Over Memorial Weekend, I remember my grandfather. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force. It has been just over 11 years since my beloved Poppy suddenly left this earth after silently battling colon cancer and a broken heart. My mom’s dad who was known as Grandpa by me until my little ginger-haired brother at probably two years old changed that forever. He renamed him Poppy because he couldn’t say the full word Grandpa. Strangely, everyone started calling him Poppy, even my Gramma.
I can still feel Poppy’s hugs. He stood at over six feet tall so my arms were parallel to the ground as I wrapped them around his waist. He was so slim that I could grip my wrists as if I never wanted to let him go. My head came to just below his shoulders, and his chin’s white stubble felt like sand paper against my forehead. In my mind, the he would only wear a button-down collar shirt or a Lacoste short sleeve polo shirt. Actually, I didn’t know it was Lacoste until years later. I just remember he always had an alligator over his shirt pocket. I never saw him in a t-shirt. I also remember this brown ball cap with the orange letters SD, since he was from San Diego. And he had a newsboy cap, which made him look so dapper.
If I came over after he had eaten, he’d sit with me and have another meal, not letting me, or anyone else eat alone. A very gracious, social eater he was. At noon every weekday, his Bose radio would flicker to life automatically, and Rush Limbaugh would always be right. The afternoons would be time to sit on the couch with his leg crossed over his knee, and he would be reading either the newspaper or some new historical fiction or biographical book. Those long legs. As a small kid, I can remember he would be sitting with his legs crossed, I’d climb on to his size 13 foot and he would bounce his crossed leg up and down, giving me the feeling of riding a horse. He would hum a classical tune that I still sing to this day, and haven’t the slightest idea what it’s called.
In the span of ten years, he and my Gramma had eight kids. He had one daughter before he met my gramma, from his late first wife. He then had five boys and three girls with my gramma. Since I was the first grandchild, I was alive when six of them still lived at home. I accepted the fact that his first daughter lived in California with her grandmother, Poppy’s mom, my great-grandmother. Now that I’m much older, I find it sad that she was rarely a part of his new family. As a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, he was assigned to Korea when he wasn’t conceiving or delivering a baby. At least, that’s how it seemed. Maybe because my mom was so young, in her mind, her dad was gone all the time. Poppy didn’t hug his sons. They shook hands. That generation just wasn’t touchy feely. Then once grandkids came around, hugs were introduced. Poppy always hugged us grandkids, my mom and her sisters, and of course my gramma, but never his sons. Even for me as the oldest grandchild, I can remember the awkward hugs as my uncles tried to get used to the affection.
Gramma and Poppy always had a black Labrador retriever, and Banjo was the first one I remember, followed by Josie, and finally Winston. He and Gramma had the best dogs. They all had such sweet temperaments, and they loved being on a schedule as much as Poppy did. The dog always ate when Poppy ate, and that included morsels of whatever Poppy ate, too, much to Gramma’s chagrin. Their house will always be the one on Anderson Street in Dale City. When my mom was born, they lived in Rapid City, SD, then lived in Bellevue, NE for a few years. When my mom was about to start 5th grade, Poppy was transferred to the Pentagon and that’s when they moved to the house I remember. It was a brick house with a white two-story column on either side of the porch. There was always an American flag at attention and a bronze bald eagle mounted over the front door. We’d walk in, climb up the shag green carpet, and the warmth and smells of the kitchen would waft down. And then you would hear the sound of the Braves on television. Full blast. It took him decades before he finally acknowledged he needed to wear hearing aides. He had been a pilot and then a pilot trainer for many years he was in the Air Force, which obviously affected his hearing. Until he broke down to get hearing aides, the sound of the tv was deafening and Gramma was constantly irritated that she had to repeat everything she said. At night, he would take the dog out for his last walk before bed. This was my favorite time with Poppy. On a clear night, we would walk the sidewalks while the lab happily sauntered along, sniffing everything and randomly lifting his leg as we paused to look up. Poppy knew every star and every constellation. He would point at whichever ones he noticed, I would lean in and follow his long arm and finger out in the darkness, and he would tell me their names. Cassiopeia, the “W” in the sky, and Sirius, the brightest star, always make me think of him. He had a saucer magnolia tree outside the front bay window of their house. He would unfailingly yell at that silly tree every year for blooming just in time for a big frost or a snowstorm to hit. We would enjoy those gorgeous purply pink flowers for about a week before they fell off and stayed off for the next 50 weeks. I never heard Poppy swear. Maybe he did, but my ears never bore witness. Apparently, he was called “Gramaw” as a young man in the military. Maybe because he didn’t swear, which reminds me of Captain America. I did hear him say, “Fiddlesticks!” in frustration. That makes me laugh, and makes me realize I should adopt that word since it dissipates any trace of anger.
