Grandad died before I understood how I felt about him.
A week after he passed, my mother - no doubt grappling with her own demons of regret - left to me the task of sorting through his belongings. I sat in the cramped living room of a stranger and looked around helplessly.
Grandad was more of an idea than a person. Others spoke of him as a decorated military man, later in life a successful investment banker par excellence. A widower, a single father and later a Grandad. Whether any of it was true mattered little. I never got to know the man.
It was the ephemeral nature of love that kept me from establishing a bond with him. My childhood and adolescence, spent on the other side of the country, reduced our contact to a handful of phone calls a year. By the time I was old enough to realize what I’d lost, the opportunity was gone. The quirks of family trees and premature cardiac death had left me as the only surviving male of our branch.
He was all around me in the musty confines of his living room. There was a glass cabinet against the wall displaying knick-knacks he picked up on his travels. A wooden carving of the Sphinx. A prehistoric-looking rock with embedded ammonites. A tiny Newton’s Cradle. Each one told me something about his life. None of them spoke in a language I could understand.
Atop the cabinet were framed photos of Grandad and my Ma at various times in their lives. Here they were, beaming at her high school graduation, there she was, holding my newborn self against his cheek. Nothing of my grandmother. I knew she died young, Ma never knew her. Grandad’s mantelpiece spoke to a life in which she never existed.
The next cabinet, not two steps away, reminded me again of the person now lost. It was full of leather-bound scrapbooks, and each of those was full of newspaper clippings. Before he died, he had rewritten his will to leave a generous sum of money to the local library, along with this collection of articles that held the history of our town.
Curious, I flipped through one of the scrapbooks. The spine was marked with a year: 1965. Each clipping had been selected by some logic I couldn’t discern, carefully cut into a perfect oblong shape and aligned neatly with the page margins. There were hundreds of articles from dozens of newspapers. I could see the value a library might see in them: one detailed the opening of the old baseball stadium that had been demolished, to much indignance, just a few years ago. Another was a short block of text acknowledging my grandmother’s free after-school tutoring sessions for elementary schoolchildren.
What intrigued and troubled me was the donation. The stuffed bookshelves in his house implied a passion for knowledge. Was it so intense a passion that he would donate a significant slice of his estate to the library? No-one ever spoke ill of Grandad, but he never struck me as a generous man.
The library in question, a short walk from his home, looked like the kind of place an elderly bookworm could lose themselves. The librarian at reception watched me approach almost warily, as if the only young men she knew left dog-eared pages and needed shushing. I asked her if she knew my Grandad.
“‘Course I knew Joe,” she replied. Her expression softened. “I’m sorry for your loss. And we’re so grateful for his donations.”
“Did he come here often? What did he do?” I asked.
She nodded. “Every day. Like clockwork. First thing in the morning, he’d ask if we had any old newspapers donated overnight. More often than not we wouldn’t have anything for him. Then he’d go and either read a book or start poring over our newspaper collection. Must’ve been through it a hundred times.”
The collection in question was a herd of filing boxes with meticulous labeling. Newspapers past and present: The Sherwood Gazette, Sherwood Social, and even regional press like the Daily Star. But the collection was incomplete. There were swathes of editions missing, months and even years unaccounted for.
“We rely on donations to fill in the gaps,” said the librarian, “but even with Joe’s, it’ll be far from complete.”
“There are so many newspapers here, though,” I commented. “It must have taken him a long time to look at them all. And you said he went through them more than once?”
“Yes, many times. In fact, he did a lot of the filing for us.”
A thought occurred to me. “Do you know if he was searching for something?”
She pushed her horn-rimmed glasses up her nose, considering the question.
“Yes, maybe he was, now that I think of it.” She motioned to one of the boxes. “Always asked about the 60s in particular. Around the time he came to town, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” I replied, though I hadn’t known that.
“Well, if there’s nothing else,” the librarian said, clapping her hands. She turned to leave.
“Wait.” I hesitated. “What was he like?”
