I reluctantly placed my red checker on top of his black checker in the “king” space. It was a lazy afternoon in the middle of a brutally hot Texas summer.
Grandpa Hay never let me win. Ever.
He held the philosophy of never letting me win a single game of Checkers because he wanted me to earn it: earn the right to be the family Checkers master. We played hundreds of times over the course of those grade-school summers. Not much was said while we played. Sometimes he would pipe up to give me a hint on where my next move could be and then on his next turn make a move thwarting the whole thing.
I tasted chocolate from Little Debbie’s Swiss Cake Rolls. He always kept a box for us at his house. Eating a package of those cake rolls was always first on the agenda. My grandma suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and lost all ability to eat, talk, walk, or perform any normal functions. To take care of her without putting her in a home, my parents built a small house right in our backyard. She usually sat in the recliner beside us while my grandpa and I played. The Checkers master took care of her until the day she died.
I never paid enough attention to notice just how many tattoos he had. To me, they were roundish, green, indiscernible blobs with no clear structure of lines, text, or anything resembling a picture -- they were time stamps for a world long gone. Grandpa was a mechanic in the Navy during World War II, and his tattoos were remnants of his service to our country. The blobs didn’t bother or intrigue me much as a child, as they were only a small part of who my grandpa was.
That side of the family still mostly resides in a small town outside of Toledo, Ohio. It usually takes occasions like weddings for the family to get together, and that’s exactly what happened in the fall of 2019.
It was the day before my cousin’s wedding. After finishing my taco soup, I set my spoon down to take a large gulp of water. A drop escaped my half-sealed lips and fell onto one of the photo albums splayed across the old wooden dining table. Grandpa passed in 2005, but the lot of us felt his presence as we flipped through hundreds of family photos. A huge, ancient-looking photo book caught my eye.
Dust sprayed the air as I turned the pages delicately as not to tear anything. The pages felt heavy and important in my hands. Such old pictures. Then, a familiar face with even more familiar ink blobs came into focus.
A young and handsome version of my grandpa leaped out of the album as if he himself smiled and waved at me. My eyes followed his face down to his forearm. The disfigured, green blobs I had remembered as a kid suddenly came to life. I could finally make out the thick lines and vibrant red, yellow, and green colors. What’ya know! My grandpa had a traditional snake and dagger design on his forearm. A tattooed, total badass who never let me win at Checkers.
Growing up in a world without my badass, Checkers master, snake and dagger tattoo-having grandpa was hard. He taught me a lot about fishing, how to play chess, let me lay on his chest when I was sick, and he loved throwing my siblings and I into the backyard pool. He was the realest grandpa this small-town girl could ask for. I miss him to this day.
I was itching to get a new tattoo, and after seeing that photo, I knew exactly what I was going to get. My cousin’s beautiful wedding came and went, and as soon as those plane wheels hit the pavement, I was booking my next tattoo appointment. I chose the same brilliant colors and American traditional snake and dagger design, just like my grandpa. During the session I thought of him -- his thoughtful grin as he beat me in yet another game of Checkers, those chocolate cake rolls, the summer days I thought would never end, and those green blobs staring at me from his forearms.
As I walked out of the shop with the new tribute to that sweet old man, I said to myself, “King me.” The green blobs are now crystal clear.