"Your grandfather was always the silent type", people said, many times, throughout my life. Most of all saying this, his wife. I always thought it was an understatement, he went well beyond this description. Silent about everything in his life; past, present and future. Everyone in the family knew very little about him and I always felt that I never really knew him as a man, a grandfather, not even as a person.
That he had been ever present in my life until he died, when I was in my early twenties, made the lack of knowing him hurt even more. There was a gap in my heart where he resided. It was filled with the desire for knowledge of him and having none, felt different from other places and people, held there.
I grew up spending nearly three weeks of every month living at my grandparents house, when my mother was "depressed", (better and more appropriately defined as mentally, bat, shit, crazy) . No more than one hundred words passed between him and I during that time. Talking with him was always uncomfortable as he was a person who wouldn't converse with you, no matter what you had to say. And, I think I quit trying before I became old enough to remember having tried.
Many times, while he sat on the back porch in the spring, listening to the Cleveland Indians play baseball on the radio (games that weren't televised) I found myself lured back there, to him and the sports announcers, as they called their plays. In knowing he would never talk to me, knowing I could sit in silence, even if it was slightly uncomfortable, there was a comfort, a contentment in it, peace. It was in knowing he would never lash out at me, as his wife, my grandmother did, when I did wrong. I was always doing wrong. Still, there was always the discomfort of his silence.
In direct contradiction to reality, my grandmother often warned me, and the entire family, to, "Not let your grandfather know", "find out", or, "hear you". We were always told to tiptoe around him so as not to anger him.
And, though I never heard my grandfather angry about anything and, as I had heard and known, nor had anyone in the family, my grandmother assured each and every one of us that, "he never says anything in public but he'll take it out on me".
Her constant barraging of each one of the family about her husband's treatment was a constant source of confusion to us because we never saw it or, more appropriately, heard it. He never had one word to say around us so how was he able to say so much to her when we weren't around? Over time this theory looked more fictional than truth, but still, her warning remained ever present in my mind.
She used to tell me, as a child, that if her mother had told her the sky was green, when her mother asked her what color the sky was, it was green. The only answer to her mothers questions was what her mother told her was right and wanted to hear. Nothing else was true in their home and later, in her own home.
In time, this all helped to color the entire picture.
My grandfather and grandmother had grown up in the same small mining town in Pennsylvania where, she had told me, her parents had tried to keep her from marrying him. So, they eloped and came to Ohio where they bought a house in a suburb of Cleveland. One of two houses, at that time, the only two on a dirt road that led to the home they put lots of hard work into fixing up.
This became the house of their dreams, and, now, it is a historical home, beautiful, having been well kept by my grandfather. He was working on it the very day he died, on the porch, right outside the side entryway, surrounded by the shrubs, flowers and plants that were always well maintained, in their beds.
"Your grandfather never talks about his childhood, even to me," my grandmother said, knowing only that his childhood had been bad and this, only from inference, impressions, years of living with the man, as only a woman can come to know things of that sort.
My grandfather was a protective man, one who never had an outburst. At least, not in front of anyone but my grandmother. Or, so she claimed.
The worst he would do, in front of the family, if angered or (more likely) uncomfortable, during a conversation, was to loudly clear his throat. But, if this occurred, any family member would stop in their tracks, knowing that grandfather was uncomfortable, and this so rare you knew you needed to cease conversing.
And, if a female of the family ever cried, a loud, “Ahem”, was issued from him, as he was a part of the conversation but never saying anything, did not want to hear a female cry. Uncomfortable, as all the good, strong men were once, long ago, with showing emotions and seeing them.
We learned not to cry in front of our grandfather, as we were girls, and believed it to confuse the man. I believed he wanted to be the savior, putting it all right with the world, always Santa Claus, every year, even when we got older. Still in the same suit. When he was around and we cried, that meant he had not fixed it. And a grandfather, wanted, needed, to fix everything. After all, he had stayed, as a man should, with his family. Not that he wasn't tempted to go, years ago.
But, he chose 52 years of sacrifice.
As a child I couldn't understand why my grandfather was so different from the brothers he had. They were three men, who lived together, back in a small mining town, a coal miners town, in Pennsylvania.
