A person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way; a storyteller; a narrator
“Quelle étrange petite fille!” said an agitated woman in the grocery store.
I asked my mother what she’d said. My mother didn’t reply, even though she knew some Cajun French.
At home later that night, I combed through the French to English dictionary. What a peculiar little girl.
Even at eight years old, I knew that woman in the store was right. Especially since the kids at school never let me forget it. Neither did the kids in the neighborhood, the kids at church, the kids anywhere.
I had crooked teeth too large for my mouth, a terrible lisp, and a case of Tourette syndrome that caused obnoxious tics—blinking my eyes at random, bursting out with “Amen,” raising my hands to my face. Few children or adults outside of my immediate family paid me positive attention.
One day, a beam of brilliant light shone during a third-grade history class. There, I heard names like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. I learned they were presidents, and the idea of absorbing the history they had made piqued my interest. In my abundance of spare time, I embarked on a quest: searching for knowledge about them.
I elected to ask my Paw-Paw—my Italian paternal grandfather who lived in an old house that smelled like pine needles—for help. He led me to a cherry wood bookshelf, removed a book on the presidents, and apologized that it only went through Lyndon B. Johnson. I had no idea what that meant yet. I took it home with me. I imbibed all 281 pages.
I still wanted more.
My father gave me The Presidential Quiz Book, which contained 2,100 “fascinating questions” about the presidents, and I inadvertently learned lots of the answers by heart. On my mother’s weekend trips to small Louisiana towns, she bargained for an antique biography on Ulysses S. Grant and another on Franklin D. Roosevelt. At Paw-Paw’s urging, I eventually visited the local library and asked Mrs. Henrietta, the red-headed librarian, to see every single book on the presidents the parish had. She smiled and led me to a treasure trove. I filled my arms and hurriedly checked out, hoping to escape the quiet space quickly, so my tics wouldn’t disturb the teenagers at the computers or old men reading newspapers.
Paw-Paw had always loved history. He found great pleasure in his young granddaughter’s wealth of information on American presidents. He would call me up and say, “Good morning, O-leave-ia”—he uttered my name funny, like no one else ever has or will—“who was the thirty-first president?”
“How many terms did he serve?”
“One. 1929 to 1933.”
“What was his wife’s name?”
“Tell me a fun fact.”
With that question, I always paused. Sometimes a few tics broke the momentary silence. So many fun facts whirred in my brain; it was hard to choose just one.
“His campaign slogan was ‘A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,’ but he was the president at the start of the Great Depression.”
Paw-Paw chuckled, amused and impressed and relishing the connection we shared.
As I grew older, my love for the presidents stayed with me. Even once my teeth straightened, my speech therapist saved the day, and my Tourette’s symptoms somewhat diminished with age. Even once I felt more capable of making friends and surviving in the harsh world around me, I still enjoyed hiding in books, and not just any books—biographies. Over time, my interests expanded. I began including other historical figures like first ladies, explorers, artists, writers, kings, and queens.
Even as my tastes broadened, my love for presidents persisted. For years and years, Paw-Paw and I would sit in rockers in his kitchen, drinking coffee and quizzing each other on presidential facts.
“Which president had the most children?” I’d ask. I could be 8 or 12 or 16 and the fabric of our conversations would still be the same, even though the minutia differed.
“I don’t know. You got me there,” he’d say.
“John Tyler. 15.”
“Well,” he’d begin, digging through the cluttered drawers of his mind to find the perfect question I didn’t know the answer to, “which president first had his photo taken?”
I envisioned the precise picture in my mind—Adams sitting in a wood chair beside a table of books and a lamp with his hands crossed—and shot back, “That’s easy. John Quincy Adams.”
When he thought he’d really get me with the next question, he’d lean forward in his seat. Once, he asked, “Well, what was Harry S. Truman’s middle name?”
“That’s a trick question and you know it,” I countered.
“Humor me then.”
“Fine. It was just S. He had no middle name beyond that.”
Defeated, Paw-Paw would ask a litany of other questions in an attempt to find fault in my memorization skills, consistently to no avail. This was our game. This was our banter. This was the foundation of our profound connection—a connection that taught me that passions can deeply attach people, age has little effect on true comradery, and books are the answer to every question I could ever dream of asking.
When I was nineteen and Paw-Paw was eighty-four and dying of congestive heart failure, I spent ample time in his hospital room. Although he had been notoriously cheap for the entirety of his life (like most old-world Italian grandfathers intrinsically are), in his final weeks he would insist on giving me a wad of dollars and beckoning me to get anything my heart desired from the vending machine. Within minutes, I’d re-emerge in his cold room with a bag of Sour Patch Kids, sit cross-legged on the rumpled white blanket at the foot of his hospital bed, massage his aching hands, and answer presidential trivia questions.
The last thing I ever said to him was “I love you.” But the second to last thing was the answer to one of his interrogations: “Dwight D. Eisenhower.”