It Seems You and I Are Like Strangers a Wide Ways Apart

I think being a military child robs you of the opportunity to know your extended family. I loved my paternal grandfather, but I had so little time to know him. When we visited, by the time I got over my shyness, the visit was almost over. Richie was born in 1916, raised in that ‘strong, silent, emotionless man’ mode. I knew he loved me, but I also knew he had to find his own ways of showing it.

Richie started going blind when he was in his 30s. He had Inherited Macular Dystrophy, a degeneration of the central part of the eye’s retina called the macula. The macula is responsible for sharp central vision, which is needed for detailed tasks such as reading, driving, and recognizing faces. It’s a career-ender for an electrician. 

I never knew Richie all that well until Tonia, Sean, and I went to live with them for a year. Before that, he was the really smart man married to my grandma Nora. He didn’t talk much. I have memories of him from when I was very small when he was being silly and modeling Nora’s wigs. When all of us cousins were little, he built a wagon to hitch to his riding lawn mower so he could pull us behind him when he mowed the lawn. It served two purposes: it kept us all happy and occupied, and it put us in a safe place so he knew where we were while he was mowing. Even back then, he didn’t trust his vision.  

Richie could build anything. The wagon he built for us had high sides so we couldn’t go tumbling out. He built tree houses for us, and rebuilt Nora’s shack in Holt piece by piece until it was no longer a shack. He built trellises for her roses, fences for her gardens, and pens for her animals. When we lived with him, he built a small bed for Sean to sleep on in his closet and shelves for Tonia and me to store the few belongings we had.

I don’t recall ever seeing Richie angry, but I was told he was pretty cranky when he was drinking. When Sean and Little Ricky were babies and they’d cry, Richie would stalk around the house looking for the ‘goddam bottle.’ He said it often enough that Sean called his bottles ‘goddam bottle.’ I remember when I was very small Richie would take me out on storm calls with him. The electric company he worked for and became a partner in repaired traffic lights in Pensacola. If a storm took out a signal light, someone had to go out into the storm and fix it.  Richie would carry one of us kids out to his truck in the rain and we’d watch from the safety of the truck while he opened up the power boxes or fought with the giant traffic lights. I was always astonished by how big the lights were when they were on the ground.

Richie would climb back into the cab of the truck soaking wet, swearing about the storm or the recalcitrant lights. I’m realizing maybe I learned to swear during those trips with Richie. I know Nora would have fussed and fussed at him if she’d heard him swearing in front of us kids.  Nora fussed at Richie a lot. I don’t remember her ever shouting at him, but she could really talk him to death if she was angry.

Much like Bram would do to me decades later, Richie would smooth Nora’s feathers and calm her down when her temper ignited. Richie just adored his wife and he was very good at calming her. The man I remembered swearing at lights never was anything except mild to Nora. He did get angry, but he never raised his voice. Once, we were in the car with them, Nora driving because Richie’s eyes prevented him from doing so. A bee crawled up the inside of the windshield and Nora freaked out. She grabbed a magazine and started swatting at it, forgetting where she was and what she was doing in the heat of the hunt. Richie didn’t raise his voice one decibel as he said, “Nora, forget about the bee and pay attention to what you’re doing before you kill us all.”

He and Nora were part of a square dance club for a while and I remember being so envious of their matching outfits and dancing shoes. I loved their house too, with all of its glorious mid century modern decorations. In the spare room there was a 1930s-era waterfall vanity and I loved it with all of my little girl heart, playing at it for hours. When we lived with them, the vanity was in the room Tonia and I shared and it was still my favorite piece of furniture in the house.

Richie would beg us kids to talk slower; he said northerners talked too fast for his ears to understand. He once asked me why I wore so many lilac-colored clothes. I’d never really thought about it. Joyce dressed Tonia and me alike, as if we were twins. Tonia always got the pink version of our clothes and I got the other color–usually blue, lilac, or yellow. When Sean came along, he got blue clothes and I developed an aversion to yellow. So my color was lilac.

I told Richie purple was my favorite color and he said I should wear purple then, not lilac. He said I deserved bolder colors and bolder colors would compliment my coloring. He said to leave the pastels to fair haired people like Tonia and Joyce: golden-haired girls like me and his Nora deserved bright colors. I was very touched that he thought I was as pretty as his Nora. 

Richie was a voracious reader and so was I. He gave me books for presents. After my third grade teacher gave me my first Laura Ingalls Wilder book, Richie bought the entire boxed set and gave it to me. He sent me hardcover copies of the first three OZ books, making me something of a snob, since I knew there was more than just “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” He introduced me to Edward Eager’s Tales of Magic.

When I had to get glasses in 9th grade, Richie was worried he’d passed his eye problems on to me and insisted my doctor look for macular degeneration. Turns out I was merely nearsighted, although I wear trifocals now. Richie had helped nourish my love of reading. He was horrified that he might have also given me a disease that would rob me of my sight. Nowadays there are ways to mitigate macular degeneration, although there’s still no cure. Back then, all you could do was slowly grow blind, seeing less and less every day.

But as Richie’s eyes got worse, it got harder and harder to do things he enjoyed. He was declared legally blind before I became a teenager and had to surrender his driver’s license. He had to retire early from his job, selling his partnership in the company and buying land and a shack near where Nora grew up. I remember when Richie wanted to read, he’d retreat to his corner of the living room where he had a chair next to a magnifying lamp. The lamp was very very bright, illuminating his little corner, making the rest of the room seem dim. He’d pull that magnifying lamp right down to the page he wanted to read, which was large print and already overlaid with a magnifying sheet. He also had a magnifying glass at his side for the really hard-to-decipher words. 

