Last Sunday night, I got back into London from stromping all around the Lake District. I was tired, sore, and happy. I could still see the fell and the the hills punctuated with sharp moss-covered rocks every time I closed my eyes, and I could still smell the smoke of campfires. I opened up an email from my dad entitled “Grand father,” and I learned that my father’s father had died that morning.
I will be here, an ocean away, while my family is mourning together and lowering Grampa Leet’s body into the Kentucky dirt. Tonight is the wake. Tomorrow is the funeral. And I am here, at a very charming pub called The Dove on the banks of the Thames where the words to “Rule Britannia” were penned in 1740. This is my memorial for Herbert Leet Newton.
Chapter 1: Tomatoes
Grampa Leet grew tomatoes on the Newton land, land that became Newton land sometime after The Dove became a pub. Grampa Leet lived in a barn that he built himself at the end of a road that bore his name. He turned all the tomatoes he couldn’t eat into tomato juice. My earliest memory of Grandpa Leet is him cooking breakfast in his screened in outdoor kitchen wearing a plaid shirt with the front unbuttoned, drinking his tomato juice out of a Mason jar as the sun burned the early morning mist off his fields. After the war, Grampa Leet refused a free place at West Point so that he could go and try to scratch out a living from the same dirt his father farmed, and his father’s father farmed. He failed.
Chapter 2: Soy Sauce
Grampa Leet was a sniper in the Korean War. He positioned his rifle according to instructions to his living targets that he couldn’t see And, for better or for worse, he hit those targets. When Grampa Leet blew out his eardrums, he had the chance to go home and collect a Purple Heart. He refused. He didn´t want to leave his comrades, who were all the other boys he grew up with in small town Kentucky. When he did return, Grampa brought back with him a profound aversion to soy sauce. He wouldn´t even touch a soy sauce bottle with his naked skin. For Grampa Leet, soy sauce tasted like Korea, it tasted like war, it tasted like the faceless humans his bullets hit.
Chapter 3: Fish
Grampa Leet was a fisherman. My mom once told me the story of the time she went fishing with Grampa Leet. Dad had abandoned her to go do some rural masculine group activity- probably shooting buckshot at empty beer cans in the woods somewhere- and Grampa invited Mom to go fishing. They didn´t catch anything, but they both got shit-faced and giggly on copious amounts of wine and Schlitz.
The day after I heard about Grampa´s death, I ordered fish and chips in his memory. “Are you going to go for the triumvirate?” asked my friend when he learned about my second fish and chips run in less than five days. Almost certainly, although I don´t think Grampa ever fished for cod.
Chapter 4: Schiltz
Grampa Leet drank enough Schlitz beer in his lifetime to fill a swiming pool. Schlitz is your typical light nothing beer. Think Pabst Blue Ribbon, Natty Light, Lonestar. He stopped drinking beer when his doctor demanded it a few years ago, but he never stopped smoking the unfiltered Marlboro Reds he started smoking illicitly behind some barn or other when he was 12 years old.
Chapter 5: Oysters
Grampa Leet loved oysters. When Dad would travel to a particularly good oyster locale for work, sometimes he´d buy a case of oysters to bring back with him. This case was enough to summon Grampa Leet from down from Kentucky to our Mississippi to eat the entire case of oysters with his son. The first raw oyster I ate was on our deck over the Bridgetown lake in Mississippi. Some twenty years ago, Dad wedged a shell open with a knife, and I looked dubiously at the transluscent flesh inside. “Look at that, Leroy,” Dad said. He always calls me Leroy. Or Annileroy. “That is a pristine oyster.” I looked over at Grampa Leet. In the time it had taken Dad to persuade that first raw oyster into me, Grampa had quaffed five or so. And I ate my pristine oyster.
Chapter 6: Cornbread
The best thing Grampa ever cooked for me was white cornmeal cornbread, fried in melted butter on a cast-iron skillet pancake-style. He made it once by chance, and then once more because I begged.
Chapter 7: Spaghetti
Because Grampa Leet´s health was on the decline, a few months ago Dad went up to Kentucky to help if he could and to see his dad. My father made his father spaghetti from fresh tomatoes. Later, when Dad was telling me about it, he said that the spaghetti would probably be the last meal he cooked for his dad. The truth is, my dad has been in this position before- feeding a dying man, and he knew from experience that one thing that could kindle the ashes of a dying man´s hunger was spaghetti with homemade sauce from fresh tomatoes.
I was a little surprised that Grampa went for it. He was such a meat and potatoes and over-boiled vegetable kind of guy (incidentally, he would have loved England). Spaghetti seems a little exotic for Grampa Leet. But then again, he always had that deep-rooted and almost sacred love of a good tomato.
“Did he like it?” I asked.
“He loved it.”