My Grandpa Mel was the most important person in the world. Maybe he didn't look like that to anyone but me. What he looked like to everyone else, most of the time, was a man of average height in his late 50s or early 60s, usually wearing brown snip-toe or pointed-toe cowboy boots, western-style polyester work pants, a light-colored striped cotton, western-yoked shirt with pearl buttons over a white t-shirt, sometimes with glasses but often not, with a light-colored straw cowboy hat, the brim perfectly curved. His skin was tanned a deep brown and his dark brown hair bordered on black with just a tint of gray at the temples.
Grandpa drove a red crew-cab pickup with a white stripe around it. The front seat was worse for wear, but I usually rode in one of the fold-down jump seats anyway. He'd always have to move the half-full pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco and the cassette or eight-track cases for Crystal Gayle or Waylon and Willie so he could fold the front seat forward a bit and let me clamber in. We'd ride to the feed store, or into the coffee shop where he was a regular at the counter, jawboning with the waitresses and buying me hot chocolate with whipped cream. Sometimes we'd go visit one of his local rancher friends about something having to do with horses. I might be in shorts and a tank-top, my Nike sneakers swinging. Or I might be in jeans and a t-shirt with my own straw cowboy hat tipped down just right.
"Her daddy gave her her first pony, then told her to ride ..." That's how the Brooks and Dunn song starts. Well, in my case, it was my Grandpa, and the pony's name was Little Bit. He was a surprise, purchased around the same time I fractured my elbow at the age of 4. He lived at Grandpa's house, which was a mobile home on a plot of land in Corning, California, right in the heart of Tehama County, where even today people have horses grazing alongside the massive orchards of olives, almonds and walnuts, and in open fields behind stands of date palms that seem out of place in the golden grassland. Little Bit joined Grandpa's two horses, Repeater Peter ("Pete") and Candy Cane ("Candy"), along with his Australian Shepherd, Chew-Chaw, and later, a pup named Shorty who was the result of inattention to Chew-Chaw and my family's dog, Bingo.
Visits to Grandpa's house were the highlight of my childhood. He'd sit down on the couch and I'd immediately leap onto his lap to mess up his hair and shirt. In his own quiet way, he'd let me know when he'd had enough. Grandpa was never very loud. About the most riled up I ever heard him get was when he was working under the mobile home and Bingo followed him in to see what was going on. Out from under the skirting came Grandpa's voice. "God-damned knothead!"
Grandpa was even quiet when Little Bit, who was an old and not always perfect pony, decided to throw me and head for the grain bin at a faster clip than we'd ever seen him take. I'd learned how to ride both the pony and the horses with saddle and bridle. With the horses, though, Grandpa still kept me on a lead rein. Most mornings during the couple of months Mom and I stayed with him while Dad started a new job, in fact, he'd saddle up Candy and let me ride down to catch the bus to the kindergarten, or he'd meet the bus with her or Little Bit ready to go when I got home. With Little Bit, he let me ride without the lead rein and he'd even started letting me ride bareback. I was so proud when he let me ride out alone along the empty road where my parents were clearing brush from the fenceline. That's when Little Bit spun a 180, neatly leaving me airborne and then flat on my back on the gravel shoulder, trying to catch my breath.
My parents came running, checking me to be sure I was okay. Grandpa checked on me first and then went after the pony. I was sitting in the front of my dad's pickup when Grandpa came back, leading a chastened Little Bit. Tying the reins to the fence, he strolled over to the truck and patiently but resolutely explained why I had to get right back on. So I'd know I could do it, and so the pony would know he couldn't get away with that kind of trick. I did. Under protest, but I did. And he walked us back to the barn on a lead rein.
It wasn't too long before age caught up with Little Bit and Grandpa had to call us at home, three hours away in Nevada, and tell us he was gone. I remember being concerned that he'd been alone, but Grandpa said the dogs had stayed out in the barn with him 'til the end. None of us suspected that it wouldn't be too long until we got the call that Grandpa had stopped off at his doctor's office, not feeling so well, been loaded into an ambulance the doctor called, and died before it ever got out of the parking lot. That was September 1983. He was a month shy of 63. I was two months shy of 7.
At his funeral, I remember feeling like everyone was so sad, I needed to be no trouble at all. I didn't really cry. But I missed my Grandpa madly. Things changed quickly. There were no more horses. All my tack was given away, too, to family and friends. The dogs were gone. And after a little time going through Grandpa's mobile home and taking care of his accounts, we had no more reason to drive from the desert over the mountains and down into the golden valley. Just a little more than two years later, my parents and I moved from the Far West to the Northeast, trading one whole life (my mom's background) for another (my dad's background).
We never went back.
It's only in the last 10 years or so that my parents have returned to the West once or twice a year to check on my grandmother as she climbed through her 90s. They got the chance to visit with family and friends. As for me, I flew in and out of San Francisco for client meetings a couple of times a few years ago, once even getting to route myself through Sacramento to see cousins for part of a day. But this trip is the first time in more than 32 years that I've set foot in my childhood stomping grounds. When I knew I would be driving right down I-5 from Medford to Sacramento, I planned a night in Corning with the sole goal of visiting Grandpa's grave. To let him know, I think, in some cosmic, tangible way, that I didn't forget.
I've carried my Grandpa with me to schools, across oceans, into every corner of my life. For the most part, he's been with me in happy memories and times when I needed his quiet strength. As I drew closer to the cemetery, though, both in time and distance, three decades of tears overflowed over the course of two days.
A couple of hours before sunset last Wednesday, I wound my way through the backroads and turned into the small cemetery gates next to the old-fashioned lettered sign. The temperature was near 100 as I parked in the shade of an evergreen windbreak and got out of the car, my current cowboy hat in my hand. I couldn't help thinking that Grandpa would have some comment about the overly curled brim. He never did like it when people beat up their hats, style or not.
I walked up and down the rows of flat gravestones in section K, where Findagrave told me I should find him. And there, in the very last row I checked, halfway down, I found the stone. The standard-issue metal veterans plaque lists only his name, birth and death dates, and World War II service. Someone had left a fake pink flower in one of the empty flower holders in the stone, and for Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, he got a flag in the other holder, just like all the other veterans. The stones had been freshly edged, so I knelt in the short green grass and brushed the dirt off the stone. Most of the graves in the row bore fresh mementos and flowers; it's plain to see they still get visitors now and again. I don't know if anyone visits Grandpa's grave.
For a few minutes, under the hot sun slipping farther west, I sat there in the breeze and talked to my Grandpa. Even though I firmly believe he already knows everything I could have said, and that someday my soul will meet his again, I told him about my world. I told him how different things turned out from the way he probably expected them to, both for me and for the world he knew. As I talked, I realized that if he was still alive now, he'd be 96. I told him that if he'd lived longer, he probably would have been a dinosaur, and I didn't think he would have liked that much. I said a prayer. I told him that I loved him.
And as my tears continued to fall, whether for him or for the loss of the girl I once was and the potential she had, I kept hearing that song's refrain spinning through the air, weaving together the past and the future.
"Cowgirls don't cry. Ride, baby, ride.... If you fall, get right back on. The good Lord calls everybody home. Cowgirl, don't cry."