Probably the one thing I could not give up, ever, even if my doctor said my stomach would treat it like battery acid, or it made my face grow green, itchy splotches, is ice cream.
Ice cream is definitely my desert island dessert. I would find a way to make it out of coconuts. And I hate coconuts.
And I owe my love of ice cream to my grandfather.
I am flying home from a four-day trip with Mom and my brother to see him. I can't remember the last time I saw him. I really think it's been 15 years, but honestly it was probably longer than that.
You should probably know something about me if you're one of the four loyal fans who read this blog with any regularity (and declining by the day, from the looks of the comments lately). And that is personal relationships aren't as much of a priority with me as they should be.
They aren't as much of a priority for Grandpa Brooker, either. He lived in the mountains near Janesville, Calif. (heard of it? I didn't think so) for many years, surrounded by deer and lizards and scratchy brush for miles on every side. His neighbors could have been writing a screed against the American government and no one would know, even by today's standards, which make you remove your shoes before you board an airplane (really, is there anything stupider than this law?).
That's not to say that I don't enjoy people, I do. And that's also not to say Grandpa didn't love us. He did. And that's not to say that we didn't miss each other. We did. But we fell out of touch.
I was no longer a child, and as a result (probably a sad result), I didn't take vacations with my family anymore. He lived in California, along with many of my relatives, and I preferred to spend what little summer vacation I had with my father climbing mountains in Colorado. This was especially true after my parents got divorced, as it was the only time my father and I really bonded together.
I can talk to my mother for hours on the phone, but I need something with my Dad to bring us together. Most sons do, I think. That's probably the biggest reason why hunting and fishing still thrives.
It's ironic because in many ways I think Grandpa Brooker was my favorite grandparent. I loved my Grandma England, but that's partly because she spoiled us with sugar cereal and trips to Disneyland, and she was sweet, too, and kids always need that. I loved my other two grandparents, too, but there was just something about Grandpa.
Maybe it was his place, a haven for little explorers like me. Even then, I had the urge to get outside and tromp around the hills. I would spend hours coming up with ways to catch one of those lizards that swarmed around his property. I tried loopholes, snare traps and scrambling as fast as I could after them with my bare hands.
I was, of course, rarely successful. I remember finally catching one and freaking out because I was so excited to get my Holy Grail and because I did not consider what to do with it after I caught it.
Grandpa was the first person I told about the squirming prize I held in my hand.
Maybe it was the way he slept in his pop-up trailer in the back with us, even when it was pretty damn cold at night and those rickety cots tortured his back like the CIA. He always did fun stuff like that with us.
Maybe it was the way he watched out for us, sometimes grudgingly but always with love. I love ice cream because when I was just a toddler, my parents used to get me a sugar cone when we went out for ice cream.
Grandpa, of course, was horrified at this. My parents protested that I was perfectly happy with a sugar cone, that I didn't know any better, that ice cream is messy.
He wouldn't hear of it. He made sure my cone had ice cream. I took my first bite, and as my Dad said, "My face lit up, and that was it."
But I think it was because Grandpa seemed the most, well, human. He was one of us, really. He said "damn" a lot. Like, a lot, to the point where my parents just gave up on us hearing it. When I played Cribbage with him, he would mutter "Oh, you got another damn point, do ya?"
He laughed a lot, almost all the time, and it was real, a mixture of scratch and loose liquid and a priceless sense of wiseass that he helped me forge even when I could barely talk.
That laugh, of course, also came from his addiction to cigarettes, a reminder that he wasn't perfect and something he discussed openly. He also loved to gamble at slot machines, and even when he did it frequently, he was careful to make sure we knew that the money he always seemed to win at them didn't always flow freely.
Grandparents, or my grandparents, at least, never really seem as human to us as they should. They're too perfect and they spoil us and offer us fun stuff to do and play with and eat.
I was shocked later to learn that Grandmother England, who loved us dearly and was one of the best grandmothers I knew, was a hard, stingy mother with a spending problem who rarely doled out love for her own kids.
But I was never stunned to learn about Grandpa Brooker's dark side because, well, he didn't have much of one, for one thing, and he never really hid what he did have from us. He cursed and gambled a bit and muttered about everyone else's driving and was crotchety and fun at the same time.
He is still all those things, even at 92. He's got to be the only 92-year-old I know who can still live on his own. He made comments on my driving as he worked our way up to his old house - he lives in a trailer now in Susanville, Calif., just down the road - and he still laughs a lot, though it's interrupted by his desperate puffs of oxygen he carries with him everywhere. He says "damn" all the time.
It was a great visit, and though I did not talk to him much face-to-face, I loved listening to him. He laughed at me too. When I made yet another wiseass remark, something I do because it's all I really know how to do well in conversation, he turned to my mother.
"Is he staying until Monday?" He was only half-kidding.
I learned a lot about him this time as well through stories that wouldn't have interested me when I was busy chasing lizards. He fought in the Navy and had to leave two young kids, including my mother, to battle the Japanese. He once spent several months looking for work in Alaska and considered moving his family up there, until he was stranded in a snowstorm and pitched the whole idea once he escaped the winter prison.
He's also more sentimental now.
A few months ago, he sent me a card, with a letter about the weather and what else is going on with his life (not much, really, to be honest), and he included "a little green" for "maybe some ice cream." I smiled at that. The card, a long poem about wishing he could say more things and be closer to us, was along to "express himself."
I called him a few times before my visit, and that's something I'll continue to do. I want to remember this visit for a long time.
I did not think visiting was important, but visiting, really, is the only way you can unlock all the old memories about someone. I had forgotten about the lizards or the camping trips we used to take or the games of Cribbage we used to play.
I will remember them now, I hope, forever.
Especially the first night we saw him, when we made a trip to a little cafe for dinner. Grandpa looked at my brother and I after we ordered and grinned at us.
I had Chocolate.