And I said, “Your ONLY granddaughter!”
And he laughed. From that point on, he asked me that question every time I saw him until the last time, on his 90th birthday this past September.
He was bowling.
It’s May 2013. I’m walking down the main drag of Regent, North Dakota with Papa, heading to a local auto body shop that I’m pretty amazed exists in such a forgotten town. We’re moving slowly – Papa has to stop every half block or so to catch his breath.
“You watch,” he says. “Angel will be here in a few minutes. She won’t let me go too far without checking on me.” He’s right, I know. My grandmother, Angela, who’s indeed an angel (given that angels are brash and loud and constantly trying to feed you), barely let Papa walk these few blocks to begin with.
“Well,” I say, “would you have it any other way?”
“No,” he says. “She’s a good person.”
We walk into the shop, and a bell dings our presence. The lady behind the counter is tall with short hair and the build of a woman who probably plowed a field or two in her day. “Hello,” she says.
“Are you Gary?” Papa asks, making his way to a chair set up in the middle of the store.
The woman and I exchange a look, and I shrug.
“Are you the person I talked to on the phone?” he asks. “I talked to Gary.”
“Oh,” she says. “That must’ve been Gary Weisman. He’s not here right now, but he should be back soon.”
Papa sits down, catching his breath for about 20 seconds before picking the conversation back up. “Oh, okay, I see,” he says. “You know, I used to live here. Long time ago.”
“Really?” she says. “Well, isn’t that interesting!”
“Yes, many years ago.” He leans back and turns his chair to face her. “So what’s your name then, Sir?”
Oh my God.
I open my mouth to say something, but she speaks before I can. “I’m Brenda,” she says. “Gary’s wife.”
“Oh, Gary’s wife,” Papa says. He doesn’t apologize for the gender confusion, just skips on over it like it’s nothing.
A young guy, maybe in his late teens, walks into the store and starts perusing the aisles.
“That’s a tall young man over there,” Papa says.
The kid looks over at us.
“I was six foot three when I was in the navy,” Papa says. “Now I’m five ten. Can you believe that? I shrunk five inches.”
The kid smiles kindly and nods.
“How tall are you?” Papa asks.
“Six foot six,” he says.
“No, six six.”
“Papa,” I yell. “He’s six foot six!”
“Oh, oh,” Papa says. “I see.”
He makes a few more minutes of small talk, and then starts to stand. I grab his arm, pulling him up. I can tell he doesn’t like that he needs my help.
“Well, I’ll come back another time,” Papa says. Just before we walk out the front door, he turns back and yells at the tall kid, “Don’t lose any weight!”
I crack up laughing.
Regent, North Dakota. Population: 162.
It’s about an hour and a half outside of Bismarck (North Dakota’s capital city with a one-terminal airport), and it’s the starting point of the Enchanted Highway, a two-lane highway that connects Regent with I-94, a 30-mile stretch of road with giant metal sculptures along the roadside. It’s a road I’ve now traveled, a road where my grandparents, mom, and I stopped along the side to take pictures of each and every imposing metal scene.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I thought I was used to driving down stretches of highway with nothing on the horizon, but Regent holds a much more haunting sense of isolation. It’s creepy, really, walking around this tiny town at night next to my mom, seeing nothing but broken down houses and stars, thinking about how, poof, a tiny surge of electricity or a strike of lightning or even a bomb could zap us out right here, in this moment, and the rest of the world would still sleep without even knowing.
I’ve always felt more comfortable in cities, with lights and people around. My grandpa feels exactly the opposite. If it were up to him, I think he’d stay here in this town for the rest of his days.
See, Regent is the place where my grandpa, Lewellyn Maxwell, was born, and we’re here because he wanted to visit one last time before he can’t walk anymore, before the lung cancer spreads too far too fast.
“Papa,” I say, as we walk back toward our rental house. “Did you think that woman was a man?”
“What? No,” he says.
“Really? Cuz it seemed like you did.”
“No, no,” he says. He’s out of breath. We stop at a bench next to the sidewalk and sit down. I’m leaning against him. We sit in silence for a minute, looking out over Main Street of this dirt road town. It’s two in the afternoon on a Monday, and everything’s closed.
