Moose was a substantial man, like a kettle-cooked potato chip—none of that lace-thin commercial stuff. He was a homegrown, thick-sliced country boy. He had his own teeth till the day he died— corn-on-the-cob pickets, tabacky stained. He ate burned cornbread and black licorice. He put Tabasco hot sauce on ice cream, or so he said.
Moose had an immaculate toolshed with a system of organization that would make a librarian drool. He was my grandfather, but I didn’t inherit any of his organizational genes. My grandmother, Duddie, finagled a way to wedge an extra ice-cream-only deep freeze in Moose’s toolshed. The shed had a distinctive smell to it—not good, not bad, but one I'd know anywhere. To Moose, it smelled like elbow grease and accomplishment. To me, it only smelled like the place that contained the giant freezer of ice cream.
I went in that shed for non-ice-cream purposes only one time. I walked in, and he quit drilling. He looked up at me and pushed his eye protection, rubber and wax-paper colored, up on his forehead, took out a handkerchief, and wiped away the Louisiana summer sweat. He stepped aside to let me pass by the tools on my way to the deep freeze. Instead, I hugged him. He smelled like warm Xerox ink and Maxwell House instant coffee (black, no sugar), gasoline and old tools, Duddie’s chocolate chip cookies and spearmint gum.
"What can I do for ya?" he asked.
"The dolls ya’ll got me have clothes Duddie made, but no wardrobe. And they have a pretty tea set, but no table and chairs. And they have pretty nightgowns, but nowhere to sleep . . ."
He smiled. "Well, Miss Doodlepunk, that sounds like a problem I can fix." Within a week, my dolls had a new bed, a closet (complete with tiny handmade coat hangers), and a proper table with two chairs for their afternoon tea.
Moose took his grandkids to Frank’s Restaurant when they were little. He’d been going there since the fifties. He stopped every morning for coffee and breakfast, and to talk about the sort of things old men talk about, from the time when they were young. Except, to us kids, we never knew them young, so we thought they had always hobbled and smelled of apple pie and shaving cream. Frank’s was full of those sorts of people—the kind who had never been young.
He walked with rhythm—less of a swagger, more of a jig. He’d fought in wars and bar brawls, lived through the Depression, and been married to a nervous Southern belle for nearly sixty years. No one could rush him. He sauntered with straight, square shoulders and a toothpick hanging out of his humble yes-ma’am, tip-of-the-hat grin he always wore. Doublemint gum was always in his pocket, underneath one of the two McDonald’s apple pies he’d bought that day— eat one and save the other. He wore creased khaki pants and a light plaid shirt, tucked in, brown leather belt and matching shoes. High on his bulbous nose sat a pair of 1980s bifocals that turned into sunglasses in the sunlight and the tint always lingered too long once inside.
He was a man of few words until he took us to Frank’s every Saturday. He’d pick up my cousin Kristen and I, and we’d head to get breakfast about 9:00 a.m., or what he called “midafternoon.” Chocolate chip pancakes, chocolate milk, and cheese grits for me; French toast and chocolate milk for Kristen. Two eggs over easy, blackened bacon and two burned biscuits for his second breakfast.
He had rough-and-tumble hands with impeccably clean nails, a habit I guessed that came from having to “GoJo” them every night when he returned from working in the oil fields. His big, blocky fingers wrote in big, blocky print, like he was used to writing only on graph paper, or for prototype analog fonts. They’d cupped each grandkid’s head when we were born, and later they meticulously dusted the shelves full of tacky moose-statue gifts we gave him, because we never knew what to give our Santa Claus.
At Frank’s, those hands never stopped. They tapped the table in a light drumming pattern; then, seeing the salt shaker outside of an imaginary boundary line, his storytelling paused and one hand roamed to set it right. When the shaker was in its spot, the story continued, and tap-tap- tap. He’d run his hands along the edge of the table, tap-tap-tap, then align his knife with the picnic pattern checks of the tablecloth, tap-tap-tap.
Frank’s walls were covered with old farm instruments. Moose had used every one of those things while growing up on a farm. If Kristen and I ran out of amusing stories about our new pearlescent Trapper Keepers, and the Southern gods were offended by the pending silence at the table, our conversation turned to the farm instruments for story fodder.
“What’s that?” We would point to some rusted metal object with teeth, claws, hooks, and chains. “Well, what do you think it is?” he’d ask.
