Bella or Charley. I’m only 39. I should be able to carry Charley on my shoulders, or take Bella to festivals. I feel like I miss out on so many opportunities to make memories with them now. I want to be the fun aunt, but instead I’m the one who has to stop to sit down every few minutes, and can’t go on the rides with them.
But that’s okay.
Because they may not remember everything we do together, and they may not think of me as the fun aunt, but they will know – always – that I am here for them.
And they will never doubt it for a moment.