“I don’t like it,” Papa says suddenly. “I come back here, and the way it was is gone. Nobody’s here from when I lived here. I’m the last one.”
I don’t know what to say. I have no idea what it’s like to be on your way out of life, sitting in a town that thrived in your memory, watching it pass away with you. I don’t know how many more times I’ll get to talk to Papa, though, so I want to say something.
“Maybe you’re alive because you’re the only one that can take watching it go,” I say. “Maybe it’s your burden.”
He shakes his head. “Maybe. But it’s no fun. It’s terrible, and I don’t like it one bit.” He stares forward, his arm around me, his only granddaughter. “It’s like it’s all forgotten.”
He goes on. “I knew when I was in the war. I knew there’s no escaping death. We all die. There’s no escape from that.”
The air is still, no breeze, just sun. No people out on the streets, just us.
He sighs. “Bobby London. That one got to me. We used to play basketball together. When I found out he was sick, I called him everyday.”
For as long as I can remember, Papa’s been obsessively keeping up with distant relatives and old friends, sorting pictures, making phone calls. When I visit him, he tells me about family members I didn’t know I had, fills me in on third cousins in Oregon I’ve never met. So many relationships could’ve gone lost, but my grandfather refused to let them die. He kept in contact with everyone that impacted his life.
“Bobby’s wife called after he died,” Papa says. “And she thanked me for calling him all the time. She said, ‘You were the first one who sent us a Christmas card every year, and I want to thank you for that.’ But I couldn’t be here for the funeral. I wanted to be, but Angel couldn’t go, and I can’t go anywhere without her. She even gets worried about me walking across the street.”
Papa hits his thigh with the palm of his hand. “But I still got my legs,” he says. “If I can’t use my legs anymore, well then they might as well bury me.”
I smile. This man is the heart of where all my fight comes from.
It’s that Maxwell blood – there’s something in it that makes us all fight beyond any reasonable point, far beyond the moment where anyone else would give up. That will, that sheer stubbornness, that’s why Papa is still here. Well, that and Angela, of course.
“Bobby London,” Papa says. “You know, in the war, my ship went to Germany to the Pacific and then back to Germany again. Same boat, same skipper. And not one of us got hurt on it. Not one of us.”
An SUV drives toward us on the main drag and pulls up directly in front of us. It’s my mom and Angela.
“Makes you wonder,” Papa says. “You wonder why they’re all gone, and I’m still here.”
Mom and Angela get out of the car and attempt to take pictures of us together on the bench, but they’re too far away, and neither of them can figure out how to work their cell phone cameras.
I’m glad they suck with technology because while they bicker about which button to push, I have that many more seconds to sit by my grandpa and commit this moment to my memory. I have that many more seconds to record this in a history of things that I experience with presence of mind, with my body, with my eyes, not second-hand through a picture.
I am this person, this person that people tell things to. I am a recorder of these moments. I can capture them better than pictures. I can make them live forever.
We get up to leave, and I drop a bouncy ball here by this bench. It bounces down Main Street toward the Enchanted Highway until it’s out of sight.
Leon, a resident of Regent, heard Papa was in town, so he ambles over to our rental house late Tuesday afternoon.
The two men have never met before. They’d missed each other – Papa in Regent for the front half of his life, Leon for the back half – but they quickly figure out that they knew all the same people. They start their conversation discussing the land, the history, what the town used to look like, but soon, they’re just saying names of people they both knew, many of whom had long since passed away.
And I get the strange sense that every time Papa and Leon mention a name, it brings that person back to life again for the briefest of moments, unforgotten.
My grandfather, Lewellyn Maxwell, died on December 11, 2013 at 90 years old, just three months after I watched him bowl on his birthday. I’m writing his name in this story because it’s all I can do, and I’ll say his name a million times out loud because he won’t be forgotten.
He will exist in Massachusetts, where he lived most of his life and died in his sleep, in Germany, where he fought in World War II, in Oregon and Oklahoma, where he often visited family, and of course, on that Enchanted Highway in Regent next to those ugly metal sculptures and my bouncy ball.
Favorite granddaughter, only granddaughter – there’s no difference. Either way, it’s been an honor, Sir.