“A medieval torture device,” seemed like a good default answer, plus it demonstrated our growing knowledge of world history.
Moose would stop his drumming and rearranging, and gesticulate how to work with the instrument, explain what it was for and tell us a story about how he’d used it.
After breakfast, we walked to the cash register and picked out candy, and he paid. He always paid, for everything. He paid for his daughter’s painful divorce: “You may be rich, son, but I’m richer. Think you’re draining her? You’re draining me, but that’s just fine ’cause I’ll spend every last dollar making sure my daughter is taken care of.” He paid for his grandchildren’s first cars, all on Christmas morning in 1998 in a display of loyalty to the Mercury brand with several different-colored Tracers. He paid for our first laptops when we graduated from high school. He paid for all of our college educations because he never graduated from the eighth grade. He paid for Duddie to live comfortably, surrounded by her family and antique furniture, until she died at ninety-eight, long after he did.
Through high school, our trips to Frank’s decreased, but I always wanted to be around him. Sometimes I needed to borrow his photocopier, and sometimes I needed new perfume. Sometimes I needed a good conversation or a hug. He’d had lip cancer, so his lips were thinner, but every time I walked into his office, that same smile showed up—those two thin lines like folded and stretched Silly Putty. He’d stamp my hand with the silly moose stamp Kristen had bought for him. We’d sit and talk.
He was a smoker as a young pool shark and champion roller skater in the thirties. With those hobbies, I think you’d have to be, or else you might be beaten up. But I never smoked, because of it. He didn’t rail against much, just smoking, orange marmalade, and France. When I broke up with my high school sweetheart, Moose took me to Frank’s for breakfast, and I told him I wanted to move to Paris and bring my cat and my bike and eat baguettes and let my heart heal. He took the toothpick out of his mouth and leaned on his elbows, hulking shoulders up to his ears, poised for life advice. He looked over his bifocals. “I crawled across France on my belly during the war, eating nothin’ but marmalade and Spam sandwiches, and there ain’t nothing in France for ya right now. Go to college, Burby; you’ll heal just fine.” So I did go to college instead, and I did heal just fine.
Moose’s war-fightin’, oil-field, pool-shark days had left him nicotine-stained and cancer-ridden: lip, lung, colon, liver. Lung cancer was the finisher. During my freshman year of college, I spent a few days in October visiting the hospital where he was staying. He’d had lung surgery, and I sat in a pink plastic chair and watched his labored breathing. A sickly yellow light cast a jaundiced glow over his skin, and the breathing tubes that went into his nose were so small compared to his cavernous old-man nostril openings that I was concerned they weren’t giving him enough air. He slept, and his hands stayed folded on his chest. A small tube draped across the blankets and snaked its way down into a holding container. I thought it was a brown-colored tube at first, but as I leaned forward, I saw small bubbles and breaks in the line of color. I lifted the blanket; it was connected to a port in his chest. Brown liquid sludged out of his lungs, down then back up, farther down and a little back up, in rhythm with his breathing, eventually dripping into the closed basin on the floor.
He half-healed after a few weeks and went home from the hospital. He’d barely gotten settled in when I decided he needed my favorite meal, so I spent the afternoon taking pancake lessons from my dad. Dad had worked at McDonald’s in high school as the pancake maker: good hot pan, no butter; watch the sides turn dull; watch the tiny bubbles rise; and when they break but don’t fill with batter, it’s time to flip ’em. After an hour, I perfected the flip.
I picked up the bowl of remaining batter and the bag of chocolate chips, and I walked around the block to Moose and Duddie’s house. I opened the door and tiptoed to the couch. He lay dozing under the blankets. I sat beside him and took his solid hand. “Do you want some chocolate chip pancakes?” I asked. He nodded slowly and smiled his close-mouthed smile. I made a pile of pancakes and grabbed Duddie’s homemade syrup from the fridge. I tucked a paper towel in his shirt and helped him sit, and I fed him gooey forkfuls of pancake.
When he was full, I helped him slide back down under his blankets. “Will you pray with me?” he asked. I smiled to demonstrate the steel-magnolia grit I thought every man would want in that moment, and I prayed for him to feel better. I asked God to heal him. When I opened my eyes, I saw his lashes were clumped and wet, and I used the syrupy napkin to wipe his tears. I kissed him good night and then sat on their porch swing with the mosquitoes, and I cried by myself.
