Phil Gulley: Grand Ambitions

I’ve spent the last half of my life trying to re-create the first half, an era that included a man I miss a great deal.
There’s a man in our town whose company I wouldn’t otherwise keep, except that he knew my Grandpa Hank, and those people are becoming rarer each year. If Grandpa were still alive, he’d be 110 and presumably grouchier than when he died at 93, which is saying something. It’s odd that I feel such fondness for someone who drove me crazy while he was living, but time plays tricks on the memory, retaining the good, discarding the bad. These days, I remember the things I loved about my grandfather and am hard-pressed to recall the many and various ways he annoyed me.

I asked the man who knew Grandpa what he remembered about him. As he described my grandfather, it occurred to me we had known two different men. He knew the affable, charming, public Hank, while I knew the cranky, impatient, private Hank. Despite the differences in the two men, and my knowing the less charming one, I miss my grandfather, so I tell myself that as long as the man who knew him still lives, Grandpa mystically endures. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, said, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” That’s a nice thought, but it sounds like something a minister would say at a funeral. I know because I’ve said it myself. I want to believe it’s true about my grandfather, but when I visited his grave not long ago, he still appeared to inhabit it.

After I paid my respects at the cemetery, I drove by the house he had shared with my grandmother for nearly 60 years. They had sold it to a woman who had recently put it on the market again. I don’t know what happened to her, whether she died or moved to Florida—both prospects being equally miserable—but I parked my car, walked up the driveway, and checked the door to see if it might be open. It was locked, so I couldn’t snoop around inside and had to content myself with peeping through the windows.

The house looked pretty much the same as when my grandparents lived there. The built-in china cupboard my grandfather made back in the 1930s was still there, as were the kitchen cabinets he constructed. The kitchen linoleum was the same. I spent a good portion of my youth pushing Matchbox cars around the kitchen floor and would know that linoleum in my sleep. My grandpa had turned the back porch into a study, lining the walls with tongue-and-groove cypress wood that had aged to a golden, opalescent loveliness, which today would cost thousands of dollars to duplicate. Looking through the window, it appeared the lady had torn out the cypress boards and replaced them with drywall. Even though the house was hers to do with as she pleased, it’s hard to think well of her now.

That evening, back home in Danville, I mentioned to my wife that my grandparents’ house was for sale, and suggested we buy it. My wife’s grandparents were dead long before she was born, so my grandparents, through the bonds of marriage, became hers when she married me. She thought well of them, though apparently not well enough to buy their house, because she told me it was the dumbest idea I had ever had.

“What would we do with it?” she said.

“We could put their old furniture back in it and go there for vacation,” I replied.

“So you can pretend you’re 10 years old again and that nothing in life has changed?” she said.

It sounded kind of creepy when she put it like that, but she clearly had the general idea.

That’s when it occurred to me that I’ve spent the last half of my life trying to re-create the first half. I moved back to my hometown and bought a house next door to the woods I camped in as a child. Once a week, I stroll to the same Dairy Queen I walked to as a boy and still order the same thing, a kid-size ice cream cone. The treat cost a dime when I was 6, but now goes for 98 cents. That’s nearly 10 times more than I paid in 1967, but I make more money now than I did then, so I can swing it. Still, I’m not made of money, so when my wife wants one, she’s on her own.

I have a distinct memory of my grandfather taking me to the Dairy Queen and complaining about kids’ cones costing a dime, when just the month before, they had only cost a nickel.

“For the love of Mike,” he said. “They’ve doubled the price! They must think we’re made of money.”

“For the love of Mike” was my grandpa’s favorite saying. He said it whenever he was irritated, which was most of the time. I never knew who Mike was, and haven’t heard anyone say it since Grandpa died, but am trying to revive it by saying it whenever I’m upset.

“For the love of Mike,” I said to my wife the other day. “That lady who bought Grandpa’s house tore out the cypress boards.”

“For Pete’s sake,” she said. “What was she thinking? She must have been made of money.”

There are some facets of my childhood I can’t recover no matter how hard I try. This past spring, they tore down the old Danner’s Five and Dime building in our town. Now it’s an empty lot and is up for sale. My wife and I walked by there, and I casually suggested we buy the lot and rebuild Danner’s Five and Dime. “That’s the second dumbest idea you’ve ever had,” she told me.

I’m not sure why Danner’s was still called a five and dime. By the time it closed, the only thing you could buy for a dime was a piece of Brach’s candy. The night before I moved away from home, my mother took me to Danner’s and set me up for housekeeping—one towel, one washcloth, one dishcloth, one pot, one skillet, a can opener, one plate, one fork, one spoon, and one butter knife. Plus, a parakeet for company.

The parakeet died the first month. I didn’t know to cover its cage with my one towel at night so it could sleep, and it died of exhaustion, with bags under its jeweled eyes.

“For the love of Mike, you killed it,” my grandfather said, poking the bird with my butter knife through the bars of its cage. “You probably shouldn’t ever have children.”

But I did, two of them, both of whom survived to adulthood. One got married and gave us a granddaughter, Madeline, who has just started talking. She came to visit the other day, pointed at the refrigerator, and said, “Milk.”

“For the love of Mike,” I told her. “Do you have any idea what milk costs these days? You think we’re made of money? How about water instead?”

I hope when my granddaughter is my age, she misses me as much as I miss my grandpa.