I’ve heard stories that Poppy was a horribly impatient math teacher to his kids due to his probable genius. He couldn’t understand why math was so difficult for some of his kids to grasp. I am sad to say that, my mom included, she and many of her siblings are literally afraid of any arithmetic beyond addition and subtraction. Thankfully, he must have softened with age, because I can remember him quizzing me on my multiplication tables in the morning before school. I have them memorized because of him, and no tears were shed in the process. The morning my brother was born, I can remember waking up to Poppy downstairs in the kitchen making breakfast. He told me that my mom and dad were at the hospital because my mom had just had a baby boy- the one who would convert us all to using the name Poppy. My brother had to write a report for school with the source being an in-person interview, and he chose to interview Poppy to ask about his war stories. My brother’s paper about Poppy’s plane engine catching fire was the only story I ever heard of his adventures in the Air Force. He just never talked about his time in the service, and I didn’t know enough to ask. He was always intensely interested in politics, but in my youth, it put me to sleep to hear him get so worked up over Gorbachev, the guy with a port wine stain on his forehead. It wasn’t until Poppy’s funeral that we found out he had been working at the Pentagon doing classified work. I wish I could ask him now. I would listen all night if I could. Often when he spoke, his sentences trailed off at the end. When I was in my twenties, I traveled quite a bit for my job. One day when I was telling him about all of my travels and social adventures, he looked at me quite seriously and said, “You’re about as busy as a one-armed paper hanger in a windstorm.” I’d never heard that expression before, and it struck me as so funny and such a true picture of my life at the time.
In the last year of Poppy’s life, first my uncle Mark and then my uncle Greg died. I think that broke him. I remember him repeating that a father should not have to bury his children. Poppy could have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but he chose to be cremated and have his ashes scattered along with Mark’s around the hunting cabin Mark loved so much. It could have been because I was so wrapped up in myself around the time after Mark died, that I didn’t know Poppy had cancer. On the last day of his life, he kissed my gramma on the forehead and said, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.” He knew, but nobody else knew that would be the last words he’d ever say to her. He know that would be the last time he slept in their bed. He knew Winston wouldn’t get to go on another walk with him. He knew he would never hear us call him Poppy again. But his pain and heartache obscured those seemingly small comforts.
Of course we usually only remember the good qualities of someone, especially after he or she is gone. And hopefully we’ve forgiven him, even if “I’m sorry,” was never spoken. Several years ago, I visited my uncle Tim with his family shortly after Christmas. Unlike all the rest of the Erickson children, he was short and stout. The other Erickson kids were tall, long-legged, and skinny (at least until age 30 or so). Along with impatience with math ineptitude, Poppy was not the most gracious with people being overweight. I think poor Tim got the brunt of those two character flaws. We sat outside on his deck amidst the trees that night and he told me how he’d made peace with his dad. For years, Tim struggled to quit smoking. One night shortly after Poppy passed away, Tim looked up at the stars in the sky and shouted, “Help me, Father!” He told me he didn’t know if he was talking to God or to his dad, but after that night, he never touched another cigarette again. I told him that I think they both heard his cry.
We all love and miss you, Poppy. Thank you for your service to this country.