by Angeliska on March 25, 2012
Tomorrow is my Grampa’s public memorial service. It’s been a month since he left this world, left his body and all of us behind. It’s hard to fathom, still. That vacancy, a lacuna where there was once such a big personality – the space he took up in the room, not just physically, but energetically, his big presence – even when he was fading away, his spirit was huge. Something about his wonderful voice, his perfect elocution and exacting enunciation – how he combined a sense of gravitas with a deep belly laugh.
I’ve been going back and finding the recordings I made of him telling stories from his life, and feeling a sense of loss realizing how few there are. You always think you have all the time in the world, and even when you know for a fact you don’t, I guess it’s easier to pretend there will be other days. Now so many things are lost, and unless someone reveals more recordings made, I will never hear another story, will never be able to ask another question, to share a film, a meal, a piece of music together. Never again to share a journey, a joke – or a plate of profiteroles, or tiny box seats at an ancient marionette theater in Brussels.
In 2003, Grampa came to visit me in New Orleans, just in time for Mardi Gras. It was the first Mardi Gras I knew to get going
early, to get super dressed up (although, in retrospect my ensemble that year was pretty tame.) We met up with the tattered
shreds of St. Anne around the corner from my old place on Esplanade, at the R Bar. I pushed Grampa in his wheelchair, and
we chased the revelers through the Quarter until we were both beat. All the ladies were mad about Grampa, flirting with him
and draping him with beads – much to his delight. The day was foggy, hazy like it is sometimes on spring mornings in Louisiana,
and everything felt strange and dreamy, (though I was not debauching in the least that day) as if the world had been spun inside
a silkworm’s cocoon. The noise and chaos baffled by the gray cotton drifting down from the balconies, obscuring the skyscrapers.
Grampa loved Mardi Gras, loved New Orleans – the swirl of masked marauders, grotesque and gorgeous running wild and mad
through narrow streets, their heeled boots rapping the cobblestones, bird-like hoots echoing off the old brick and horsehair mortar. He thought it was all so marvelous – and I’m forever grateful that he got to see my city that way, that I was able to show it to him.
I’ve been lighting candles for him, making offerings of candy, making coffee strong and black. It’s springtime, and the world is
more vital and robust than I’ve ever seen it. All the plants in our garden are growing wild and strong with so much rain, and it’s
almost as if all that powerful life force he had poured into the earth itself. The land is rejuvenated, coming back to into itself.
Every night I blow out the candles on his altar, blow him a kiss and say, “Goodnight, Grampa…”
Everywhere, the crane-flies, those long-legged gallinippers flit, ghost-like. The frogs chirp and chitter. It’s almost time for fireflies.
My grandfather the magician, showing my cousin Caleb and I a magic trick. When we were little, he took us to Magic Castle,
where we were totally captivated by the sleight of hand, portraits with moving eyes and my favorite – Invisible Irma, the piano
playing ghost who could play nearly any request. I think I asked her for “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and was duly impressed
when she played it. Aw, lil cowgirl. Grampa told me about how he became a lifetime member of Magic Castle once: one day
his friends Milt and Bill Larsen called him up and said, “We’ve bought this giant run-down Victorian mansion, and we’re gonna
turn it into a private club for magicians! Will you come help us clean it up?” From the Magic Castle site:
“In September of 1961, Milt and a crew of eternally generous friends and volunteers began the extraordinary task of returning this run-down apartment building to its glorious past. After months of scraping and sanding, the rich Victorian elegance began to resurface.”
Shortly before Grampa fell ill last year, he decided that he needed some new clothes, and asked us to take him shopping.
He was very fixated on the idea of going to a military supply store, and seemed to want something in camo print.
I’m still not sure where here got this notion, given that he was never in the military – far from it, working in radio
during the war (I think his poor eyesight kept him stateside). Maybe he wanted to impress a lady, maybe he wanted
to look tougher – whatever his reasons, we were happy to indulge him. I helped him pick out this urban tiger stripe
camouflage jacket and gray Greek fisherman’s cap. I hope I can find those among his things. I’d like to wear them as armor.
Ever since he died, I feel like I need it. I crave quiet, time to think, to write, to mourn. To learn how to be a bad-ass mofo like him.
Look at that man! Would you tamper with him in a dark alley? I think not. He’d hit you with his stick! I hope to be half as tough.
If you have some time, and want to hear some of my Charlie’s amazing stories about his wild life in the early days of television,
here are some little videos I made while he was in the hospital, and then later at his assisted living home a few months ago.
I wish I had made more, I wish I could remember more. I wish he was here, with me always. I wish he could still tell me stories.
Tomorrow, at his memorial, we’ll hear stories from all the folks he helped in AA – stories like this: Father of We Agnostics Dies.
I’ll meet other people who loved him, whose lives he saved. They’ll tell me his stories instead, stories I’ve not yet heard.