If she found my question odd, she hid it well. “Joe was a melancholy man. Kind, and very giving, but melancholy. Like there was a cloud over him that no-one else could see.”
Maybe he was generous. A lump formed in my throat as I thanked the librarian. The more I learned about Grandad, the more I understood how little I knew him.
I eyed the box of newspapers from the 60s, suddenly fearing the contents. Each piece of him I found was a reminder of conversations never had, lessons never learned, embraces never given. Opening the box could trap me inside it forever.
The most striking thing within wasn't the pristine newspaper collection preserved in transparent sleeves, but the neon yellow post-its. I didn’t know his handwriting, but there was no doubt this was it. The newest, brightest note flowed in black ink cursive:
Life has a permanently provisional feeling. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.
Frowning, I looked at another:
Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead.
The rest of them contained similar excerpts. There was nothing to describe what he was searching for, if anything. The writing was as melancholy as I’d ever seen, just as the librarian had said.
“What do you know about the writing on the post-its?” I asked her, back at the reception.
“Oh, those. They sound like quotes,” she said. “If I knew any better, I’d guess he used them as some kind of reminder. Joe was getting more forgetful over the years.”
“Quotes,” I repeated. “But from where?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Actually, this might help.” She handed me a list. “There were a few books he was always reading that he must’ve forgotten to return. Think you could bring them back? We’ll waive the fine.”
The list was surprisingly long, though I recognized none of the titles. I spent the afternoon pottering through Grandad’s house, ticking them off one-by-one.
I wondered if I was retracing Grandad’s steps with my domestic orienteering. Did he shuffle from his armchair to the bookshelf and back again to choose his reading for the day? Did he eat dinner in the armchair or at the kitchen table? Were his days spent cutting and pasting articles for his collection, or had he pursued it by lamplight in the dark of night?
The last dusty tome on the list, A Grief Observed by N. W. Clerk, caught my eye when I found it on his nightstand. Leather-bound like his scrapbooks, the pages were yellow with age. The spine creaked as I opened it to the first page, and something that had been inside the cover fell to the ground. For a moment I paid it no mind, transfixed by the first line:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.
On the carpet was a newspaper clipping of an article dated September 16, 1968. It was conspicuously wrinkled and folded; evidently Grandad had looked at it often.
LOCAL TEACHER DIES IN HOUSEFIRE
Sherwood residents were shocked when a local couple’s house caught fire yesterday evening. The blaze, although quickly contained by the Fire Brigade, claimed the life of local primary schoolteacher Mary Callaghan. Callaghan, 26, was well-known in the Sherwood community and described by her pupils and their parents as “a kind, sweet-hearted soul” and “a student favorite” at Sherwood Elementary. She is survived by her husband Joseph, 28, and their two year old daughter, Shelley. As of yet there has been no cause found for the fire, but local police have assured The Sherwood Gazette that foul play is not suspected.
A photo accompanied the article. Despite the fire brigade’s best efforts, it seemed the fire had completely consumed their home. All that remained was the blackened skeleton of a house, in morbid contrast to the untouched green of the front lawn.
Half-buried memories rose unbidden to the surface. Growing up, Ma had never kept matches in the house and used the gas stove sparingly. I suddenly remembered my bewilderment when she caught me smoking with my high school friends and tossed away the lighter, ignoring the pack of cigarettes.
There was more flowing penmanship on the reverse side of the article:
1960 - 1968. SS or SG?
Three or four kids?
Same point of view as 68.
The shorthand made little sense to me, but I was sure this held a fragment of Grandad’s psyche. Melancholic, alone. Fearful. But searching. Searching for what?
My intuition chimed in with a suggestion that sent me whirling around in a full circuit of the house. I looked from room to room, on mantelpieces, dining tables, dressers and nightstands; I checked every drawer and peeked inside the glass cabinet of knick-knacks. No luck.
Grandad had been sick with grief after my grandmother died. Why, then, was there so little trace of her in the house? Not as much as a single photograph. It dawned on me that I had no clue what she looked like.
