I can vaguely remember one Christmas with the whole family present, including my grandpa Sam. It was 1977, and I was barely 2. He died the following year, and I was too young to understand what I’d lost. I used to sit on the arm of his favorite chair and cough and wait for him, because I loved cough drops and he loved to give them to me, but he never came. He left behind a family that loved him, not the least of which was his wife, my grandmother, Gayle. She hated being called “Grandma”. So, most everybody just called her Gayle. She always did her own thing. It was just how she was.
We loved going to Gayle’s house. Her house was magical. My siblings and I would stay there on the weekends, and for weeks at a time during the summer. It was way better than staying at home. I could stay up as late as I wanted (I can remember when I was 5 seeing SNL start a couple of times before I conked out), I could eat all kinds of stuff I wasn’t allowed to at home (like a whole box of Cheez-it’s for breakfast), and there was always adventure around every corner. The basement of her house was unfathomably creepy to a little kid, which was certainly not helped by the fact that there was a dark, mysterious tunnel dug into one wall and a back room that Gayle always claimed was the habitat of a witch. It was sufficiently scary that we never went down there alone, and only under the direst of circumstances (the cake decorating supplies and Christmas decorations were down there!!). Fortunately, as a countermeasure, we were always armed with Spook Repellant, which smelled mysteriously like old perfume. I had strange nightly rituals I would perform at odd hours, like consuming exactly 7 ounces of Colby cheese, weighed on her precision Weight Watchers scale. (No, this is not some sort of weird joke. I still don’t know why I used to do that — but I miss it.) We had a reversible satin cape that would transform my brother from Superman (red side) into Dracula (black side). I used to wear a blue velvet bathrobe with a red belt that turned me into a karate master. I insisted that I sleep on a little army cot she had because it was way cooler than the big, comfortable bed. We spent endless hours at the video arcade, though her feet were killing her. I knew she didn’t want to be there, but she loved us, and she’d do anything for us.
She was very much a night owl, and was likely to be awake at 2 or 3am, and we used to enjoy the very best late night TV had to offer. As a teenager, I’d watch Troma movies on USA Up All Night every weekend and she’d let me have friends over to play D&D all the time. Even through high school, her house was a sanctuary to me. She even talked my parents into letting me start karate. Of course, since I was a teenage dumbass I always thought she was trying to get on my case just like my parents, and I’d always like to sequester myself in a room tinkering with the c64 she bought me so I could play games with my best friend whose grandma lived across the street. I shudder to think how much of her money we blew on pizza, Faygo Frosh, Taco Bell, and Mortal Kombat at the pool hall down the road. I know I must have been hard to deal with at that age, but she loved me, and she put up with a lot of my crap.
When college came around, I got a job and lots of friends and so much freedom, and I didn’t come around much for awhile. After a few years, I decided to start coming back over to her house late at night, after I’d get done watching the late movie with some friends. I knew she’d be up. We’d talk for awhile and then I’d crash in her guest bedroom until 10 or 11am and we’d have lunch before I’d head back to school. I still have no idea when she actually slept. Whenever she felt like it, I suppose. It was strange at first, because she started treating me like an adult, so we’d talk about grown-up stuff. It was like seeing her whole personality instead of just the warm and happy memories I had of her as a kid, and to my surprise there wasn’t much new there aside from her telling me stuff she was worried about or about people she was mad at. I suppose she did that when I was a kid too. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for it. Through it all, she wasn’t ever really particularly concerned about herself. She’d have done anything for her family and the people she loved.
I’m not 2 anymore, but still I don’t know that I’ll ever truly appreciate what I’ve lost. I still want to drive over to her house and expect to find her there. I find myself there in my dreams very often, usually the recurring dream I’ve had for 20 years about finally being able to go back there like none of it had ever changed. Sometimes it’s been changed to fit the dream I’m in, the rooms retrofitted to contain a mad scientist’s equipment, or a huge cathedral, or a McDonald’s, or I’ll find all the windows boarded up in preparation for zombie invasion (which always precludes an epic and intensely fun battle). I can’t blame my subconscious. That was the happiest place on Earth to me.
Gayle always loved us for who we were. She didn’t grow up with anything like lasers and robots and spaceships and videogames and D&D. She may not have even remotely liked any of that stuff, but she saw that our imaginations were running wild, and she gave them a wonderful place to grow. I don’t know what my little Sam (named after his grandpa) is going to be into when he gets older, nor what my grandkids are going to be into as they grow up, but at the very least I can try to give them the same gifts Gayle gave me: unconditional love, and a place where it’s OK for me to be myself. It helped me become the person I am today. I can’t imagine trying to do any differently as a father, a gaming blogger, or anything else.
I can’t share all the stories or even impart a fraction of how wonderful a person Gayle was here, but I’ll never forget what she meant to me, and I hope what I do for the rest of my time on this planet honors her memory.
I love you, Gayle. The world isn’t as bright without you here. I hope you’re doing better where you are now.