In Winbur, the three shared a house we visited every year when we went back to put flowers on my grandmother's mothers grave, along with other relatives. When it was that time of year, when the trees were naked, and the silk flowers had been purchased, arranged, and ready, my grandparents put my sister and I in their dark, blue, Buick, and we headed toward the Pennsylvania turnpike, a cooler full of veggies and fruit to snack on.
The one year my sister and I had become fans of Whitney Houston's, What's Love Got to Do With It. My mother had bought us the cassette single of the song, it was on one side, side B, unimportant (so not memorable). My poor grandfather listened to that tape play over and over the entire five and a half hour drive, with no break, on one of the trips.
It was the first, last, and only time, we ever listened to music, the radio, anything vocal, on that drive. Of course, as in most things, he never said a word about it, not even to complain, he was silent.
That, to me, was love. At least in my grandfather's way.
“Don't tell your grandfather I gave you that. He will be angry,” my grandmother would say, as she slipped me the twenty dollars that I was usually asking for. And, if on the way out the door, grandfather stopped to offer money she would urge you to take it, never to tell him that she had crossed him and went behind his back.
It had been shared, once, when their 50th anniversary party was in its creation, the family gathering to make the details, that there had been horrendous marital issues, at one time, and a divorce. But, leveraging the loss of his family, life without them, his young children unsupported, finally made him settle down, come, and stay at home. The fifty years of marriage (and two years after, his death) was their golden anniversary, any divorce, erased.
I wondered if this is when the silence began, after the divorce, as he did his duty as a man, stayed, for his family. He had quit drinking, squandering money, and stayed at home. In doing this I figured he had fought his inner demons that told him to leave, to do what he wanted. But, instead, did what was necessary, stayed where he was desperately needed.
There was no way my grandmother would have survived as well as she did, on her own. My grandmother was a survivor but not so resilient as to overcome what would have been akin to mounting Everest, at the time.
My grandfather had stayed for the small daughter and even smaller son my grandmother had sent to the back hill of their yard where he had sought solace and silence, finding neither. Urging the small children to guilt trip their father, teaching them, telling them what to say and do, making him stay and do his duty to his family, pleading with tears, from his little girl, all while they sat on that hill together, where we sled, in the winter, as children, each year.
And, it worked. Where would we all have been had it not? The hill gone, all those moments undone.
That, to me, during that time, for a woman, is the fight you bring for the need you have for your family to survive. The resilience to bind a man silent and make him be a man. Do his duty to his family, go to work, make him bring home his entire paycheck, do the right thing for his wife and children; that is what a man is supposed to do, who he is supposed to be.
He might not like it and, in the end, therapists may be needed (and, not just for him). But, isn't that life? What choice did he have other than to abandon all that he created, his family, her, them, for the unknown? Freedom and fear combined, he turned away from this lure.
He never let me know, anyone know, if he did the right thing, in staying and, if he had been happy. Even if I hadn't been there, when this all began, I was part of the end, what never could have been, possibly, had he turned away from that hill and that little girl, my mother.
I would have liked to know, had it been the right decision? Doing his duty, raising his family, being, ever present? And, in my mind, wanting to tell him that he was the greatest of the men I never knew, and the greatest of all the ones I did.
In the end, this I wish, I could have let him know.
One of the last memories I have of my grandfather was one from later in my life, at least, that is, my life with him. He had come to pick me up from high school, where I was a senior, to take me to spend the evening while my mom finished work, to their house. At the time, I was too wild and irresponsible to leave at home alone, no one ever expecting the shit I would, could and did, pull.
The night before, I had gone to my sister's room, to use her full length mirror. Fake nails that were modestly long (but too long to do what I wanted to do, despite that, I proceeded), buffed and perfectly painted, I grasped a piercing stud in whatever of my fingers could grasp the small earring and started to shove it in my nose to pierce it.
"Help me with this," I said, halfway through the procedure, the stud partially thru the nostril, stuck. My little sister, lying beside me, was thumbing through a magazine, on her bed. Looking up, she noticed what I had been doing, so used to my craziness, to pay attention anymore, or notice a thing.
So unlike me, so unliking me, she shook her head, turned back to her reading and simply said," No, gross."
As always, unable to talk her into my trouble making, I, as usual, left her to her bidding and went about my own. Today I just needed the use of her mirror.
