Tuesday, January 23, 2007

All of It

My Grandfather.

I haven’t thought about my grandfather for a long time. Last night, I had a dream about him.

He was a tall, elegant man. My mother called him Daddy to the day he died, when he was 75 years old and she 48. There were always a lot of rules when we went to go visit him in North Carolina. And, while my mother would bend rules at home or give us unheard of freedom at times, there was no messing with her when it came to her father’s house.

To me, he was gentle, kind and smelled like sweet pipe tobacco. At his house, my mother’s rule was children were to be seen, not heard. We would be sequestered in the back room, an addition built to house a pool table. He would come back, on occasion, and talk with us, play a little pool. Mostly, from that room, I remember a tray of his pipes. I would pick them up and hold them. I loved the smell.

He had a special den off the kitchen. All leather and his own television, it was where he sat when at home. My mother and Grandmother would sit on the couch and he would recline in his chair, master of the room. There were two ways into the room, one from the back, down a long hall, the other from the kitchen. I would, at times, sneak in the back way. He would let me climb up and sit in his lap. I know I snuck in there to see my mother, but he would always scoop me up.

I felt safe with him. He was the only man, as a child, I felt safe with.

He would ask me questions, in his sweet southern drawl. My mother would tense on the couch, fearful of what would come out of my mouth, just as, years later, I would tense when she would ask my boys questions, fearful of what would come out of their mouths.

I remember the last time I saw him. He had been sick for a while- mouth cancer had left him unable to eat solid food. He became desperately thin and scowled at the pureed food put before him. I did not venture down the back hall to see him. My mother told me not to. He was too sick. The panic in her voice kept me away. I was fifteen, awkward and self-conscious. I didn’t know how to be around someone who was dying.

When we left, he came out to the driveway to wish us goodbye. I instinctively hugged him and kissed his cheek. He was the only relative I wanted to hug and kiss, the only one no one forced me to acknowledge.

He winced in pain.

My mother scolded me.

No, he said, holding his face, there is something terribly wrong if it hurts to be kissed by your sweet granddaughter.

And he walked back in the house.

Years after he died, my mother told me of how he struggled to accept adopted children as his own. We were not blood. As he lay dying, she told him they were all there, his wife, her, and his son, my mother’s half brother. No, he said. My grandchildren are not here. It was a gift to her, his acknowledgement.

I always felt loved by him.

Maybe because I was the youngest, maybe because I would sneak down the hall to sit with him, maybe because my tall, thin body was similar to my mother’s even though it came from another womb, I never felt his discomfort. I never knew he saw me as anything less.

I dreamt last night of being in his house, with the tall columns out front, the goldfish pond in the back. Of the Boston terrier he had, an old dog everyone was afraid would bite us children, that I insisted on making friends with, adding yet a few more gray hairs to my mother’s head.

In real life, the dog never bit me. My Grandfather would hush my mother. Let her be, he would say. She’s fine.

Just as my mother did when my boys would be running around her house, dangerously close to her delicate art.

As time goes on, my memories grow clearer, stronger of the horror I went through as a child. The trip, the tent, the apartment. I am finding, however, there is a real payback. I am remembering all of it. Not just my father’s leer and suffocating presence.

But my Grandfather sitting on the back porch, the ceiling fan slowly turning, smoking a cigar.

And smiling.


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