This was in June. Thus far, overcast skies had draped our already somber drive, but as the first terraces and slopes of the valley slid into view, the clouds broke to a golden-bellied sun. Like the loosening of a tightened muscle, our breaths grew deeper and more relaxed, as if the valley offered emotional respite.
Then the phone rang. My father.
“Yes?” I could sense he was trying not to cry.
“We are calling any grandchildren who cannot be here.”
My sight drifted into the floor mat. “Okay.”
“I’ll hold the phone to his ear. He’s not awake, but he can hear you.”
My grandfather and I have always been close. He came from a line of tall and sometimes tempestuous Irishmen, and Grandpa was no exception. Standing 6’3” or 6’4”, lanky and blue-eyed, his deep intonations to “pipe down in there!” are part of family lore. He was somewhat austere and solitary nature despite the fact that he and my grandmother raised ten children. Perhaps it was his solitary nature that appealed to me; we had no trouble occupying each other’s silences. My father once recalled how I would sit next to my grandfather and watch an entire Detroit Tigers game with him when I was only five or six years-old.
But Grandpa did have a sense of humor. He loved a good joke, along with many “tricks” that he played on his grandchildren. One in particular – The Old Two Dollar Bill or New One – was pulled more than once.
“Would you like an old two dollar bill or a new one?”
From his shirt pocket, my grandfather would reveal a rectangle of folded bills, presumably two two-dollar bills – one old and the other new. “A new one!” I’d say.
He’d un-wrap the bills and hand me a crisp one dollar bill while an old two-dollar bill remained in his other hand.
Grandpa would laugh in the wake of my mistake. “It’s what you asked for: a new one!”
I fell for that joke more than once, but the answer I gave never mattered in the end because I always received $3. Although words might be absent, Grandpa’s intentions never were; he gave all the bills in his pocket because that’s how he told you that he loved you.
But there in the Madison Valley, the joke was far from my mind. Finally, I said, “Hi Grandpa. This is Jasmine.”
I paused. My husband reached for my hand from the driver’s seat. On a green slope in the near distance a pronghorn lifted his head.
“Grandpa, I just want to tell you that I love you.”
Love: apart from his family, my Grandfather had it for many things – the Detroit Tigers, crossword puzzles, stamp collecting, reading, rabbit hunting. But his greatest passion was fishing. Even when he was beginning to weaken, my father would carry a cushioned chair onto the pontoon boat at our family cabin, so my grandfather could sit in comfort. During drifts across the lake, Grandpa was generally quiet, seated in a contentedness only punctuated by a joke, a story, or a Smallmouth bass that would break from the water and shimmy in the air to free itself from whatever morsel had enticed it from a brush pile or sunken boat.
Later, after the call and several miles down the road, I remembered a time – I was maybe 11 or 12 – when I spent a drizzly autumn weekend at the cabin with my grandparents. Grandpa and I huddled underneath our rain hoods in his aluminum boat, fishing for bass and bluegills. We were in a small cove, and through the scrubby trees you could just make out the cabin where Grandma awaited our return. Afterward, we sat by the indoor fire and shared a quartered pastry that we chased with swallows of whole milk served in glass jelly jars.
The memory was maddening; I continuously inhaled at the sob lodged in my throat. Why was I always so far away from my family? Yet, I knew I’d be an emotional heap if I were home. The best times I ever spent with my grandfather were so often filled with silence that I feared my uncontrollable emotions would alter that past. I laid my cheek against the truck door in helplessness.
Then it came to me.
I could not be home, but I could do something.
I turned to my husband. “I want to go fishing.”
We had our gear in the truck, but even he looked unsure. “Now?”
“On the Boulder. Before we get home.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
Normally, the Boulder River thwarts our fishing attempts: abrupt thunderstorms, competing anglers, swarms of mosquitoes, uncooperative fish. But when we arrived at the pullout, not a soul could be seen despite the onset of a windless dusk. By some miracle, the bugs were down, and every bend, pool and riffle within sight was unoccupied.
My husband moved upriver and left me a pool that tailed to a long riffle. I tied a size 14 caddis and casted to the bank; although, the thought of catching a fish didn’t occur to me. It was just a relief to be doing something that Grandpa loved. But halfway down the riffle, up flashed a golden fin, and I pulled in a brown trout. Only 12 inches at best, but its vivid symmetry rocked me to tears. I thought of my grandfather, a man who was more than 1700 miles away, surrounded by his children. I thought about the times we took turns to see who could lob the most gold coins into a yellow and plastic bucket. I thought about the times that he would pitch me the whiffle ball, and I’d bat it over the garage. I thought about my first job, shining his dress shoes for 10 cents a shoe. I thought about the times he and my father hunted for night crawlers on the lawn after a long, summer rain, the night crawlers unstrung on the earth like tiny, wet accordions.
My grandfather died the morning after the phone call, Monday, June 17, 2013. He was 83. He’d been a husband, father, brother, uncle, cousin and much more. He’d been a dock superintendent. He’d been an athlete and a student.
But to me, he was just Grandpa, and I loved him. But that’s not the last thing that I said to him on the phone when I spoke to him in the valley.
“Grandpa, I just want to tell you that I love you.”
I’d looked up from the floor mat at that time and stared off into the endless distance. For the first time in my life, I was struck by the inadequacy of words. For words weren’t even thoughts, and thoughts were nothing like the feelings I had for him. And none of these, words, thoughts or feelings, were real love.
But time was running out, so I said, “Ben and I are driving through the Madison Valley in Montana.” I stopped momentarily. I had to; it was difficult to speak.
“And Grandpa, it is so beautiful.”
Those were the last words I said to him. “It is so beautiful.” Could it be more ambiguous? What did “it” even mean? The big, stupid pronoun. A replacement for something.
But in my heart, “it” meant everything. All of the silences. The plastic bucket and coins. Bass fishing, night crawlers. The stamps, maps, and books. Polished shoes. Tiger games.
Old two dollar bills and new ones.