According to my grandfather, a brass screw fit into your belly button and attached your bottom to your top. This prevented you from pooping all over the place. When I was younger, Papa would ask if I lost my brass screw. “What’s a brass screw?” I would ask. “It’s in your belly button,” he explained. “Oh,” I said, picking up my shirt to peak. Just as I was inspecting my tummy for this elusive brass screw, Papa would tickle my belly button. Sure, some people would consider this cruel, but they don’t know anything about the importance of a brass screw.
This weekend Papa passed away in his sleep. Saturday morning, July 5th, Papa slept in for the first time in years. He didn’t get up to watch TV in the middle of the night or wheeze as he went to the bathroom. According to my grandmother, she only heard him mumble softly in his sleep at 3 a.m. and then nothing.
Saturday it stormed in the early morning hours, but I didn’t hear it. I heard nothing at all as I slept in my room in the basement, including my grandma pacing the floor above me, calling out, “Is anyone home? Is anyone home?”
When I was 7, my dad’s father passed away. Grandpa No-nokes is what Caitlin and I called him when we couldn’t pronounce Roanoke, the town they lived in. Anyway, he was grandpa, a person we barely knew. We cried at his funeral because he was gone and it was scary and sad to face the idea that sometimes people leave and they don’t come back. And when I was 9, my great grandma, Booma, died. Even though she lived nearby, I only knew her as benevolent Booma who gave us starburst candies and made us scrambled eggs she called “tick-ticks.” In 1999, when I was 19 years old, Grandma No-Nokes passed away. That was heartbreaking. She was the kindest, sweetest, most well-meaning person in the world. The sentiment was shared throughout the entire family and across all of Woodford County. Strong, funny, faithful–Grandma R was the epitomy of aging beautifully. And yet, looking back, we visited her only once in a while and I realize that I didn’t know her as well as I wish I had.
And all this leads me to Papa. I lived with Papa. I know there were days he was a bear. I know he made mistakes. Big ones, little ones–a vast range of them, really. I know how big of a bark he had. I was afraid to ask him about the war. Stories that began, “Back when I was at the Bank…” immediately sent me into a mental coma–dry mouth, glazed eyes–and all I could do was nod. Papa had an opinion on everything. His opinion wasn’t typically unfounded–usually he read up on important things and only partially ad-libbed on minor issues.
But here is the deal. There is good and there is bad and there isn’t any one way to any of this. If I remembered him only as a saint or a sinner, then I would be losing his essence. Papa was a big man. Not just in mass, but in spirit. He had big emotions, a big heart, a big voice. I know in the next months we are going to uncover bits and pieces of Papa. But that’s all they are. And none of these things are a final word on his character. Mistakes, victories, failures and successes will be uncovered and remembered and then they will be put away.
So in the interest of my own heart, when remembering Papa becomes foggy and distant, when I forget which bank it was he worked at and what his cologne smells like and the rumbly smell of his laughter and the shuffle of his footsteps across the front hall and the way he squinted his eyes when he was learning something new and how he always, always had a nail clippers with him and how particular he was about the kinds of foods he liked–when I start losing hold of that, then I will need one perfect, sunny Saturday afternoon memory to hang on to. And for that, I choose the brass screw.