It was November 1982, the happiest time of the year. I was in Tennessee for the Thanksgiving holiday; home for my annual respite from running a busy newspaper in Charlotte, NC. For me, this yearly visit was not just one festive occasion – but two. Thanks to a fluke of the calendar, my birthday always seemed to fall just before the big Turkeyfest (which as a boy, led me to believe that everyone was celebrating their collective ‘thanks’ for me). But after 25 of these celebrations, the true reason for the occasion had sunk in and I, too was simply thankful to come home, and enjoy the treasure of my friends and family.
Every year I‘d arrive at my grandparents’ home a day or two before my birthday, make the usual rounds and visit a few hometown friends, then settle in on the living room couch; (my bed for the holidays). And every year, like clockwork, as I stretched out to watch some late-night TV, I’d hear the slam of a car door, and the familiar cadence of my grandfather’s large shoes slosh up the sidewalk and stomp off the slush on the threshold.
Walking into the living room he would beam, ‘Hey, brother Bart!,“ and would ease himself down into his favorite brown recliner. I’d watch, with amusement, as his weight sank both him and the chair to somewhere near a foot off the floor. Then, propping up those enormous shoes on the raised footrest, Papaw would lean back and just smile.
But on this November holiday instead of his usual greeting and grin, I heard him let out this weary, unsteady sigh, “…Never felt so tired in all my life.”
Well, he was a man of 70, still traveling; speaking at conferences, local churches and weekend ‘revivals’ around the tri-state area. It was his calling, his 52-week-a-year career for nearly 50 years. And though he had officially retired five years before, his commitment to display hope wherever it was needed was his perpetual purpose. My Grampa was a preacher.
Glancing over at him, it was obvious that he was weary, so I suggested that he hit the sack. For a long moment he sat there staring at the TV screen contemplating the notion. Then finally he looked at me and nodded; which was my queue to do what I always do when I came home for a visit… Help Papaw out of his chair.
It was a comical game we played. After retracting the footrest, I’d stand with his enormous shoes between my bare feet and extend my arms towards him. He, trapped in the chair’s low center of gravity, would stretch his long arms towards me, and rock back and forth till our hands connected; his right in mine, my left hand in his. Once our connection was solid I would lean back on my heels and slowly pull him out of the recliner.
But on this memorable holiday, as I pulled him forward, Papaw did something unusual.
Reaching the edge of the chair, he paused, let go of my hands and wrapped his fingers around my face; one large Texas-size palm on each cheek. And he just looked at me.
My mother, who was in the room, noted his uncharacteristic behavior and stopped what she was doing to watch.
With his hands on my cheeks, and his eyes focused on mine, his chin quivered and he whispered, “You are a good boy. You’ve always been a good boy.”
Then he stood, gave me a hug and turned for bed.
I did not see my grandfather the next morning. He had risen early and was off in his white Cadillac on what I suspect was his usual morning errands. I, too had my own ‘To Do’ list. And though I felt a nudge of uneasiness, I chalked it up to my assignment for the day… a road trip to visit my father.
The journey was a 40-mile drive down a curvy two-lane road that deadended, part way, at the river. There, the sparse traffic was met by a ‘daytime’ ferry: As long as the sun was shinning, a little tug-boat rig would carry about 10 cars at a time across the wide stretch of water. For a few bucks you got a ten-minute ride on the cross-currents of the meandering Tennessee.
That holiday glide to the other side always seemed effortless, surreal. In fact the voyage often reminded me of the mythical River Styx, where the dead were ferried from earth’s shore to the banks of eternity. In a way that’s how I felt every time I made that journey from Cleveland to the small hamlet of Dayton; it was like I was being ferried from Life to death, for the only reason for me to cross the river was to visit my father, who was now divorced from my mother. It was my annual trek to visit The Ghost of Thanksgivings and Happy Holidays Past. And like any young man on the eve of his 26th birthday, it was an uneasy reminder that everything has an end: Finality comes to not only those who pay the ferryman, but apparently families can experience a ‘finale’, too. Their road can ‘dead end’, come to an impasse, leaving the notion of “forever” to swirl in the cross currents, like so much water under a wished-for bridge.
