I Don't Fly Kites

..when my father was a child, my grandfather adopted him...twenty five years later when my father was incarcerated, my grandfather could've easily washed his hands of me and my sisters...instead, he acted as one of the few male role models i had...after depending on dialysis for ten years--the result of a botched prostate cancer surgery--he died on tuesday morning...i'll be flying out to colorado and driving down to new mexico for his memorial service to be held on tuesday...i will spend my valentine's day delivering my grandfather's eulogy...

...one of the things i hate about having a writing degree is that when something like a eulogy or obituary needs writing i'm the person who is asked to do it...i've spoken at five funerals and delivered two eulogies...granted, stringing words together may be easier for me than other people in my family, but grief makes me reclusive...i've spent the last few days staring at the television (is it on? who cares?) or looking out the windows...

...what i really want to say about my grandfather was he did something for me he didn't have to do...he didn't have to treat me like blood, but he did...and although i never once heard him tell me he loved me--something his generation seemed to have a hard time doing--i knew it always...

When I was a child, younger than five, my grandparents lived in Paso Robles, California. Their ranch, which sat at the top of a high hill on over fifteen acres, was a big change from where my two sisters and I were growing up in Hollywood. Driving up north to see them was like visiting a foreign country—clean air, chickens and geese running wild, no busy streets to worry about crossing. We ate bacon, sausage and eggs for breakfast instead of cold cereal. We helped feed the animals and named the chinchillas Grandpa raised in the huge green barn.
But we could only help for so long before picking up a hose and rake and wielding them as weapons. I’m sure it was because Grandpa tired of cleaning up every disaster that followed behind that he constructed the sandbox—massive by a child’s estimation and two feet deep, it was a huge expanse of land all our own tucked next to the detached garage beneath a huge tree. We dug deep into the sand, built moats and battlefields, forts and highways.

For a tomboy like me, this was the perfect play area. I buried things—coins, broken tools, my entire Star Wars action figure collection. Grandpa would shake his head when I complained of something I’d lost under the sand, explaining he wouldn’t replace whatever it was. He never held back what he wanted to say, never treated me like a child. In return, I often found myself saying things like, “Thanks a lot, Grandpa,” or whining to Grandma how he’d hurt my feelings.
Our small domain expanded when the castle was built. It was a fortress, painted red, yellow, and black to look exactly like a turreted castle. It had arrow loop cutouts, a battlement, and drawbridge that opened onto the sandbox. I climbed to the top and stomped around, lording over my province. I jumped to the sandbox, then climbed again. I spent a large amount of time climbing and jumping, crushing my sisters’ work in the sandbox.

We were expected to keep the sand as clean as possible for dirt—free of leaves, pine cones and needles, stray feathers from the chicken coop. We swept the castle inside and out, and organized the contents, my slingshot and He-Man figurines tucked into a corner. I puffed my chest when Grandpa came around for inspection, and beamed when he smiled beneath his bushy mustache.

As part of the tidiness, I made sure my sisters knew the box and castle were mine first, because I was the oldest. They were relegated to specific sections and I watched them carefully, monitoring their progress as they played and cleaned. In short, I was bossy. And Grandpa reminded me of it often, saying, “If you want them to play with you, Joyce, you have to stop telling them what to do.”
As I neared my seventh birthday, I decided I was too old to play with my sisters and wanted something of my own. Instead of giving in to my whining and buying a store-made kite, Grandpa constructed one made of vellum and thin strips of wood. It took him a week to make it, carefully joining all of the parts, attaching the long tail and string, and finally letting me take it out in the late afternoon when the Santa Anas began to blow. I stood at the edge of the hill near the garage and ran into the wind. The kite caught immediately and sailed high above us. We stood there in silence, watching it dip and rise. It was the dullest toy I ever owned and our boredom flying it was palpable right there above us. But neither one of us would admit it.
There are dozens of pictures of me and my sisters playing in the sandbox or castle.
There’s not a single photo of me flying the kite.
As I got older, Grandpa stopped making me things, especially if I asked for them. Instead, he wrote out detailed instructions and sent them to me in the mail expecting me to do things for myself. He cut magazine articles and attached post-its to the parts he considered most valuable. This advice was unsolicited but what I needed. I consulted him, and his advice, when I bought my first car, my first home, when I got married, decided to have a child, applied to graduate school, took a job as a professor, began a 401k, planted trees, maintained my lawn mower. I have a file of over two hundred pages of material reinforcing the lessons he taught me in the years he lived in Paso Robles:
The first of which was to learn how to play well with others. I couldn’t always be right, the boss, in charge. If I ever wanted to get ahead, I had to keep my bossiness to a minimum.
I learned that if I buried something, eventually I’d have to dig it up. I never got a chance to reclaim my Star Wars figures before Grandpa sold the house, so some fortunate child, or maybe a dog, found my most prized possessions and made them their own. I should have never buried something I treasured so much. Instead, I should take pride in ownership, knowing something was mine to care for, to keep safe and tidy.
Finally, I learned things that are meant to fly shouldn’t be held back. Because when they are, they just become another reminder of how unlucky we are to be anchored to the ground.

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