By Margaret McNellis
When my eldest nephew was born, my father wanted to be called “The Grandfather,” like in Heidi. We all told him that was too formal and joked that he should be called “Poppy,” instead. Somehow, this morphed into "Poppy-Gramps," which we then shortened to “PG” or “Peej.” We all took a certain pride in the nickname, though none so much as its owner, my father. He was the greatest PG there’d ever been, or at the very least, a more than decent grandfather. His grandchildren were always first in his thoughts.
He’d take them hiking on our property, in search of ancient campsites, where their five-and-seven-year-old selves felt certain the random, oddly-shaped stones and scraps of discolored wood were actually the scattered remnants of old arrowheads, timeworn heirlooms from a distant past, just waiting to be unearthed beneath the blanket of dried, crunchy leaves. He kept for them a secret rock collection, guarded under lock and key, and a slew of camping gear he’d hoped to use in retirement, whenever he let that day come. Just as he’d done with me as a child, so he did with them. In that, whatever their interests were, he nurtured them and became an armchair expert in those subjects, just to have something to say to them that would ignite the sparkle of curiosity in their young eyes. With one grandfather living halfway across the globe, he did double duty as their elder male role-model. He was the harbinger of Hess trucks and the bestower of train sets. He was our PG-wan.
"Just as he’d done with me as a child, so he did with them. In that, whatever their interests were, he nurtured them and became an armchair expert in those subjects, just to have something to say to them that would ignite the sparkle of curiosity in their young eyes."
The year was 2015. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was due to be released later that year, and for Halloween, I traveled with my parents to East Hampton, New York. There’s a street there that goes Halloween-crazy, with piles of pumpkins, gaggles of ghosts, and just before sundown—hordes of trick-or-treaters and their families. We all decided to dress up as characters from the Star Wars universe. We had just about everyone from the film, including Rei and Kylo Ren. Some of us were token Jedi, but my father dressed up as Obi-wan Kenobi. He had the beard and everything, including an extending, light-up plastic saber that made authentic whooshing and clashing sounds.
We called him "PG-wan."
My father loved Halloween. He was always a faithful trick-or-treating guardian. As we zigzagged from house to house, each casting an orange glow from the jack-o-lanterns that adorned front walks nestled between swaths of perfectly manicured lawns, he’d carry flashlights for us, our sacks of candy when they got too heavy, and always made us walk on whatever side of him was farthest away from any vehicular danger. His guardianship didn’t end after the press of the final doorbell, either. When we got home, he’d check our candy to make sure no one had tampered with it, though I also suspect he was cataloging our hauls so as to ensure we didn’t go into sugar frenzies by eating too much at once.
Just as Obi-wan Kenobi tried to guide Luke Skywalker and look after him, so too would my father happily take on the role of protector. He played the same role for my nephews, too, giving them just enough freedom not to feel the pull of authority, but always keeping a watchful eye, whether to protect them or to take pictures of them with other neighborhood Jedi.
2015 was his last Halloween. His diagnosis and death robbed him of just one more pretense, just one more candy-walk, just one more night of fog machines, giant inflatable witches, and foam gravestones. The last time I visited my sister’s house, Memorial Day 2018, I came across his PG-wan robe. For the first time since he passed, there was no sadness in finding something of his tucked away. Instead, I just smiled, draped the robe over my shoulders and watched the thin, brown fabric pool at my feet. Then I held out my arms, pretended I swung a lightsaber in my hands. I even made the whooshing sounds.
Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. Follow her on her bog, https://mmcnellis.com.