He’d go to his corner so he could have relative quiet while he tried to read, because it took so much concentration. He had a special chair next to the TV too. Nora and Richie had a console cabinet TV and Richie’s chair sat at right angles to it, the left front corner of his chair touching the right front corner of the console. Richie sat forward in his chair, hands clasped, elbows on his knees, peering at the TV. It was never very loud; since Richie had to sit so close to the TV to see, turning up the volume would’ve blown his ears out.

Once he’d retired and moved to Holt with Nora, Richie became the unofficial electrician of all the folk in the area. His hands still knew what they were doing, even if his eyes couldn’t see. He wired many houses down near the river in Holt by having the homeowner stand over him and tell him which wires were which. When Sean, Tonia, and I lived with him, we’d accompany him on these jobs and be his wire-tellers. 

And how did we get to these wiring jobs? We kids didn’t know how to drive. Well, Richie drove, of course. He said he knew these old back roads like the back of his hand. Richie would drive us down to the lake, all of us kids and our friends in the bed of the little Toyota pickup he drove. Then he’d drive us back home in the dark. He didn’t creep along either; I remember watching the trees fly by as we drove home, my hair flapping around and drying in the wind.

Richie helped create the little lake he took us to. He and his neighbors wanted a clean lake to swim in, one that they knew what was at the bottom of. So they dug out a hole near one of the creeks. They built a pier out over the hole. Then they diverted the creek until the pond they’d created was full. They dammed up their diversion, et voila! Little Blue Lake was born. They’d have to drain and clean the lake about once a year to keep it from getting too dirty. Little Blue Lake isn’t on any map I can find.

NOT Little Blue Lake

Richie had a little workshop near their house in Holt, with all sorts of woodworking tools inside. That’s where he worked, changing the two-room shack he and Nora had bought into a dream home. He added two indoor bathrooms–one with a shower and heating lamp–, a kitchen, dining room, and living room. He plowed a garden area for Nora and built a carport. While we were there he poured a cement floor for the carport, and had all of us grandkids put our hands in the wet cement and sign it: Michelle, Tonia, Sean, Rick, Jamie. He even had Nora’s chihuahua Sandy put her paw print in the cement before it dried. And Nora had to put her hand in and sign it too.

One day when he was working out in the shop Richie cut off the tip of his thumb with his table saw. He came inside and asked Nora for a bandaid. She went rifling through the bathroom cabinets, calling out to ask us kids where we left the bandaids. She found the box and went to help Richie clean and bandage what she thought was a small cut. When Nora saw that Richie had cut off the end of his thumb, oh! She started fussing at him big time. Still fussing, she put him in the car and drove him to the ER. I bet she fussed at him the whole way there. And I bet he mildly told her to pay attention to what she was doing before she killed them both.

After we were rescued by the grandparents and moved to Minot, Richie and Nora paid for us kids to take a Greyhound Bus down to visit them for my graduation present. I think we stayed two weeks. Richie drove us down to the Little Blue to swim. He took us down to the end of Log Lake Road and showed us the bridge he’d walked across to meet Nora so many years ago. The bridge was no longer in use; it hadn’t been in years. It was rotting through, with rusty trusses and entire sections missing. 

Blind Richie walked out on the bridge and we trustingly followed. He stopped in the center and pointed out a gator on the other side of the river. Told us to watch out for snakes as we picked our way back over the rotting bridge. I don’t think he knew the bridge was in the shape it was in; he knew what the bridge used to look like and only luck saved him from falling through. The bridge no longer exists; it was finally torn down because it was dangerous.

NOT Richie and Nora

Some of Richie and Nora’s friends came over one day and we all went out in the woods to have a bonfire, beers, and co’cola. Richie told us all about walking across that bridge and finding the most beautiful girl in the world and marrying her. Nora told him to stop his silliness right now, but she was smiling from ear to ear as she leaned over and kissed him. 

I stayed with Richie and Nora when Nick was a tiny baby and the hurricane chased us up and down the Florida coast. He was still working in his shop, making things for their house. He and Nora took us down to the river to a dance when the storm was over. He said it was just like when he met Nora; a makeshift dance floor and bluegrass music. Only now electric lights were strung across the dance floor and the smell of mosquito spray was heavy in the air. 

I never saw him again.

Richie died after Bram moved in with me and my kids; he died before either of our weddings. Larry called me to tell me he’d passed and ask if I was coming to the funeral. I asked if Lynne was going to be there. Of course she was; she was Larry’s wife. I sighed. I loved Richie. I told Larry I had no money and asked if he’d buy me a ticket so I could attend my grandpa’s funeral. Larry told me he was paying for the replacement kids to fly in and he couldn’t afford to pay for me too. So Richie was buried without me. Nora sold their house and moved in with Cheryl. I never even got to see the final house in its finished state.

I have one picture of Richie. Lynne threw out all our things when they got to Germany. She’d already thrown out all our childhood pictures because they’d been in Joyce’s albums. She got rid of everything we’d accumulated since then. I’m a person without a past. I possess no photos of any of my grandparents except for a few blurry snapshots; no treasured gifts, no sentimental keepsakes. 

Richie standing at the foot of the pier in drained Little Blue Lake

For a long time, I put away painful memories. But I remember my grandpa telling me to wear purple, driving us through the night home from the lake, reading in the bright spotlight of his lamp. I remember Richie’s face when he looked at Nora, long after he could barely see her. I remember how his face would soften and a little smile would appear. I remember his voice. “Nora, you need to pay attention to what you’re doing before you kill us all.”


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