We drove to the Elks Lodge in Evergreen. The bar television blared coverage of a plane that slid off of the icy Denver runway a few hours earlier. “We need to get the hell out of here before this storm gets worse,” my father said to my mother.
At the far end of the room stood a table upon which rested a folded American flag and a wrapped box: my grandfather’s ashes.
“Let’s get this over with so these old farts can get back to drinking,” my father said.
A handful of chairs were lined up in front of the table. My grandmother, parents and I sat in the front row. The rest of the seats filled and someone turned down the television. An old timer pushed his stool away from the bar and walked to the table.
“Otie was a good man. It’s just not going to be the same here without him. He was my best friend. I’m sorry, Mabel,” he said, and he hid behind his handkerchief and hurried back to the bar.
“Who was that?” I whispered.
“Some drunk. He’s crying because your grandpa won’t be paying for his drinks anymore,” my father said.
A few more speakers stepped forward, and then a stranger handed my grandmother the neatly folded flag. She let out a wail and it was over: 67 years reduced to a ten minute memorial in an Elks Lodge basement.
I carried the box of ashes to the car. My grandfather wasn’t a big man — 5’8″ maybe, and alcoholic thin — but the realization that he could be reduced to such a small package surprised me. The box was heavier than I expected, though, like carrying a gift wrapped brick. And why did the funeral home wrap him like a present? That seemed like a sick joke, but so did cremating a man haunted by the smell of burning flesh.
My grandmother and I dropped my parents at the airport and drove back to her cabin in the mountains. As soon as we hit the door she said, “Grandma will make you some macaroni and cheese. I know how you love Grandma’s macaroni and cheese.”
I really did. Aside from boiling the noodles, she let her mac and cheese make itself. My grandmother’s recipe consisted of throwing the ingredients into a casserole dish and letting them combine in the oven. The result was a bubbly, cheesy mess with peaks of crispy, caramelized macaroni elbows.
While she busied herself in the kitchen, I moved my duffel bag from the living room to the cabin’s back bedroom. The closet floor was crowded with boxes from my grandmother’s beauty shop. A hard-shelled briefcase caught my eye. In the days since my grandfather’s sudden death there had been much talk regarding whether he left behind a life insurance policy. I flopped the briefcase onto the bed and popped the latches.
Stacks of yellowed paper greeted me: newspaper clippings about my great uncle and his children burning to death in a fire; an obituary for another great uncle killed just one month before the Germans surrendered; bits and pieces from the war. Beneath the clippings lay sheets of manilla paper not unlike those children use for craft projects. Glued to these pages were photos of European buildings both intact and destroyed; American soldiers mugging for the camera; a young version of my grandfather in an ill-fitting uniform; bodies.
Bodies piled like tree limbs. Bodies sprawled on the ground like banana peels. Bodies tossed into long ditches by old men smoking pipes and wearing traditional German clothing. So many bodies piled on a hillside that they didn’t even look like bodies.
Mauthausen. My grandfather’s heavy psyche wrapped up in a little box.
“Jimmy, you know your dad doesn’t like you messing with that,” my grandmother said from the doorway.
“I was looking for a life insurance policy,” I said.
“He’ll beat your ass if he catches you in that briefcase again,” she said. “Put it away before he gets home.”
“Grandma? It’s me, Jim. Your grandson.”
She stared at me for a moment, and then she said, “Oh, I know it,” and she hurried back down the hallway. “Bring that briefcase out here if you want. Grandma’s macaroni will be done pretty soon. I know how much you like Grandma’s macaroni.”
After dinner we sat in the living room and I thumbed through the briefcase. “Did Grandpa ever talk about the war?” I asked.
“No, he never did,” she said. “He wouldn’t even let me look through that old briefcase. I don’t know why he kept it.”
“Where did the pictures come from?”
“He took them. You know how Grandpa likes cameras.”
I flipped the pages. “This stuff is important. It belongs in a museum.”
She walked to the back of the house and returned with a flag folded into a neat triangle. “Take this home. Your grandpa would want you to have it,” she said. I unfolded the flag and stared at the big, black swastika.
I stayed with my grandmother in her cabin on the mountain for two more weeks. Sometimes I was me and others I was my father as a boy. Occasionally I was my grandfather. I drove her to her errands and bank tellers, gas pumpers, and grocery clerks all repeated “I’m sorry about Otie.” She sobbed briefly each time and then put her guard up again. In the afternoons I took the briefcase to the grocery store and stuffed coins into the photocopier.
A few months later I had a dream. Jody and I were sleeping, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and my grandfather was leaning over me.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Where’s that goddamned flag?” he said. I rose, and we walked to the closet. I slid open the dresser drawer and lifted up the stack of tee shirts. Hidden in the corner like a black widow was the red and black Nazi flag. “No, Jimmer. That’s no good,” he said. “Nobody will ever know.”
May be my favorite one yet.
I love that both of our grandfathers loved cameras. It is a desire to preserve the past that you seem to share. I am grateful for that.