The lantern

Pa-Pa’s lantern

In the lamplight, the withered leaves collect at my feet 

and the wind begins to moan. 

—”Memory,” Andrew Lloyd Webber & Trevor Nunn

It is all I have of him.

I don’t recall ever seeing it until I returned home after my Grannie’s death, years ago. My father picked the dusty old lantern up from a box of her belongings: “This was Pa-Pa’s,” he said. “You don’t remember him.”

I bristled a little. “Yes I do, Daddy.”

He smiled, shook his head dismissively. He placed the lantern on the bookshelf by the front door.

“He had white hair,” I said. “And glasses.”

Daddy’s brow furrowed just a bit.

“And he wore a gray . . .  jumpsuit or something,” I continued. “And he was tall . . .”

Daddy chuckled. “No, he wasn’t! He was a short man, although he did wear a gray work suit. He was a mechanic.”

“Well, I was little. He looked tall to me.”

He looked at me strangely, then.

And told me I could have the lantern.

Pa-Pa was my step-grandfather. There are very few images of him in my mind. He and Grannie, my maternal grandmother, lived in the big house with the long stairs outside. My mother and father and I lived in the small white house right next door. One day Pa-Pa came over, sat in the floor with me, and taught me how to spin a rubber ball. Round and round it went, white and pink, blurring, round and round; I didn’t want it to stop. I must have amused him because he laughed a lot . . . when I recalled this to my mother, she said Yes, he thought a lot of you. He didn’t get along with his own family. 

When I first saw a model of the Earth rotating, it brought to mind Pa-Pa and that ball on the floor.

My memories of those days are fragmented, strange. In Grannie and Pa-Pa’s living room I saw a pair of bedroom slippers that still had feet in them. I screamed in terror and couldn’t make anyone understand me. Another time I was standing between the kitchen and the living room when something behind me exploded. I saw the flash, the fire, reflected in the picture window behind the sofa where the grown-ups were sitting. They came running —it turned out to be a pan of grease left on the stove, igniting. No one was hurt but, again, I was terrified.

Pa-Pa let me ride in his wheelbarrow, out past the blue snowball bushes (hydrangeas) in his yard.

—That’s about all.

I have no recollection of his vanishing.

I know now that his grown sons told my parents we couldn’t stay in the little house anymore; we had to find another place to live.

Much later I learned that Pa-Pa bought the little house after World War II, when a nearby Army camp was decommissioned and its buildings were sold for a song. He had it moved to its place beside his big house. When I was born and my parents weren’t happy with their apartment, Pa-Pa offered it to them.

That little house, the first home I remember, had been the Army hospital morgue.

Ghosts, ghosts, everywhere . . .

I wonder why he comes to mind this night, why I suddenly think about his lantern.

Perhaps because he died in March.

I didn’t know this, either, until I found his grave a few years ago.

I stood reading his headstone, shivering in the dusk, brown leaves swirling, rattling softly at my feet. The month, the year—I could hardly believe it, myself.

He died in March.

I would turn three in May.

But I remember you, Pa-Pa. I remember.

—Your old lantern still lights.

20 thoughts on “The lantern

  1. You’ve woven the ghosts and the real so beautifully in this story, Fran. There’s this drumbeat of sadness or fear or anger or something– especially with his grown sons and then not seeing him more. And I love how your memory of him is that he was tall. Of course he was since you were little!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Melanie! I think the “something” else woven through is fear and uncertainty. A little child trying to interpret things she can’t yet understand. There were volatile forces at work in that adult world and even if I was shielded – at age two – I sensed them. Mostly I wrote this to preserve my tiny, precious fragments of Pa-Pa – and to point out just how young children are when their memories come alive. The ones that remain are tried to strong emotion; I think that’s why they haven’t faded. So grateful I have them – so grateful for your words today. 🙂

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  2. Wow. This is spectacular. I love how fuzzy the images are. It reads like you’re watching an old super8 movie with the ten-second cuts and the blurred edges. I love the last line and the way it fits with the feeling of loneliness and affirmation at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a cool analogy – the old movie – that’s very much how these memories play in my head! So much is lost – the “film” is just too old. Happy that the last line struck you; I needed to tie it back to the lantern, my only tangible tie to Pa-Pa. Not to mention metaphor. 🙂 Thanks so much for this amazingly insightful comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This does read like the opening of a ghost story, each fragment leading to a chapter beyond. What other mysteries did Pa-Pa leave behind? Why did his sons insist on moving your family out? Is the lantern the key to it all?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. By the time I finished reading, I realized that your first line,”It’s all I have of him,” was not a reference just to the lantern but also to your fuzzy memories of him. Your last sentence is a wonderful conclusion that is also the beginning of the next chapter. I find myself asking, Whose way does it light now?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a perfect description of how little ones remember fragments that so often can’t be pieced together, even by grown ups who were there. And the word “haunting” comes to mind – to others’ minds too I see – because of the unanswered ponderings that remain. Lovely and lingering…

    Liked by 1 person

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