That’s my grandfather. When I was growing up, he and my grandmother lived fairly close to us, dropping in each day for coffee and a chat. When I was very small, before Grandpa retired, they lived outside of town, on a dirt road. Every day, Grandpa got dropped off at the corner, some 3-ish miles from his house, by his carpool buddies. And every day, rain or shine, or three feet of Michigan snow, he walked home in it.
One of my earliest memories is of waiting for him at the edge of their yard. He was a whistler–beautifully skilled, with a little tremor to his tune. Just thinking about it, now, makes me well up. But back then, that whistle crested the hill before he did, and I can still remember the giddiness, knowing that he was almost home. He’d come over the top of the hill, swinging his metal lunchbox, and I’d squeal with delight. When he reached me, he’d pick me up and toss me in the air. Call me a “Dutchman.” Then he’d pick up that silver lunchbox and open it up. No matter what, there was always something in there for me. A half a brownie, or a Twinkie. A sandwich bag with potato chips inside.
That lunchbox carried within it the smell of overripe bananas and bologna, which is a pretty odd scent for me to associate with love, but there it is–as strong in my memory as if it happened, yesterday.
When I was in seventh grade, I wrote a poem (one of my first) about that lunchbox, and I gave it to my grandparents. When I graduated from High School, they gave me the lunchbox. It is maybe one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given.
About a dozen years ago, the lunchbox (“dinner pail” as Grandpa called it) was lost in a move. I was heartbroken, but of course, sometimes you can’t go back. This was one of those times, and it wasn’t until cancer was eating away at my Grandpa that it really hit me, how much that dinner pail had meant to me. When he died, I lay in bed that night and dreamed of the smell of bananas and bologna. Losing that dinner pail is one of my greatest regrets, in all my life.
It’s strange, the things that mean the most to you, once someone is gone. When my Great-Grandmother died, the only thing that I wanted from her was the round, cardboard cheese box that she kept crayons in, for when we came to visit. I was 23, when she died, but all of my memories of her are tied up with those broken crayons in that beautiful, ancient cheese box. (I have it, and it still has the wonderful bits of crayons inside, some 35 years after I first used them.)
When my grandmother passed away, the only thing that I could even think of asking for was the plastic wigs that my sisters and I had played with, as children. (You can see how thrilled my young man is at modeling the “lady hair.)
And when my grandfather died, the only thing that I wanted in the whole world, to keep of his, was that old dinner pail. Which I had lost. Which I could never have. Which brings me to the reason that I write this, today, and why I found myself sobbing in the grocery store parking lot, this afternoon. I received a text from my sister, who confessed that she has been looking for a dinner pail, just like Grandpa’s for the last twelve years. Today, she found one, bought it for me, and she sent me this picture.
My sister and my cousins are all younger than I am. Most of them hardly remember Grandpa going to work, so this particular talisman is all mine. I realized, when I saw that picture, that while I loved the dinner pail, and while seeing the one that was so like the one I had lost made me so, utterly happy–that wasn’t the whole of it.
I can still smell the inside of Grandpa’s dinner pail. That’s what love smells like. And today, that’s what my sister smells like. I cannot put it any plainer than that. This is the second greatest gift I have ever been given, in my life.