There wasn’t anything unusual about the list: a jug of milk, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, light bulbs, and a six-pack of extra-soft, 2-ply toilet paper (this last item, having been repeated several times, was clearly an urgent necessity). I was on my way in less time than it took to drive to the store in the first place. The bulk of my journey still lay ahead.
I was headed for my grandparents’ house. It wasn’t that the distance of the trip made for such a long journey, but that, for some reason I don’t remember, I was driving my grandparent’s Lincoln Continental. It was from the early 1980s and best described by the words ‘land yacht’.
Now I am, as my brother has said on numerous occasions, “vertically challenged.” I could barely see over the wheel and was terrified of driving over something, or (let’s be honest) someone, which in a tank like that would have felt as insignificant as a speed bump.
I crept down the highway and then through the suburban streets of my grandparent’s neighborhood with my two eyes peeping over the dashboard, my hands—in line with my ears—clenched to the steering wheel, fully aware that I looked like something out of a cartoon. Just as an aside, I later remedied the problem by sitting atop two phone books while driving the car. I was far too impressed by my ingenuity to be embarrassed by the appearance of it all.
I arrived at Mimi’s and Päpä’s house and immediately began putting the groceries away. The milk and the eggs went into the refrigerator, of course. I was told to leave the bread and the light bulbs on the counter. All that was left was the toilet paper.
Hmm, toilet paper…
I stood there smiling stupidly with the six-pack in hand trying to remember where they kept it and quite certain I’d never been told. The bathroom seemed the most likely place, but the only place to store anything in the bathroom was under the sink. I’d seen under there a hundred times and never once caught sight of a roll of toilet paper.
Päpä shuffled by at that moment, a New York Times crossword puzzle in hand, and waving dismissively said, “Just put it in the hallway closet.”
The hallway closet? The hallway closet with the metal, accordion doors that I’d never seen opened, not even once? I was in my late twenties at the time, even still a childlike rush of excitement swept over me.
I was raised to think it was rude to look in people’s cabinets. It was like reading through their diary. Not only was it rude, but also you’d instantly regret it the moment you did. There was no way to erase the memory of what you found lurking behind the door. But you couldn’t help but wonder. For all you knew they could be hiding ill-gotten gains or a collection of garden gnomes. Neither of which you wanted to know about. It’s always something best left alone.
I approached the closet with all reverence due the occasion; it was a rite of passage after all. I carefully folded back the accordion doors and there with my eyes wide with wonder beheld a tower of toilet paper, shelves lined from floor to ceiling with the stuff. I couldn’t hazard a guess as to how many rolls there were. The closet was filled them, all except one vacancy large enough to fit a six-pack of extra-soft 2-ply toilet paper. I drew back in awe and honestly wondered if they’d gone without toilet paper during the Depression and at some point made a solemn vow to never let it happen again. It seemed the only plausible explanation.
It wasn’t long after this that I received a call from Päpä while I was answering the phones at Tyler Street UMC (the same church where Mimi and Päpä met at a prayer meeting and the church where my father now was the pastor). Päpä’s doctor told him he needed to go to the hospital, and Päpä wondered if I’d give him a ride. The good thing about having your father as your boss is that you can tell him you have to leave work early to take your grandfather to the hospital and he is eager to have you go.
I climbed into the Continental and drove out to Päpä’s house puzzled at the vagueness of his call. The hospital seemed like a pretty big deal, but Päpä seemed completely unconcerned.
I arrived expecting that he’d at least meet me at the door, anxious to get to the hospital and be assured that all was okay. He did not. I let myself in, and he was surprised I’d arrived so soon. I spent the next thirty minutes sitting on the couch, waiting for him to have a snack and then gather all of his uncompleted crossword puzzles and a few personal items, just in case he had to stay over night. Mimi would periodically come into the room and offer me bean dip or Vienna sausages from the can (the answer was, and always will be, no).
When at last Päpä was ready I asked, “Where exactly did the doctor want me to take you when we get to the hospital?”
“To the emergency room,” he replied, nonchalantly. “I can’t feel my left arm.”
“WHAT!?! Get in the car!” I yelled. “Get in the car right now!” This was the only time I ever raised my voice to any of my grandparents. I believe it was well deserved.
It’s easy when reading the war-time letters of Fred and Virginia (those poignant and so often romantic letters) to forget that it is the same Fred and Virginia who drove the Lincoln Continental and hoarded toilet paper rolls; the same Papa who refused to invest in a good hearing aid, preferring instead to rely on cheap imitations—my favorite being an aid with ear buds that looked just like a miniature, hand-held radio. He kept it in his shirt pocket and would often switch out the hearing aid for the radio. There was really no way for people to know if he was listening to the conversation or some radio program. But on Sunday mornings during my father’s sermons, we all knew it was the radio and Päpä was listening to the Cowboy’s game.
My father was in town this week, and we were laughing about these memories when he remembered getting a call one night from the hospital. They needed him to come right away, because Päpä had been admitted for a possible heart attack but was trying to leave. He was insisting on driving Mimi home and taking care of her.
And here is the consistency between the man I knew and the man who authored those letters. Päpä always loved Mimi and wanted to take care of her.