So, the next day in school, knowing my grandfather was picking me up, all the warnings about my grandfather from my grandmother passed through my mind. I was actually scared, terrified, to see and hear his reaction.
I thought, today will be the day I see who he is, the fear that grandmother's warnings would all be proved true, that volcano finally erupts.
As I headed to the car my sometimes psychopathic heart beat fast, as psychopaths hearts do not do, for I was no psychopath, just a bad, misguided kid, at the time. I opened the door of the same Buick that was always waiting for me, the next generation of the older model they exchanged every few years for a new one, opening its door and sliding into the passenger's seat, my eyes straightforward, not looking at grandfather, yet.
While my grandfather had bad eyesight, he wore glasses, and though he rarely spoke I knew he saw everything. I knew the instant he saw the piercing. And, as a slow smile spread on his face, no words came out and as he put the car into drive, still smiling, saying nothing, my heart beat wildly in confusion.
What in the hell is going on? The question played over and over in my mind as grandfather smiled and I sat next to him, he said nothing. I began to sweat, the windows always up in the damn Buick.
As a headache began to form, the sun glaring on the window pane, the windows remained up, as they always did, he continued to smile, driving us home, and I, I was going nuts in unexplained, terrifying, curiosity. And I knew my grandfather, I knew I would get no words. The instant we walked in the door and my grandmother saw me, I knew.
"I like it," Matt said, the little blue eyes, blonde haired, picture perfect picture of perfection, sat on the floral embroidered couch, my favorite cousin, my only cousin, at the time, the son of my mother's younger brother and the only boy in a sea of female grandchildren.
But, he was one of us, despite the fact that, on a trip to that same small Windbur town, when visiting the home of my grandmother's relative he had sat in the kitchen, and said, "Grandma, why is it so dirty?"
My grandmother, so shocked that he had said this and, in front of the relatives who lived in the home, said nothing, ever. Because what do you say to a child who has had such a good life, to have never seen dirty, to not even know it existed?
As Matt looked up, from the couch, the boy, too good of a life he'd known, to know what was coming. For me, I said nothing as grandmother began her tirade, the beginning of the end of facial piercings, for me. Matt, as if he were deaf, heard nothing.
"Jezebel," she screamed at me, again and again, as I fought my way to get anywhere away from her, from her tirade of loud words, denouncing me as the worst sinner, a wanton woman. Old, biblical words I'd never heard, a harlot.
As I fought, desperately, to get that nose stud out, knowing she wouldn't stop until it was gone. My fingers fumbled, long nails in the way, as I tried to get the stud out but had erred, the day before. In using the backing of the earring to screw the piercing tight, so as the stud would not fall out, the backing was on the inside of my nose! My fingers and those damn long nails could not get inside the nostril to get the backing out.
How had I got this backing inside my nostril to seal the stud in the first place I wondered, sweat pouring down my face, her voice, screaming hell, fire, and brimstone, and I, the wild child, defeated, thought to beg the five year old for help. I feared I had screwed my own doom, in screwing this stud in place.
Finally, as it came out, and the universe around me sought calm, my grandmother, the dragon's fire eased, the piercing gone, reverted back to normalcy. It was as if nothing ever happened.
I made my way to the back porch and sat down on the rocking chair. During the whole ordeal, my grandfather had snuck off to wait it out here. I glanced at where he sat, on the couch. He still had the same slight smile. Not as bright now, and not as obvious as in the car but still, the smile stayed.
As Matt, from the living room, oblivious to what had just happened, called out, "Well, I liked it". His opinion ignored, my grandfather smiling, still, and I took another peek at his face. It was then I understood so many things and nothing at all. All I knew for sure, what had been seared like a burn in my mind, was that it was my grandmother's world.
There were many unanswered questions when he died, from me, about him; his life, everything I never knew, but wanted to, desperately. The one I wanted to have answered most of all, had he been happy, in the end, had it all been worth it? The sacrifice of personal pleasure, for family? From one wild child to another?
Without any answers, I am reminded of that day and his smile. This is all I have, all that remains. Of him, those days, all those memories. I wish they felt finished, more whole.
He was the man most present in my childhood. And a man I never really knew, at all.