Today is Papa's 93rd birthday.
If you'll recall, he has been in mourning since Mema passed away. I headed back to Louisiana this past weekend to pay him a visit.
The drive to his place, in the middle of nowhere, is a very peaceful drive. Childhood memories come flooding back.
He was thrilled that both my brother and I surprised him with a visit. I wonder if he thinks that he's forgotten. He confessed to many lonely feelings. He sits in his chair and drinks his favorite, Old Charter and Diet Coke, for hours on end, sometimes passing out.
I've no problem with his drinking. As he says, "I've been doing it for 93 years and it hasn't killed me yet!"
So, I surprised him with a cupcake and a fifth of whiskey. You'd have thought it was Christmas morning.
Papa always loved to spontaneously get up and take a trip somewhere. He and Mema owned an RV for as long as I can remember. We took many a summertime road trip with them. So when he said he wanted to head to Natchitoches for their weekend meatpie festival, my brother and I didn't blink. Besides, its been at least 2 years since I've had a good meatpie.
"OK, let's go!"
I sat in the back for the nearly hour and a half drive and listened as Papa reminisced along the way. I wonder if he doesn't recognize every field and tree (and bar!) along this route of nearly deserted road. No major freeways were taken. He wanted to take the scenic route.
I tried to record some tidbits as he spoke:
"That place right there has great fried chicken. Your Mema always made us stop there."
"Look at there! Hamburgers on the hoof!" (His expression for cows. I'd completely forgotten about this and suddenly I was 8 years old again, riding in the RV as we drove to who-knows-where.)
Upon hearing that I am turning 40 years old in December: "That's a long damn time since I held you as a crying baby in my arms." (The visual of this made me smile.)
He told stories of how long he had been drinking - since childhood! How during the war, when "the damn French winos" didn't have whiskey, he and other soldiers would sneak pure alcohol from the medics. The medics figured it out and switched to wood alcohol because "it would kill you if you drank it."
"When the war was over and I was back here, I could drink a whole pint of whiskey and not even flinch after that."
He knew the whole time exactly what little tiny town we were in and exactly how far we were from Natchitoches. When we passed the Red River, he announced our arrival.
My camera phone could not capture the beauty of this city. My family has attended the annual Christmas festival since... as far back as I can remember. The city was immortalized as the location of the movie Steel Magnolias.
The antebellum homes, French, Creole and Native American influence and southern charm are only a few of the reasons my family loves this town. My grandfather sighed as we drove through the cobblestone streets along the riverfront. He said he always wanted to live there.
It was a rainy day so the festival wasn't hopping as we'd expected. We walked down the street for a bit and Papa spoke to nearly everyone we passed. One lady in particular struck his fancy and he growled at her. She didn't even notice. I had to ask,
"Papa, what was that?"
"Well, it used to work!" he bragged.
He doesn't move around very well so we thought we'd have him take a seat while I visited the vendors for some meat pies and gator on a stick. We found the perfect place.
He and my brother sat and enjoyed a beer while I ventured to the riverfront festival. Meat pies in hand, I joined them at the bar for a beer.
Papa had the perfect place to sit.
I sat next to him on the bar stool and listened to him talk to the young female bartender about his wife of 70 years. Not many can say they were with the love of their life for 70 years. I'm not sure the college student who worked at the bar could understand the magnitude of that.
As we were about to leave, I began to rub his back. He winced, as if in pain. I asked what was wrong.
"I remember your Mema rubbing my back right before she went into the hospital. You just reminded me of that."
The pain and loneliness he feels is palpable.
We only stayed in Natchitoches for less than 2 hours. We headed back to Papa's house and listened as he told stories again, making my brother and I laugh out loud along the way.
As I left that day, Papa was sitting in his old chair again, drinking an Old Charter and Diet Coke. This time, however, he was smiling.
"I really enjoyed the day," he said, "That just makes the time feel so much better."