It can’t be true. Two weeks ago the world got a little bit lonelier when my stepdad, Bob Sanger, passed away at 87 years old. He died from complications of “bein’ old,” as he called it. When I asked him how he was these past few years, he always said, “I’m old!” with his characteristic good spirits and ability to face reality. He even said it the last time I got to talk to him, laughing but serious, and I knew he wasn’t kidding.
But it can’t be. He just can’t be gone. It feels like the end of an era. The end of That House as our home base – already deeply eroded because of Mom’s passing four and a half years ago, is now complete. The house that Mom and Bob built with their hands and lovingly decorated and cared for these past twenty years. I remember coming back for a weekend visit while they were in full construction, and Mom was hanging off the skeleton rafters of the new garage by her… bosom, her feet dangling eight inches above the top of the ladder. She was hammering something with one hand, steadying herself with the other, and still managing to curse Bob out – because he was “telling her what to do.”
That wasn’t the first time Mom barked back. But Bob took it in stride. Mostly!
He can’t be gone, the man who became a beloved part of our family hearts, after an admittedly rough start. His impish laugh and willingness to be the butt of jokes if it made everyone happy for a minute. His regular phrases, like:
“Finish that up. It’s good for you!” (Whether it was a bushel of broccoli or a puddle of bacon fat, you had to “finish that up” because it was “good for you.”) He often said this while dabbing his bald head with a kleenex, because he was sweating as he ate treacherously hot Mexican food.
“This is ol’ Bob Sanger…” when answering the phone.
“Don’t spin the wheels!” when sending you off in a car.
When I told him, Hey, Bob, you’re a good man! He would answer: “But there ain’t no demand!”
“Is that right?” This one is Ramon’s favorite. Bob would just marvel at all the things Ramon told him. I don’t know if Ramon’s accent flummoxed him or because he was really surprised that Spain, too, had eggs and ham.
He also called menudo “menoodle”
…and could never pronounce “cinnamon” – but he always tried a few times before giving up. There are more, but even remembering these makes me feel hot in the eye area.
Bob was a cheerful soul and he drew people in. He never let an opportunity to converse with someone go to waste. Checkers at the supermarket, you bet – but that wasn’t nearly enough interaction for ol’ Bob, so after he and Mom retired in Deer Trail, he opened an ice cream truck. I suggested sprinkles, and he never let me forget it – because soon, with all the cute little kids getting cones, there were sprinkles everywhere. But what better job for a guy who just wants to check in with everyone, see that they’re okay, feed ’em a little bit, and keep moving on?
They ended up expanding from an Airstream trailer to a single-wide mobile home type for the Dairy Hut, and then further to become an actual restaurant with dining room. Mom did the burgers and meals; Bob was in charge of sweets. They worked all day every day there for years. There was never a dull moment at the Dairy Hut – or a frozen hamburger. It was some delicious stuff.
The Way Back
Bob had polio at 18 and wore a brace the rest of his life. It didn’t stop him becoming a general contractor. My brother, who worked for him for a couple of summers, said no one could stop Bob going up and down the ladder carrying loads of roof tiles or whatever needed carrying, despite his brace and limp. He was a tough cuss. Mom had been divorced a couple of years by then; I was a young teenager and sometimes she dragged me along as she started dating again. Bob quickly took the top spot among her suitors.
Mom and Bob had dated in high school. They were from the same town – Morrison, Colorado – and even though Mom’s family moved to Deer Trail, a good three hours away, Bob really liked her. But, as Mom always described it, she got “spooked” and said she didn’t want to get married too young. Later, if I understand the chronology right, Bob got polio, as did his father, and his father died. Mom and Bob had long since gone their separate ways – Mom to her Big City Life that predated meeting and marrying my dad, and Bob to his life, which resulted in kids and grandkids of his own.
But when Mom and Bob met up again, they were both divorced. Soon they were a couple, and Bob moved in with us – without my permission! I remember he showed up with this gigantic stuffed marlin. Not very exciting for a teenage daughter of divorce. But it was his drinking problem that really bothered me. I’m not sure how he kicked it. Several times before he had failed, but finally, sobriety stuck. And from being someone I didn’t want to be around, he became a beloved part of our family, from the youngest to the oldest.
…And I don’t bake. Or at least, I didn’t.
Once I made him a lemon meringue pie and hid it. “Keri, I could go for something sweet,” he said at the end of dinner. “Can you bring me a cookie?” I sat that pie down in front of him and he nearly shrieked. One of the most joyful, silly, happy memories I have. Another one happened when he and Mom drove to DC to help me set up my first home. It was like the Chili’s bloomin’ onion commercial at my place – saws, drills, hammering, a few shouts – we built a booth bench for my dining room, scraped old paint off a built-in hutch, tiled the kitchen, and I don’t remember what-all.
On their last night before driving back home, we went to Five Guys for a burger (their idea of the best dining in the world, and sometimes mine, too.) We picked up Ali and Shane and went to Chinatown, which we found completely clogged with traffic. A terrible idea, really. But what luck: I spotted a space right in front – and whipped Mom and Bob’s minivan around across a double yellow line, nearly causing Bob a coronary – on the basis of Shane’s confident, “You can fit there, easy.” Bob never let me forget that u-turn, and I never stop laughing about the sounds he made from the back seat. Of course, Five Guys was completely worth it. Best burger since Mom and Bob’s Dairy Hut.
The bionic man
He joked with his grandkids and other whippersnappers that he was half-bionic. With his brace, his missing digits, his false teeth, and the sparkle in his eye that said he was hiding the best secrets, all the kids believed him.
