My Letter


My grandfather, Papa, died in his workshop a week after Thanksgiving. The shop, located in his backyard, was where he ran his own upholstery business for years, and after retiring, he loved to spend hours our there tinkering on various projects. The locaton of his passing was fitting, and maybe even what he would have picked had he been given the choice, but the timing felt unfair. He was only 77.

Although he had heart problems, he was scheduled for bypass surgery, and his prognosis seemed good. He was looking forward to getting it behind him, because then his oral surgeon would finally fix his teeth so he could eat steak again. His death was unexpected, and though certainly not the first loss of a loved one in my life, it was by far the most difficult.

What I felt this time went beyond sadness, and it was hard for me to accept that he was really really gone when I had just seen him and talked to him the week before. I had spent several days after that eating sandwiches made out of the turkey he cooked on his gas grill, as was his annual Thanksgiving Day tradition. I always assumed he'd be around until he was 90, even though logically I knew there was no guarantee.

Papa left four things to me in his will: a .22 pistol, a Browning 22 rifle, a "horseless carriage" that he built from a used lawnmower engine, and a woodworking table he made for himself and used in his shop to work on many of his projects over the years. I wasn't suprised to learn that he left me the horseless carriage, because he had always referred to that as the "Carrie's car." He built it when I was a kid, and named it the "Carriemobile" in my honor. He and several of his buddies who built similar cars formed "The Horseless Carriage Club" and drove them in Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Veterans Day parades all over eastern North Carolina. Sometimes I'd go to the parades and ride with him.

The reason he left me the guns and table are a mystery to me. I've never shot a gun in my life (though perhaps now that I'm a gun owner, it's time for me to learn) nor have I ever built anything out of wood. Asking why is just another item on a long list of things I wish I'd gotten the opportunity to do before he died.

The table has turned out to be a prized possession, so maybe he just had the foresight to know I'd appreciate it. I don't share his talent for building things, so I'm not using it for its original purpose, but it ended up being the perfect size and shape to use as an entryway table in my house.

I'm not a gun enthusiast, and neither was he as far as I could tell, but even I know enough to tell the guns have been well taken care of. As much as I hate to draw the obvious comparison, that's not unlike the state in which he left most of the other people and possessions he cared for in life.

I don't suppose it ultimately matters why he chose the objects he did. Once a person is gone, what we have left to us are our memories, photos, and maybe if we are lucky, some of their stuff. Though I'd rather still have him around, I'm thankful for these tangible reminders.

Papa was the kind of man you want to remember. There are a lot of things I could write about him, but you asked for a letter, not a biography. There are things I want you to know:

When I was little, he was the only person I'd let near my wild, tangled and extremely curly hair with a comb.

He gave everybody a nickname. I was Puddin', which may have been giving me a little too much credit for being sweet; my mom, Bird, because her first name is also the name of a type of bird; my dad, Hippie, for the long hair he had when they first met; and Nana was, inexplicably, Lizzie (her name is Christine.)

He always cleaned his plate, and after every shared me never failed to ask, "Puddin', why'd you make me eat so much?"

He was stubborn and hard-headed, sometimes infuriatingly so. He was a tough man in every sense of the word, and probably tough to live with at times. He was also generous and selfless, and constantly demonstrated his love for his family and friends through his actions. When he was fifteen, his father passed away, and he dropped out of school and went to work so his younger brother wouldn't have to.

In spite of not having a high school diploma he was the smartest person I have ever known. He could figure out how to build anything. He even built a machine he used to shell the peas he grew in his garden. He had a green thumb and always kept a vegetable garden growing, along with his blueberry bushes and grapevines. Every time I encounter a sad supermarket tomato, I wish for one he grew instead.

He had a great sense of humor, and loved to tell stories. Now when my family gets together, we often find ourselves telling stories about him.

A lot of my best Papa stories and memories are from childhood family vacations, and when I remember him now, I often picture him as he was back then. When I was around six or so, we took a trip to the Grand Canyon. Papa had bought a camcorder, and he documented everything, even the parts of the trip were we were just driving down the Interstate in our Winnebago. Watching the tapes later practically gave us all motion sickness.

My favorite photo of him was taken on that trip and now it is displayed in my house on the wall above the table he built. In it he is standing with his back to the photo taker, feet right at the edge of the Grand Canyon, camcorder in hand, but instead of looking through it, he has it down by his side. With no guardrails in sight - and knowing him, he probably climbed over if any were there - he's admiring the view ahead.

Carrie Teachey Lee

Carrie T. Lee, Librarian

This letter is part of the Death Letter Project - North Carolina, a means to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


Michael Palko