A high-pitched scrape brought my thoughts back to the present, as the boat’s ramp lowered and skidded up the worn asphalt incline to a jolting halt. To the ferry’s frequent riders, it was the unmistakable signal that we had reached the other side. It was time to put our lives, and our cars, back in gear again.
A few winding miles later, I arrived at my destination and was greeted warmly by my father, and Gail, his wife of 8 years. Together, we had a late lunch and managed to get all caught up on the big events of the year, while tactfully avoiding the awkward details of life across the river. After nearly a decade of these annual gatherings, we had each mastered the art of changing the subject to keep the holiday climate festive. And in that spirit, Dad asked if I would spend the night, and reminded me that there were enough boxes in the downstairs basement/guest room to haul my ever-growing stash of birthday gifts back to Charlotte.
Ignoring my nagging uneasiness, I accepted.
Descending into the basement’s depths was like a scene straight out of Indiana Jones. The stairwell was dark and its wood plank stairs were steep. And if I did not turn left immediately after the bottom step, I would run into a door that led out to the mysterious backyard. I gripped the bannister tightly.
At the bottom step I paused to assess my overnight accommodations – and it seemed that the ‘cave of undiscovered treasure’ Indiana Jones was always looking for was spread out before me: The cinderblock walls were lined with shelves overfilled with old books. And the floor was a menagerie maze of picture frames, discarded furniture, gadgets, photo albums and cardboard boxes. And off in the corner, next to the bed, was a nightstand, supporting the single lamp that illuminated all that I surveyed.
Fighting my persistent apprehension, I dropped my overnight bag, found an empty box and tried to lose myself in the meandering memories of yesterday. I fumbled through old record albums, from early ‘Elton John’ and ‘Carole King’ to my black-light phase of ‘Yes’, ‘Pink Floyd’ and – of all things, ‘The Greatest hits of Bobby Sherman!’ I found old three-ring notebooks filled with my first childhood attempts at writing. And large scrapbooks of both my later published works, and my brother’s first magazine interviews as an actor.
Though it seemed only minutes, the exploration went on for hours; as if I had lost something I desperately wanted and was too stubborn to give up the search.
Everywhere I looked there was a photograph, a trinket, a tangible reminder of the kind of life and family that birthdays and Thanksgiving were meant to celebrate. And when the flash of that jig-saw image eventually hit me, all of my digging, perusing and sifting just – stopped.Standing back, as if I had suddenly come to my senses, I studied the mound of memories I had collected in my cardboard box. And all I could see was the accumulation, the volume – nothing of the value.
The uneasiness that had pursued me all day finally took hold.
Alone in the lamplight I felt my fist tighten and I let go my own unsteady, frustrated sigh, “What’s the point? What good is it to remember… how good it used to be?”
I felt caught between the way things were and the way I thought they should turn out. In that moment I was like my weary grandfather, stuck in the confining gravity of what should have been a comfortable life. But no matter how much I struggled to escape the notions of finality and families divided by rivers, there was no one to take my hands, lean back on their heels and pull me out.
For a long moment I stood still, absolutely aware of how completely helpless I was. Clinching my fists tighter I was determined not to cry. Then, out if the corner of my eye, I spotted something odd. Next to the door at the bottom of the stairs sat a conspicuous pair of shoes. I didn’t notice them when I first descended into the basement. But the sight now had my attention from clear across the room. In the lamplight I could see that they didn’t belong to me, my brother, or Dad; by the size, style and the flair of the shoestring bows, they could only belong to one man, my grandfather.
Like the high-pitched scrape of the ferry ramp jolting to shore, the sight snapped my mind back into gear, and turned my thoughts to the strangest question. “ Why would Dad have a pair of his ex-father-in-laws shoes in his basement?”