Bob was a robust fellow but faced a lot of daunting health obstacles all his life. Mom said that was part of why he was so friendly: he needed friendship, affection, support and even help from time to time. Aging was especially hard on him, as he had post-polio syndrome symptoms, and stuff went wrong too frequently. He was active in spite of the difficulties, but he never had it easy. He paid people back any way he could – he listened to them, he told his stories, he shared his hobbies, he cared and was never afraid to say so. Nobody could chew the fat like Bob. I mean chatting, obviously, but also, the man could eat a piece of fat perfectly happily.
I can’t imagine how awful it was for him during the COVID lockdowns. Bob got such a kick out of the people in Deer Trail, and knew so much about the families and businesses and history, it was as if he had been the one to grow up there, rather than Mom. He even got on the City Council. He started a new hobby – cast iron cookery. I still don’t get how this is a thing, but it clearly was – people would roll these elaborate contraptions around between county fairs and compete for the best dishes.
Bob was not much of a games guy but he joined in – all the more remarkable because Mom was such a shark. My favorite was Pictionary with Mom and Bob, because Bob would get so flustered and goofy, and Mom would draw in ever tinier spaces (to save paper, of course!) such that we were peering over her shoulder into the thimble-sized, perfect renditions. Bob would just sputter and laugh; he couldn’t get the pictures from his head down to the paper but he had good spirit all the while.
He also had great spirit for the jokes and trickery you get when you’re related to Culvers and Culbertsons – there’s a story about my uncles calling him up and asking to come to help in an emergency, and when he went outside he found his truck up on blocks. Yeah, it was the uncles. They were unconscionable. Bob loved being one of them, though. He even went for a week fishing in the Alaskan outback with those rascals, the trip of a lifetime.
Bob loved animals. He grew up caring for them – a real farm childhood, with all the work that entailed. In Texas he adopted some turtles that had appeared in the backyard, making sure they had the best greens money could buy. That always cracked me up because he was already bald by then and he looked a little like a turtle. But he just loved those little guys, and followed the whole family of them. Once in Deer Trail he fixated on the idea of a little pony. (We think it’s because he was jealous of Ted Montgomery’s donkey!) I think he thought he could just put it in the backyard like a Labrador.
What he wasn’t expecting was getting saddled with two felines. Kyna was on her way to Pakistan for just one year – barely enough time to clear her cats from quarantine. So she asked Mom and Bob to take in her well-traveled kitties. Bob was squarely in the “opposed” column. He was still up on his cane, then two canes, at this time, and he did not want a wayward cat streaking around his legs while he was walking around. But Mom wouldn’t take no for an answer – she was going to help Kyna with the cats no matter what Bob said.
And soon Mom was in love with the two of them. For Bob, it took a little longer, maybe a full week, before he was talking to them and monitoring their eating and pooping habits and being worried if they didn’t come back from their daily Deer Trail tours. Soon he was feeding them Jimmy dean sausage, or raw hamburger rolled into a ball on his fingertips, or cat treats that he scattered in their path. He talked to them like a new father with that high, sweet voice that means, “Don’t be scared, I love you!”
These two have just yesterday arrived back again with Kyna. A lot of traveling for a couple of cats – but then, they were born in Honduras, and lived in Sri Lanka and Romania. A little trip to Alaska is barely a hop for them.
Bob on his own
When Mom died, Bob kept saying, “I was supposed to go first.” Neither he nor Mom had contemplated or planned for what had happened, and he was just dumbstruck by losing her. It hurt to see him so hurt, and so alone. In fact, he said often that he just wanted to “go” so he could be with her again. I imagined he would, too – some grief is that way, and it took Bob awhile to right himself again. But he did – another obstacle surmounted, another pain lived through. He was still sad and lonely at times, but he found his gentle center again, kept going to church, kept up his friendships with the other Deer Trailians. For every physical thing that was denied him, he found a social one to take its place.
Gloria and Vince, neighbors and friends, stepped up to take care of Bob, and she did so till the day he passed away. Gloria was there for him every day, as helper, conversation partner, sparring partner, medical support, chief cook and bottle washer – and he never could have stayed in his home without her. The only thing that exceeds her heart and generosity is the fire in her delicious cooking… but with all kidding aside, Bob would never have had the dignity and space for his own life these last few years without the two of them. (Love you both!)
But in fact a whole bunch of our family stuck by Bob after Mom died, particularly my cousins Lesa, Sue, and Cheri, and their husbands and kids. And my Uncle Darrel and his wife Rose. (Love you all so much for taking care of Bob!) Bob’s own kids were pretty far away, either physically or mentally or both – but the Culbertson clan grew to love him and never let him down. I’m so grateful to them for giving their time and love so freely to Bob, even after Mom was gone. We three “stepkids” were ourselves very far away and have seen him only a few times since 2015. So it’s all that much more heartening to know he wasn’t alone, not just in his last days, but throughout these recent years.
I miss him and still think, “No, he can’t be gone.” I figure when I get back to Deer Trail he will be there, holding court and then zipping to the post office in his motorized wheelchair. We’ll spar about Trump, always laughing in the end. I’ll ask him what he wants to eat and he’ll say, “Nothing, not a thing,” and we’ll remember eating menudo at Casa Bonilla. Little Bit will come out and meow at him; he’ll find some snacks for her in the pocket of his cardigan.
We’ll talk about Mom, about the crazy rapid growth in little Deer Trail, he’ll ask me about all the stuff I see in Tunisia, asking, “Is that right?” after each one. I’ll give him a big squeezing hug around his shoulders from behind, and his massive hands with his uneven missing digits will come up around my arms. I’ll kiss the top of his ol’ bald head and promise to be back soon.
Now he’s with Mom at the windy hillside cemetery overlooking the town, the old Dairy Hut, their house and Grandma’s, and the town they loved.