This is my Granddad, Robert Carson Evans, Sr. He died last Saturday. He was ninety-one.
He survived cancer, a heart attack and three wars—Vietnam twice. He retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel, where he was mostly a combat engineer after being a naval aviator in World War II. I have heard that they had to rearrange his cockpit, to make room for his long legs.
He was tall. So tall. Six-seven or maybe six-eight. He was an Evans, so it’s equally possible that his height was exaggerated or it was always as surprising and story-worthy as they said. But he was taller than anyone I knew as a girl. He told me a story once about a superior officer in one of the wars he fought in sniffing, “All that height’s good for is watching parades.” I don’t remember what he said back, but it was terribly witty and carefully skirted the lines of insubordination, while making gently clear that the officer was being kind of a prick.
This is the hardest thing for me: all the stories I don’t quite remember, all the stories he didn’t get a chance to tell me. I can still hear his voice, a deep, rolling bass with a Southern drawl so smooth it made me think of the smell of pipe tobacco.
The Monday after, as I set my son down on his playmat, I caught the scent of my grandfather’s cologne, so sudden and so strong that I stood back up. If he’d been there next to me, if he’d said, “Well, hello there!” the way he did when we’d pull up to their back door on vacation, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But then it was gone.
He will never catch my hand as I pass his chair to go into the kitchen to get something for my grandmother. I can still remember the feel of his hands, the wedding ring that he’d worn for sixty-three years. When he went to the hospital for that heart attack, they implied they might have to cut it off, as his finger had grown thicker around it. He refused. That ring was where it belonged.
He was always looking for ways to help people—well into his eighties, he was still out mowing their church’s lawn, changing the light bulbs, and clearing the gutters. Making sure the people he loved had enough, even if that meant going without at times. I remember him and my grandmother coming to visit, and him re-tarring our driveway in the middle of summer.
When I was a little girl, at my father’s numerous cousins’ weddings, he and my dad would take turns with me and my sisters, letting us stand on their feet as we danced. When the last of those cousins got married, I was twenty. I asked my grandfather to dance, but his knees had gotten too bad by then. He told me he’d had plenty of chances to dance. Two days after he died, my grandmother dreamed that he was tap-dancing. “Tell everyone,” he said, “I’m tap-dancing now.” When she told my father this, she was smiling.
He was losing his eyesight to glaucoma, but he had for years done counted cross-stitch, and I loved that my tough, Marine, giant of a grandfather had this hobby people thought of for little old ladies. He made my sister and I little pictures of ducklings to hand in our rooms. They’re hanging in the nursery at my parents’ house now, over the crib my son sleeps in. He made us all stockings that we still have. When he died, he was still working on one for my husband, because he was part of the family too.
I remember my mother telling me I had my grandfather’s eyes—tilted just a bit more than normal at the corners, and long-lashed—and how pleased I was that there was this part of him that you could see in me too.
When I was in high school, I was assigned a personal experience essay about someone who meant a great deal to you, and I wrote it about him. I never told him because, like an Evans, I exaggerated some things to make the story better, and I think anyway he would have been a little embarrassed at the fuss. But that essay was, I think, where I learned to write from the heart and the gut, that I had to tell the story so that it grabbed the reader the same way it grabbed me.
When I caught him on the phone(“Well, hello there!” again), before he passed me to my grandmother I would say, “I love you,” and he would always say “Love you most!” And all I can hope is that he knew I loved him most too.