Stepping closer, I noticed that they were oddly placed; If you dropped a pair of shoes on the floor, they would usually fall side by side with the toes facing the same direction. But these shoes were at an angle; the toes were facing 11 and 2, and one was slightly in front of the other, as if someone were standing in them.
Though my fists were still clinched, my eyes remained on the sight. And I made a mental note to take the shoes back with me across the river in the morning. But before I could take a step to pick them up, I heard my father call my name.
“Bart! ” his voice rolled down the stairs with an ominous timber, “you have a call. It’s your mother.”
“Mom and Dad…talking?” my forehead wrinkled, “This is an odd holiday.” At the top of the staircase, Dad stood expressionless and handed me the phone.
“Mom,” I breathed into the receiver, “ I’m just here for the night. I’ll be back in the morning…. Mom?”
There was a long pause on the other end. Then only two words made it across the wire.
The words struck me like a blow to the gut. My mind raced. I just saw him last night. I helped him out of his chair. He held my face and told me I was a good– “NO!,” I sent my voice back over the wire. “He went out this morning in that car of his. He’s probably stuck on the side of the road. You know he’s no mechanic.”
“We took him to the hospital earlier tonight, ” Mom continued explaining as calmly as she could. “We thought it was just another one of his episodes…. But… He died about ten minutes ago.”
In between her sobs and mine, I managed to tell her that I would drive back immediately. Not waiting for the ferry, I would take the long way around, over the only bridge; a trip of nearly a hundred miles. Then hanging up the phone, I fell into my father’s arms and we both dissolved into tears.
Once more the family was united, if only for the moment.
After I gathered myself, I realized that I had to grab my bag and my cardboard box for the long ride back. So descending the dark stairs in tears, I flipped on the stairway light so not to trip over the shoes when I reached the bottom. However, as my foot rested on the last step, I stopped, gripped the bannister and stared at the floor between the staircase and the door; the enormous dark shoes with the wide shoestrings that had caught my attention from across the room, were no longer there. Only the empty space on the floor where they sat remained.
Though I knew I needed to go, something compelled me to search the room for the shoes. Thinking I had put them in my cardboard box, as I had planned, I turned the box upside down spilling out the photographs, the trinkets, and all the tangible reminders of birthdays and Thanksgivings that will now be forever changed. And all I could think of was The Finality, the road’s end. And yet another river I would eventually have to cross.
“He’s gone.” I whispered, repeating the words as I tossed the room. “My grandfather is gone… But those shoes – his enormous shoes were here! I SAW them!”
Trying to calm myself I stood in the very spot where the shoes had rested and I let my mind rewind… “I saw the shoes before I got mom’s call.” I calculated. “And she said, ‘He died about ten minutes ago.’ — Which would have put the shoes in my view mere moments after his departure.
— I saw the shoes! I saw… Papaw. He was here.”
When the jig-saw picture of it all came together and the reality of the moment sank in, I no longer felt my unease. And I sat on the basement steps and cried.
“He came by to see me,” I whispered shaking my head, amazed. Though we’d said our “goodbyes” with his hands about my face, he stopped by to deliver one more message – there’s no such thing as finality. We do not end. He crossed the river on his way out, just to remind me that there is no divide. We will always be… family.
Some memories never fade, even though they disappear.
Thirty years have passed since I last saw Papaw’s shoes. And from that memorable holiday to this, I’ve learned to celebrate not just one festive occasion – but several. Due to a fluke of the calendar, the week we set aside to be Thankful is also the week that I remember helping my grandfather out of his chair…and he, going out of his way, to help me out of my despair. And during that week when my birthday cake is lit, I give thanks for the infinite illumination of what he showed me. For today, though I cannot fit in his enormous shoes, I know that if I can follow in his footsteps, there’s no cross unbearable, and no barrier un-crossable.
In fact, that winding road to Dayton no longer dead ends at the river’s edge; now there’s a bridge with four wide lanes of possibilities.