One of my cousins just emailed a slew of us some genealogical information about our grandfather. The day he was born—in downtown St. Louis, when all this time I thought it was Washington, Missouri. The address, on North 13th Street. That his mother’s name was Anna Marie. That his grandfather was born in Lower Saxony, about sixty miles from the Netherlands.
I read the email with interest and took a minute to absorb it. But those were long-cooled facts; they held none of the warmth of his flesh. Genealogy is fun detective work, but I understood the hollow feeling in the email’s last sentence: “I have no idea who he was or what he was about.”
When my dad died, my mom moved back home with her parents, so I was the cousin who knew my grandfather best. I promised to hunt around for photos and drum up memories.
He liked bockwurst sausage and runny eggs, I jotted. And his beer.
I knew Annie, our grandmother, had set her cap for him, because he was tall and good looking. But how did they meet? At Soldan High, maybe? Another cousin sends a sepia photo of the two of them and includes a shot of my grandmother’s loopy handwriting on the back: “Daddy was 22 years old—have to think this was Wabash C.C.”—country club? Neither had a dime to spare, they must have snuck in. “No thought of hooking up with this guy then—just out for a walk or something.” Hooking up? Time alters our language. But I suspect more scheming than she lets on. He was (so hard to believe later) a catch.
By the time I knew him, they had made seven new lives. Yet they showed zero affection for one another. That was the way, I suppose. But when my mom was little, she used to beg him, “Go kiss Mama,” probably after sharp words between them, or a stony silence. She was desperate to see some affection between her parents. Funny—and instructive—how much kids need that.
Grandpa started the Maryland Market, a little grocery store that catered to the private places in the Central West End. Annie had to be the one pushing that project; he never burned with ambition. In later years, at least, his only mission was to avoid danger, conflict, and fuss.
Was he merry in midlife? My mom said he used to sneak them Snickers candy bars and baby Cokes, which they would hide on their bedroom window ledge until they froze.
At the big house where we all lived, a top-and-bottom duplex with my great aunts upstairs and my grandparents, my mom, and I downstairs, he had to fight to find sanctuary from all the female gossip and squabbling. He lived simply. He built a little grotto shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary (the BVM, we called her familiarly), and he knelt before the statue every morning, heedless of the damp grass.
By then, he had sold the grocery store and begun working as a clerk, first for the railroad, then for the courthouse. In retrospect, that makes sense; he was always tidy, and fear made him careful.
Weekends, he unfolded a webbed lawn chair and drank his Drewrys beer in the backyard, listening to the ball game. I can still smell it, sour and hoppy and cheap on his breath, and remember how sleepy and slurry he got, and how even in a stupor he was gentle.
That was in the evenings, when he sat in a pink Naugahyde chair (pink? Again, Annie’s doing) and read the newspaper and drank more beer. Numbing…whatever. Life had left him wry, pessimistic, resigned. But mainly, the feel of him was of sadness.
Still, he had a dry sense of humor I did not recognize at age ten. Glimmers are coming back, lines he dropped into a conversation, flashes of grins from those who caught the joke. As an adult, you make new sense of childhood perceptions, placing them in a category that was unknown to you at the time.
How I wish someone had interviewed him about his life. Ancestry.com cannot tell us the whys or remember the runny eggs, the quirks of taste and habit that bring someone back to life. Who were his friends? Why did he choose the Blessed Virgin Mary for his devotions? What, besides listen to ball games and read the newspaper, did he do for fun? Probably nothing. He was grimly serious, a worrywart introvert whose prime was weighed by the need to scrimp and work to support a wife with lace-curtain Irish aspirations.
But then he had his stroke. And when he woke, he was convinced he had a million dollars. Joy lighting his face for the first time in my memory, he began giving away his million, offering some to everyone he encountered. How a brain flips from tightwad to largesse with a single burst vessel, I have no idea. But another cousin remembers hearing that he called the bank to confirm his $1 million deposit, and the bank flew into a panic when they could not find the deposit.
He also started wandering. This man who had rarely ventured anywhere but work, church, and the backyard took to roaming the city, even managing to hop onto buses and wind up clear on the other side of town. My grandmother and mom and great-aunts were frantic; I was secretly cheering him on.
After the stroke, my mom used to shave him, and he seemed to like it. I doubt he had experienced much tenderness. One of my jobs was to put drops in his eyes, and I dreaded it every day, squeamish about that intimacy, leaning so close to his beery breath, having a weird power over this tall grown-up man who was blinking fast, his eyes naked without their constant spectacles. He was good about it, though, leaning his head back, patient.
As for Annie, she must have loved him a bit, because she took care to boil all the fat off the ground beef to avoid the cholesterol, leaving gray rubbery stuff we all had to choke down.
(It was the relationships of those days, grimly obedient and passive-aggressive and full of tiny rebellions, that were “complicated.”)
Even when Grandpa was carefree about his vast new sums of money—that gift his brain gave him at last—he remained conscientious. Every night, he checked the oven burners to make sure we would not perish in fire, then triple-checked the door locks.
He died at seventy-three. Young, my cousins and I realize only now. People seemed so much older then—and not just because we were kids. They carried themselves older, the women letting their matronly thickness and frumpy old-lady clothes weigh them down, and Grandpa solemn as an undertaker in every photo. The only one where he looks relaxed is a shot of him reading his newspaper in his pink chair, oblivious to the camera. He must have loved words, I realize with a start. My grandmother was the flamboyant one, hungry for an education she never received, always writing witty cards and letters and Increasing Her Word Power by inserting the day’s new word into three different sentences (which made for some domestic confusion). But Grandpa used to give me words to spell—not as a test, but so he could be impressed if I got them right. He just never made a big deal of it, never saw his own interests as worth disclosing.
He held himself back, and as a result, I never felt close to him, or happy in his presence. After he died, I had this nightmare where I opened a closet door and he was inside, eight feet tall and rigid, and as the door drew back, he fell out like a plank.
And now here he is again, propped up against the walls of our lives, unnoticed until we trip over him and realize all we missed.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.