When we were in Pocatello last month, my brother said he wanted me to tell his daughters the story of my meeting our grandfather, Raymond "Red" Valkinburg. I would have been happy to tell the story, but time got short and we got busy and it didn't happen. So I thought I'd tell it now.
Red was our shadow grandfather. We never knew him, but cards would come at Christmas, signed by his wife "love, Dad & Jo." He had exited our Mother's life when she was 8 and her parents divorced. He left and never looked back. Once, when I was a child, he and Jo stopped in Pocatello, and spent an awkward hour making small talk and drinking iced tea in our living room. Before they left he gave my sister, brother and me each a dollar. "More than I ever got from him," I remember my mother saying. That was the only time I remember seeing him as a child.
In 1969 I was working as a traveling consultant for my sorority and was finishing up a visit in Texas. My birthday was that weekend, and since I was in the general area I called my aunt and uncle in Albuquerque to ask if I could come and spend my 23rd birthday with them. My mother's sister, Virginia, and her husband Fletcher (Uncle Fletch) were favorites. I adored them. They lived on a dusty country road in a little old adobe house with a corral and barn out back. They were horse people. By day Fletch was a fireman on the Santa Fe railroad, out of Gallup, but horses were their passion. Virginia was tan and earthy, dressed in Levis and turquoise jewelry. The morning of my birthday Fletch said, "Terry Ann, have you ever been to the horse races? I think we need to go!" Virginia stayed home to tend to horses and make a birthday cake, and Fletch and I headed for the racetrack in his pickup truck. It was a beautiful, sunny April day!
On the way Fletch explained how the races would go and how to pick a horse to bet on. First we'd buy a "tip sheet" giving stats and information about the horses, then we'd go down to where we could look at the horses before the race, and Fletch, knowing about horses, would teach me what to look for.
Outside the racetrack, as we walked toward the entrance, Fletch spotted an old guy selling tip sheets, in the crowd. He was old and stooped, with a bag like a paper boy's, filled with his mimeographed pamphlets. "That's what we need!" As we got closer, Fletch suddenly stopped short and grabbed my arm. "I'll be damned—it's Red. Your grandfather." At first I was confused. Then I understood—the old guy selling tip sheets was my elusive, absentee grandfather. Wow. Fletch approached him. "Red, remember me? I'm Fletcher, Virginia's husband." Red stared hard, then extended his hand—"Fletcher, sure—nice to see ya." Then Fletch turned to me. "This is Terry Ann, your granddaughter. Betty's daughter..." Red turned slowly toward me and looked me up and down. Finally he said, "Don't look much like Betty." Then he turned and shuffled away. I saw my uncle's eyes turn dark, then he gently took my arm and said, "Come on— its your birthday, let's go take a look at those horses!" We had good time and won a few dollars, but the mood had changed. In the truck, headed back to the house, Fletch was quiet, then he smacked his knee and exploded, "That son of a bitch! That goddamn son of a bitch! Don't tell your mother that we even saw him!" We got back and Fletch told Virginia the story, again cursing Red in even saltier terms. Virginia waved him off and told me not to mind him—Red wasn't worth getting upset about, and besides it was my birthday and we had some celebrating to do, but I could tell she was a little shaken.
Of course I told my mother the story and she just shook her head in disgust. About a year later Mom got a call from Jo. Red was dying. Jo wanted Mom to come. He wanted to see her before he died, or so Jo believed. Mom was kind, but firm. "I'm sorry. I truly am, but it's too late for any of that. It's too late."
I look back on that meeting, honestly, without emotion. What a coincidence. What a small world. A story to tell, for sure. And now I am a grandparent myself, and I see, finally, what a sad story it is, and undeserving as he probably was, I have to feel sad for Red and even sadder for my mother. My mother is gone. Fletch and Virginia are gone. I miss them all so much. Red? My grandfather. How could I miss him? I never knew him.