The village of Leetonia in northeastern Ohio has a population of roughly 2000. One less, actually, with the passing of my grandfather last winter. One of his last wishes was simple: “Wait for it to get warm. Then have everyone over and have a party." Or at least that’s how I’m told it went. And it was because of this request that I found myself in Leetonia last month for his memorial service. He was a soldier, a coal miner, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a friend to many. It was good for family to gather the night before the guests arrived. Death has always made me uneasy (I suppose because of the permanence of it), and I especially appreciated the distractions.
It’s 8:00 pm and still light out when I find out that the annual Bigfoot Festival is taking place in Leetonia’s main square. There was no way I was going to miss something called the Bigfoot Festival. Ten minutes later we are in the main square which is actually just the intersection of Main Street and Walnut Street. The small town feel is comforting. There are pony rides for the children, and a game where you can pay $3 to pick a rubber duck out of the water. The pool of water is filled with ducks, and if the contestant picks a duck with an “X” on the bottom, they win a prize.
“They all have an X on the bottom,” I’m told by the woman running the game. “Everybody always wins.”
I decide the games are not really the draw of the Bigfoot Festival and soon discover the food trucks. I grew up in Virginia, close enough to the south to recognize these food truck classics. Sweet tea, lemonade, corn dogs, Elephant Ears with generous helpings of powdered sugar. Besides the food, this is a place for the locals to gather. I learn that the festival used to be more crowded, but we arrived just a few minutes after a “Bigfoot Race” had led some of the other attendees away already. The sun is finally setting and the lights on the food trucks are starting to bathe the gatherers in neon glow. It’s time to call it a night. Tomorrow will be a busy day.
The next day is stressful. The family expects guests to arrive in the early evening for an outdoor memorial service. Instead of hiring a catering service, the family is taking on all of the cooking and party preparation responsibilities. It’s always been this way. We live in a family of amazing chefs, planners and go-getters, but it’s unusually hot that day and there is no air conditioning in the old house by the lake. Tension is in the air, so my father and I decide to take a drive. The air conditioning in the truck and the newfound quiet is welcomed. My parents grew up here. I enjoy listening to the stories my father tells me about his childhood as we make our way through the back roads of Leetonia and the small surrounding towns.
The memorial service itself is quick and concludes just as more storm clouds arrive on the horizon. There has been sporadic rain the past few days, and the sky itself would open up later but for now - for the service - it was calm and peaceful.
The officiant from the local church reads a few facts about my grandfathers life from a sheet of paper that my grandmother helped to write: “He rarely said ‘I love you’, but he didn’t need to. We all knew that he did even if he didn’t say it.”
I pause, and remember a conversation I had with my grandfather over the phone in early September. My brother was visiting him at his house in Ohio where he was in hospice care in the final stages of his life.
“Do you want to talk to grandpa?” my brother asked me.
“Yeah, put him on the phone,” I replied.
I heard my grandfathers voice on the phone. It was slightly slower but still strong. “Hello there.”
“Hi grandpa, how are you doing?”
I felt stupid for even asking that to a man in his condition.
“Oh you know…they’re trying to give me all kinds of pills. Same shit, different day.”
I chuckled, and so the conversation went. When I felt the call coming to its inevitable end, I hesitated. Have you ever spoken to someone on the phone and come to the moment when you realized it was probably the last time you’d ever speak to them again? Someone who had been a part of your entire life? This was that moment for me.
I told him I loved him.
For the life of me, I can’t remember if he said it back. I strain to remember at times. I recall even saying it twice and finally getting him to say it back to me, but I can’t be sure. I don’t really know if that actually happened or if I’m making that up to comfort myself.
In the end, I had to let it go. All I can do is take solace in the words from the memorial that day. He didn’t have to say ‘I love you’ back and I probably didn’t press him, because deep down I already knew that he did.