He knew he was dying. I didn’t. I’d not seen death yet—the hollowness and haunted eyes and drawn brows—as if the person were surprised at the wasting approach of forever sleep. He wasn’t at that place yet when I went over to their house that evening, but he was about to be. He’s smiled at me, and now I wonder if it was because of the ignorant simplicity of my prayer, and that he knew I’d only have a few months of being a kid before I had to wrestle with real tragedy when I lost him. It was the first time I ever saw him cry, but not the last. I didn’t cry with him; I decided to be the strong one.
Right after Christmas, he went back into the hospital, and we knew it wouldn’t be long before he was gone. He called his family to his bedside the night before he died, and he was lucid enough to talk. He held our hands and smiled and nodded when we said nice things to him. At a quiet moment, he said, “Here I am, surrounded by all of my treasures, and you know what? My rainbow just never ends.”
My dad was in the room with him when he died. Moose was breathing and sludging through tubes and machines. My dad told him it would be all right if he wanted to go. “Ummm, also, Duddie is on her way up here right now. She will be here in five minutes.” Moose smiled, and his eyes watered and he closed them. Breathe. Stop. Breathe. Stop. Duddie missed him by moments. She thought it was because of “that damn elevator.” She never knew Moose had chosen his moment to go. It was the first time I heard Duddie curse.
The next day, I headed to their house, the center of the beehive, to sit with family and wonder how the hell we could continue without the patriarch. Moose and Duddie had fostered a Christmas Neverland for their grandkids, and watching Duddie mourn broke me. I realized then that he was her hero too, not just her partner, and she and I would spend the next several years learning to be grown-ups together.
It was cold, damp, gray. I wore the scarf Duddie had made for me wrapped around my neck and over my mouth, breathing and rebreathing my Earl Grey breath. I didn’t bother with makeup; I knew better, and my eyes were puffy anyway. I got in my car and turned on the radio, and a soft song was just starting. I’d never heard it before.
“Thanks . . . for . . . the times that we shared. The memories are all in my mind . . .” the voice sang.
I teared up; it was about memories.
“And now that we’ve come to the end of our rainbow . . .”
What? Rainbows. Memories. It was too much of a coincidence. I slammed on the brakes, thinking, Maybe I should learn the song and sing it at his funeral. That would be lovely.
“. . . There’s something I must say out loud . . .”
I cried and I sat in my car, trying to remember the lyrics so I could look up the song later. “You’re once . . . twice . . . three times a lady . . . and I lo-o-ove you.”
“Yes, you’re once . . . twice . . . three ti-i-i-imes a lady, and I lo-o-o-ove you.”
Are you kidding? No. No way.
I laughed and screamed and cried. And then I called Kristen because that’s what I do when something horrible or funny happens. It was a relief to laugh. I was looking for signs that everything would be okay. I had hoped the song was that sign, but it turned out only to be Lionel Ritchie.
After the funeral, we all gathered at Duddie’s house. The guests filtered in and back out again, snacking and talking in whispers. The women—Duddie, my aunt and my mother, and my cousins and I—all gathered in our cocoon: the kitchen. Duddie shuffled over to get something sweet and six forks. We poured burned, lukewarm coffee into little white cups and cut it with cream. She took the plastic wrap off a tart topped with almond slivers and stuck her fork in. We all followed suit.
“What am I gonna do?”
“Dud, you’ll have a full house still. You always do,” my aunt said.
“I really thought he was getting better.” Duddie teared up. Her small cassette player, smooshed between her cookbooks on a baker’s rack, began to play an old instrumental song. “Moose and I danced a million miles to this.”
“I don’t know it,” I said.
She started to speak-sing the words in her wavering falsetto, but before she could finish the first verse, she started to cry. We all looked down, not knowing what to say. She sipped her coffee and took a bite of almond tart, and her face changed, almost imperceptibly.
“It’s perfectly delicious.” She picked up the cake and inspected it. “Where’s this from?” “Karen brought it,” my mom said.
Duddie sighed, her head drooping. “Moose would have loved this.” We all watched her, wondering if we should grab tissues. “Finding this recipe might just make the funeral worth it.”
We all coped in our own ways. Early one morning, months later, my phone rang. It was Kristen.
“Oh my God,” she said. That was her typical greeting.
“What? You okay?” I asked.
“Well, I mean, yes? I’m at the doctor’s.”
“What’s wrong?” It was too early for a normal doctor. I assumed she was in the emergency room.
“I’m waiting in the parking lot. For a dermatologist to open.”
