The Forty-Sixth Letter: Pappy’s Old Shirt


Dear Daughters,

When I was back in Pennsylvania last spring, my grandma gave me two of my pap’s old shirts. One is thick and flannely, an assortment of grays and blues in plaid, and the other is thinner, a turquoisey green with a small stitch of pink throughout. There are a few stitches of white at the corner of the pocket where Gram repaired it at some point. She told me this was one of her favorites of his shirt collection.

I slip it on sometimes when I need to rock the baby and I don’t want my sweaty skin to keep her from drifting off to sleep.

I wore it last week while in Santa Fe at an art workshop.

A little while ago, a strange thing happened. As I grabbed the shirt from my closet, a series of quick thoughts ran through me. This is Pappy’s shirt. Why do I have one of Pappy’s shirts? Oh, that’s right, Gram gave it to me. Why? Because Pappy passed away on Christmas Eve. Really? He died? Yes, I went to the funeral. That’s right. The funeral.

That’s strange, right? Being confused about the death of a beloved family member? I mean, I wrote about the funeral and how Pappy was such a badass who had lived a life of transformation.

So of course I know that he passed away. I know it. Of course.

But for that brief moment, it was as if I didn’t know it.

For the last sixteen years, I haven’t lived in the same state as the majority of my family members for more than a few weeks at a time. Still, our family, all branches of it, feels really close to me, because I grew up around most of my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.

But I don’t live close to any of them now, not physically, and so I miss out on the day-to-day memory-making that comes from family in community. The whole in-your-business-whether-you-want-them-to-be-or-not phenomenon. I don’t have that.

And I miss out on having those family members getting to know you, girls, and watch you grow and change, which I’ll confess makes me a little sad.

But I also miss out on something else. I miss out on missing those who have died, I miss out on the gap that comes into a life when a loved one is no longer present.

It’s not that I don’t mourn and grieve, I do. I am a cry-er, and I’ve spent lots of time crying over loss. But sometimes I am startled to realize that I live inside a memory that keeps them alive.

That sounds kind of weird. I just read it out loud. Let me try to go about this another way.

When I welcomed my neighbor into our house for tea this week and poured boiling water into Grandma Wise’s green teapot, I thought of my friend Katy from Texas. She had me over for tea dozens of times during our years in Waco. Yesterday, pouring dark black tea into the matching green mugs, I remembered Katy’s teapot stand that kept her pot heated by a burning tea light candle, and I thought to myself that I should get one of those, and as I thought that, it felt as if Katy were still alive. It was as if I had forgotten the news of her death, as if I could open the mailbox today and receive a letter from her, addressed to me in her loopy cursive script. She passed away four years ago.

When I make the bed in our guestroom upstairs, and I shake out the blue star-patterned quilt my grandma made me as a wedding gift, I think of her, and I often forget that she’s been gone for seven years this fall. Seven years. I might have been the last of the grandchildren to get a quilt for a wedding gift. We’ve been talking about her a lot recently because it’s sweet corn season and you both love corn pancakes. She used to make them for me when I was a little girl.

When I go back to my in-laws’ house, I often expect to see Oma or Opa come wandering out from the new addition where Mimi and Papa now sleep. It’s not even a “new” addition any more, but in my mind it is where the great-grandparents still live. They were both gone before the baby was born. 

I can imagine Beanie rocking in the big recliner in my dad’s living room. I think of the room where your dad and I sleep while we visit that house as Beanie’s room. She died before you both were born.

I know the apartment where Uncle Stephen lives was built originally for Pappy Sands, and when I think of that living space, I think of eating dinner with Pappy toward the end of his life. He called me Betsy, I think, or maybe Betty, during that last visit, and I didn’t know if he was trying to be funny or not. But the thing is, it feels as if he’s still there.

I am surprised repeatedly that your dad has never met Ginny, one of my beloved grandparents, who died while I was in high school. She’s still so alive in my memory, her tapioca pudding, her chocolate chip-heavy cookies, that she must still be living. That’s how it feels. She must be. Your dad probably feels like he knows her, of course, for as many times as I’ve mentioned her.

That’s the way memories work, I suppose. Or maybe just my memory works that way, because of my love of a good story, of strong memories, of family, of loving deeply, of being empathetic and overly sensitive in all the good and bad ways.


Maybe I’ll continue to be perplexed when I grab Pappy’s shirt out of the closet. I’ll have that split second of confusion, unsure why I even have this shirt in my possession.

Or maybe, someday, it won’t seem strange that he’s gone.

But regardless, I’ll be thinking of him when I wear the green shirt with the pink stitching, the repaired pocket, the thin cotton. And though it seems cliche to even write it, I’ll be keeping him alive in my memory. And in your memory of my memory.

Because I’ll be telling you the story.

That’s what I do.

I wear stories.

I tell stories.

I live stories.

I suppose it’s how I do my remembering.


Your Momma