I’ve done it before, many times and I usually come up empty. I meet someone from somewhere else and I just throw it out there. “Do you know so and so?”
Most of the time I can hear the unspoken words behind the predictable sympathetic smile, “It’s a big city, you know?” and, “that was a really long time ago.”
But, I ask anyway, not really sure of what I’m after. Perhaps it is connection to my new acquaintance. More than likely, I’m looking for connection to my past and the person I’m asking about. So I cast my net again and again with the wild hope of catching a memory, a glimpse of who I am.
I met him at a wedding reception in Virginia. My husband dropped me off at the door and went to park the car. I wandered into the library of the large estate, taking in the grandeur of the space when he spoke, “I sure would hate to pay the heating bill in this place. You know there are 34 bathrooms.”
He was a refined older gentleman, interesting and totally non-threatening. I guessed him to be about ten years older than me. His name was Brice. I asked him if he’d been in this building before and he told me that he knew the man who owned the house. Apparently the owner tried to sell it shortly after he built it and couldn’t find a buyer so he turned it into a rental venue for parties, weddings and such.
“You must be from Richmond. Did you grow up here?” I asked. He told me that he had lived in Richmond all his life which caused me to suddenly become an ancestral investigator, my growing curiosity taking over. I stopped listening to him and started thinking of a subtle way to ask this stranger if he knew anything about my family. My mother and father grew up in Richmond and so did both sets of grandparents, all my aunts, uncles and cousins. Mom and Dad moved away shortly after they married so I grew up in another city. Though we visited often, I knew very little of life in Richmond and the day-to-day events that shaped the lives of my relatives.
I took a chance, risked looking foolish and offered the bait “Years ago, my uncle owned a little gift shop in the Village Shopping Center. There was no comment from Brice. I tried again, “When I was a little girl my grandfather owned a hardware store on the West end.”
“You mean Kelley’s?” He said. “As in the Kelleys that lived on New Kent Road, on the 5000 block? I grew up a few streets over and I knew your uncle and your grandfather. Your grandfather was one of the finest men I’ve ever known.”
“Score,” I thought and I felt all warm and satisfied. We talked for a while as the room began to fill with other guests. I introduced Brice to my husband, said thank you, many times and forced myself to walk away. I focused my attention on the beautiful bride and her groom, the music, the heartfelt toasts, and the many friends that were there to celebrate. Part of me however, insisted on remaining somewhere else, in another place and time when I was a little girl and my grandfather was the most wonderful person in my world. The evening quickly passed, but the awe and wonder of Papaw lingered throughout the night and seeped into my dreams. I woke to the smell of his pipe, the sound of his laughter, the love in his eyes.
On the way to the airport, my husband listened as I recited every wonderful memory I could recall about my Papaw. The ring of my cellphone interrupted. I did not recognize the number, but I answered anyway. It was Brice. He had gone to some bit of trouble to track me down. He said he couldn’t find me at the reception when he remembered something. He wanted to tell me a story that he knew I’d have to hear. It went something like this.
When Brice was a boy, his aunt and uncle came to his home for Christmas. Packed tight in the trunk of their car were all of their Christmas presents. On Christmas Eve, they went out to the car to get the packages only to find that they were gone. They had been robbed. Of course all the stores would be closed at this late hour and even if they were open they had no more money. His family knew that the children would be devastated with no toys from Santa. Christmas was ruined. Brice’s mother told them that she knew someone who might be able to help them. She called Papaw who immediately said to meet him at his hardware store. It was late at night and my grandfather opened the store (which had toys on the second floor). He told Brice’s uncle to get everything he needed and together they wrapped the gifts. “This is the best part,” Brice said. “When asked how much they owed him, Mr Kelley said, don’t be ridiculous, have a Merry Christmas.”
Now, I am really touched. I look at my husband and at the scenery passing by with moist eyes. I receive this little bit of family history with humble gratitude, recalling how much my Grandfather loved the holidays. I remember Mama telling me that he added the toy floor in his hardware store when his grandchildren were born. As kids we would run up the stairs in his store believing that we were entering a place second only to Santa’s workshop. When my parents couldn’t afford it, there were toys under our tree. Family legend tells of a time that Papaw took food, gifts and a fully decorated tree, to a family who lost everything in a fire a few days before Christmas. He didn’t even know them. Daddy told me that Papaws only requirement for granting permission to marry my mother was, “only if you bring her home every Christmas.”
Upon reflection, I wonder why there is so much joy in seeking and finding stories of old friends and family. I ask myself why I would try to describe the awesomeness of my Grandfather in a blog that no one may even read. I look to Frederick Beuchner for possible explanation. Frederick Beuchner wrote: Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but spiritually.