Clippings: New bridge not as great as grandpa

This past Saturday marked my grandpa’s 80th birthday. Born just shy of Halloween, my grandpa, James Hilmes — or Jim, before I knew him — celebrated his big day in Hays, Kan., surrounded by my extended family.
His son (my dad), my mom, my two sisters and brother traveled down I-70, along with uncles, aunts, cousins and my cousin Aimee’s dog, Tucker, a Shih Tzu with an unfortunate under bite. All of them gathered together in my grandparents’ living room — I was the only one in my family who was not there to celebrate with my grandpa. Though I was busy watching a cappella groups and re-enactors parade across the new bridge, not even a faster-than-ever jaunt to Dunkin’ Donuts could glaze over my guilty conscience.
My grandpa — who once upon a time built shelving units and aisles out of refrigerator boxes and arranged them in his garage so that my sister, cousins and I could play grocery store — has always played a major role in my best memories of childhood. He’s the man who hand-glued hundreds of miniature wooden shingles onto the roof of our Victorian dollhouse, risking asphyxiation from inhaling too many wood-glue fumes. He tied swings to trees and pumped air into countless old bicycle tires — he was the patron of so many silly summer projects that only a nine-year-old could conceive of.
He only yelled when provoked to the utmost degree — when my siblings and cousins and I would fight over the digital kitchen timer turned “proximity bomb” or when we were caught climbing, with our sticky little, bare feet, up the doorframes in the basement. And when he did yell, we usually deserved it (read: always deserved it).
At the kitchen table, he always knew what to say to send us kids into fits of silent giggles and my grandma into huffs of exasperation. We would feast on oyster crackers that we’d stick on toothpicks and dip into the margarine bowl — a Midwest delicacy — while Grandma had her back turned.
My grandpa saved my life one day when I was choking on a grape Spree candy. I stood over the bathroom sink — the very same sink that my dad and his siblings had grown up brushing their teeth over — and near-to-hacked my lungs out as he slapped me on the back until the candy shot out of my esophagus and into the tan porcelain bowl. My hero.
But he saved our lives in a lot of little ways, too — he kissed Band-aid-wrapped fingers smashed in doors and reattached the heads back onto our Barbies. He held me on his lap when I was homesick for my parents during our summer stays in Great Bend, Kan., and made me laugh when I didn’t want to — I scrunched my nose, tried to frown. The corners of my mouth wriggled in rebellion. It was always futile to resist — my grandpa always had a joke up his sleeve.
I felt the corners of my mouth beginning to twitch as I tried my best to smile and joke with my friends on Saturday. There I was, standing on the Cross Street Bridge in Middlebury, Vt., with all of my family thousands of miles away in western Kansas. (Don’t get me wrong — I’m very happy, in many ways, not to be in western Kansas). I was missing out on this huge party that — while certainly not a “rager” of Middlebury-bridge-celebration caliber — sounded utterly wonderful.
I missed my grandpa’s 80th birthday — and I also plain miss him. So much. I miss all of my family and as I type this I realize that my dad’s birthday is today, Nov. 4. Tonight means another round of time-delayed singing of “Happy Birthday” via Skype, with me finishing seconds behind the rest of my family, sounding like the loser child who cannot keep time. And after a sloppy rendition of the birthday song, they’ll tell me about how they went to El Mezcal, our favorite restaurant with authentic Mexican food (I do, sometimes, miss eastern Kansas…) and cheer as my dad blows out the candles on his favorite coconut cream pie.
It’s hard at times, this being-away-from-home business. Oh, I’m sure my grandpa — who’s already had 79 birthdays before this one — could care less that I wasn’t there to acknowledge it. But I care.
I want nothing more than to sit at the kitchen table at my grandparents’ house, savoring one of the trusty Snickers’ ice cream bars always tucked away in their freezer. I want to play rummy with my grandma and surprise my grandpa with silly puns and witticisms, in an attempt to repay years’ worth of favors.
This grandpa guilt will probably never fully go away. I will always regret not spending more time with all of my grandparents — even as I am typing this, I feel a phantom Spree lodged in my throat and tears springing to my eyes.
And I don’t say this in any sort of attempt to turn my delinquent granddaughter-ing around and pull a Prodigal Grandchild. It’s not about being the favorite (it’s already in the bag: older brother once broke my grandpa’s thumb while wrestling, sister Lisa was always getting sick and being difficult and 11-year-old Amanda hasn’t known him long enough).
But in all seriousness, my grandpa deserves so much more than the “Planet Earth” box set that I sent along in my stead this weekend. Not that Sir David Attenborough’s narration isn’t music to my ears, but knight or no knight, it should have been me eating my Aunt Elaine’s chocolate cake and singing “Happy Birthday,” perfectly in time with the rest.
Oh — and happy birthday, Dad.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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