“Because I need to get a tattoo removed.” She’d gotten it four hours before. “My mother’s going to kill me!”
“Where is it?”
“Well, it’s of Moose’s stamp. You know, the one he always put on our hands when we went to his office?”
“Yeah, of course! That’s cute! What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, I didn’t want anyone to see it. Like a special secret memorial.”
“Okay . . .”
“Kirby . . . it’s on my ass.”
My mom always said that Duddie grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth. I was ten before I figured out that’s not where her silver fillings came from. As a teen, she worked at a movie theater. She was the ticket ripper. She was prim—a music major at Millsaps College, even earning the title of Miss Millsaps. She was dating a handsome doctor.
Moose came to town to deliver a car for a friend—her parents said he was “oil-field trash.” On his night off, he went to the movies. He asked her out, and she said she “could simply nevah.” When he came back to the movies and asked again, she said yes. Their second date, he wanted to know if she could make banana pudding, and of course she could, so he asked her to marry him.
“Not if you were the last man on Earth,” she said.
A year later, they married. She was pregnant before he left for D-Day, and Moose didn’t meet his child until he was several years old. By the time I was born, the last of four grandkids, Duddie’s waist had rounded out, and she looked like Mrs. Claus. I lived around the block from Duddie and Moose for most of my life. Every day, as I waited at school in the carpool area, I would watch for her little gray Oldsmobile to come puttering up the line. I would pray that my mother was sick so Duddie would come pick me up from school. I knew if my mom got me, I would have to escape before she made me do homework, made me clean my room or eat vegetables, or water-boarded me.
Duddie had a two-story house, and Kristen and I often spent the night in the room where our moms grew up. The house was a holding bin for crafts, grandkids, and chocolate. Every day after school, we crafted, making crepe-paper bunnies and wreaths for any holiday Hallmark could fabricate. I sat upstairs in the hot afternoons and waited for Duddie to finish ironing my aunt’s nurse uniforms. The iron would burble and steam softly over the thin, wavy sounds of Floyd Cramer’s Piano Magic, Volume 2 cassette. Niagara starch clouded the air, and I read a horse book, dozing in the squares of sunlight streaming in through the windows. When she finished, we went downstairs for cinnamon toast and picked up whatever project we’d left the day before.
We sewed clothes for dolls until I loved model horses more than Barbies; then we outfitted my entire herd with new bridles and saddles. When I was (finally) interested in fashion, she taught me to make my own purses.
Outside in her garden, she and I set about making fairylands in her wheelbarrow. We filled it with dirt, planted grass and tiny trees, and fashioned miniature houses for neighborhoods. I dumped “fairy dust” all over it, covering the whole wheelbarrow with enough glitter to make a disco ball jealous. Duddie would grab a Coke for us, and we would wait for the fairies to descend on their new home. Half an hour passed before she would say, “Oh, wait a minute . . .oh no.” Then she’d explain to me that she only just remembered that most fairies she’d met were quite shy, and of course they would not appear while we were watching—how silly of her to forget—and we should leave the new land in peace for its inhabitants. We’d pick a few lemons from the tree and move inside to make lemon curd for a high tea with my porcelain dolls.
She taught me to arrange flowers because she was a licensed florist. When my brother was eight, he found a dead bird in our backyard, and Kristen and I were horrified. We planned a funeral and invited our families. Duddie wrapped a matchbox in satin and sewed a tiny pillow, ringed with lace, for the coffin. She made refreshments for the memorial service and, of course, a tiny graveside funeral spray. Our entire extended family attended. When we were in college, a rat took up residence in Kristen’s kitchen, and it evaded her traps for months. When he finally ate the cheese and lost his head, Duddie arrived the next day with a human-sized funeral spray of lilies, roses and baby’s breath, complete with a tripod stand and a banner with the rat’s name: Rumpelstiltskin. I still can’t just throw flowers in a vase: I must properly arrange them.
She taught me how to bake and wield an icing bag to decorate beautiful cakes, and to work with fondant. Every year we spent weeks before Christmas preparing gifts for neighbors—painting professional molds with colored chocolate and stuffing them with homemade fillings. When I finally had a boyfriend, she taught me how to make crabmeat-stuffed chicken breast with an andouille cream sauce for our date night. After the meal was complete, we tasted it. She looked at me and giggled, shaking her head and repeating, “Perfectly delicious. Perfectly delicious.”