When my family talks about Great-Grandpa Jack, there is a sense that we are talking about a part of ourselves, as if his wit is our wit, emerging from the folds of our DNA where parts of his soul remain embodied. He was our Fezziwig, properly speaking. All rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes, knobby-limbed and big-eared like a Norman Rockwell painting. That’s how he exists in my memory, anyway, over twenty years since he died.
Certain facts about him have crystallized over time from the stories told in living rooms and around dining tables again and again. He never had more than an eighth grade education. He was an avid reader, an unpublished playwright, and a beloved Sunday school teacher. He required that all his grandchildren play for him a personal musical performance of whichever instrument they studied, greeting it always with a smile and applause. He loved boxing, though he was not very good at it, once challenging his son—my Grandpa Dick—to try and see if Dick could land a punch. He did, thus ending the tutorial. And of course, like Fezziwig, Grandpa Jack delighted in making merry at holiday gatherings. He was abundant.
Another tale: well before “photobombing” became a term, he was known to sneak his way unnoticed into the personal pictures of passersby as if he were one of their own, leaving well before his presence became conspicuous. Many other families aside from my own must then have pictures with him tucked away in boxes or unwittingly displayed in a photo album, I guess. These small glimpses of him all spread about like ashes.
As if knowing he was a caricature of a human, Grandpa Jack did most, if not all, of these things with a pipe in his mouth. That is my most vivid memory of him—the pipe. Emerging from a collage of sights, smells, and sounds, like a dream one is not sure they had last night or years ago, is a moment on the back porch of his house in Springfield, Ohio. I had a little pipe of my own I liked to puff on. So we were on the back porch with our pipes, he exhaling oaky English tobacco smoke while I chewed and sucked my pipe’s stem. Noticing that my eyes did not leave the constant drift of smoke wafting towards the roof, he set his mind to performing a mystery. He took me into his lap, cupped my pipe in his hands, brought it to my lips to inhale, and lo, smoke unfurled from its bowl.
I walked around with that little pipe dangling from my mouth for years after he died, and I fell in love with stories, and I fell in love with holiday gatherings, and I learned to write for the pleasure of writing. More than twenty years later, there is still something about watching smoke drift upwards like an unraveling garment, carried by the wind to all places at once.
He is buried in Springfield, yet here he is, too, though reduced somewhat to stories and anecdotes verging close to myth. A myth, nonetheless, that exists in the make of my blood. If metacognition is the mind regarding itself, it is no exaggeration to say that he is somewhere in the spark of my synapses at every moment of self-reflection. He is still present, then, manifest in all his progeny, and we tell these stories to delight in him and each other.
Will Montei is currently in pursuit of a Masters in Teaching at Seattle Pacific University. He has been writing for the post calvin since it began in 2013.