Before I could ponder the thought, my phone buzzed.
“Yes, Ma?” I said.
“How’s the sorting going, love?” her voice came through strained.
“Slowly,” I replied truthfully.
“It’s okay, take your time. We’re not in a rush.”
I ran my thumb over the old article still in my hands. “Hey, I, uh, found some things of Grandad’s. Mostly old stuff. There was an article about the fire in ‘68.”
She was silent. I gave her the time she needed.
“He suffered,” she said finally. “And he wasn’t the best father for it. Overprotective, and when I rebelled and left, reclusive. There’s a reason we never saw him, Ry.” She paused. “But he was your Grandad, and we’ve only just lost him. Now’s not the time to speak badly of him.”
She’d suffered, too. Fickle, ephemeral love had charmed and left my Grandad, then given my mother a paternal taste before abandoning her forever.
“But that’s just it. I want to know more about him. Understand him. Where are all the photos of Grandma, if he loved her so much?”
This time she was silent for so long I thought the call had dropped. Then she sniffed and replied in a voice thick with sorrow.
“The fire destroyed everything. There was nothing left. I’m not surprised he didn’t have any, because there weren’t any to have.”
The book, the quotes, the tireless search for newspapers, it all suddenly made sense. Grandad was looking for an old photo of the love he’d lost, in the one place he was sure he could find one. Sometime between 1960 and 1968. Sherwood Social or Sherwood Gazette? Just as the librarian had said, the post-its with quotes from A Grief Observed must have been to keep track of where he’d searched already.
N. W. Clerk’s words resounded in my mind as if Grandad spoke them himself.
Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?
I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.
Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything. I will never love again.
Every day, from dawn to dusk, he had been searching for a specific article, but he couldn’t remember when it was written, or which newspaper it was from. All he remembered was the photo taken in front of his whole, undamaged home, where she, the ephemeral love of his life, stood with four local schoolchildren after a tutoring session. Smiling, forever captured in the beauty of that moment. Preserved in time better than his failing memory could ever recall.
For a second, I caught a fleeting glimpse of just how deep an emptiness she’d left behind. All at once, the framework of his life had been revealed as a fragile construct. Each day had blended into the next, nothing had been certain.
The only constant in life is that time marches inexorably onward. Then, as now, it trampled memories into dust, into the swirling particles that rose into the air as I turned A Grief Observed over in my hands, and again later when I sank exhausted onto the living room carpet. And each little mote of dust could have been a memory of him, of them, but a memory that was lost, forever out of reach.
So I lay there, watching those memories suspended in the weak evening rays streaming through the window, and I wondered if the weight of my regret was too much to bear. And I thought again of the ephemeral nature of love, how it had wrested control of Grandad’s life and now reminded me of my failure as a grandson.
“We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand the least.”
- C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
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Very insightful story about love and loss. I wonder if it takes too long to get to the business of the fire. A bit like saving the mystery until the end?
Hi Allen, thank you for reading and commenting - it's a huge privilege to have a professor look at my work! I did struggle with the pacing of this one, and I couldn't quite get it right before the deadline. Something to work on for next time. :)
I enjoyed reading through this one. I like how you went about the prompt, and I'd say you wrote a captivating first line. I like the dialogue, too, which may be a small thing, but it all reads believably.
Thanks man, appreciate it! :D
Hello! Some things I instantly loved about this story include: the use of incredible quotes to pack a punch, the way I felt like I was going on the journey with the MC, the fact that this at its core is not just a romantic love story, but a familial one. I just loved your use of the librarian as well because I fell like libraries are often over looked. I was also impressed with the way you wove in the narrative of not only the grandparents’ marriage, but the effect it had on the MC’s mom. I recently wrote a new story called “Dinner On Tuesda...
Your story was beautiful. I am truly an amateur writer. However, I really like how you worked the prompt into the story.
Author's Note: I'm not sure what this story ended up being. All I know is I had to somehow get it on paper before the deadline.