2017 Theme Issue - Stranger(s)
Music to read by: “What is There to Say?” by Chet Baker
In those days, he was always grousing about something. Misplaced glasses, cold coffee, empty sugar bowl. Then after a ten-second spiel, his annoyance would trail off like smoke. On the other hand, when he read certain articles in the newspaper, he spewed with the vitriol of a right-wing radio host. Like when he read that Nikita was thwarting Ike once again by shooting down a U-2 on a reconnaissance mission or attacking Ike in a speech at the UN. Though he always stopped short of any hard-core swearing, his reaction to anything anti-American or pro-Democrat was potent enough to make me flinch and stuff a doughnut in my mouth. I was petrified of my grandfather in those days.
He was at the close of his career as a regional salesman in the bakery supply industry and evidently thought he could retire salesmanship. Forget about rapport and persuasion. He no longer persuaded, he castigated. And we pretended not to hear. I see us there in the kitchen. My grandmother standing at the sink looking out at her tall-as-me gladiolas. My dad tinkering with something mechanical. Mom sewing something flouncy. Brother zoom-zooming something with wheels. Baby sister cooing at something invisible. Me chomping on something sweet. Vienna Fingers, Tootsie Rolls, High’s ice cream. We all had roles to play in the cold war at my grandfather’s house in the Maryland suburbs of DC. I hear his ghost-voice even now, railing about taxes, food stamps, foreign aid. I hear me snivel, “pass the sugar.”
Long after those days, I found out my grandfather had been married to someone before my grandmother. This jolt to reality occurred in the most impersonal way possible—online. In my search for facts to hang on the family tree. His was a bare branch because he never spoke of his past; neither did his house. No pictures of ancestors lined the walls, no old family Bible with begets penned in front, no old family mementos on an old family pedestal table. Maybe he thought the past was of no particular consequence or words would fail him or we wouldn’t understand. And I wondered what else he wasn’t telling us.
Oh, he told us plenty. Hunched over milky coffee and powdered sugar doughnuts, braced by The Evening Star and cigarettes at the kitchen island. Snide remarks and put-downs about politics, religion, money—any topic lethal to family togetherness—puffing out of his mouth alongside smoke rings. Whatever annoyed him was fodder for another rant, another shoddy pun. He’d call anyone an imbecile. And I just sat across from him, munching a doughnut, absorbing his toxins. Occasionally I found the courage to mutter mild disapproval, Oh Pop-Pop.
When my family visited, he’d greet us with “Here come the morons,” or “The cuckoo birds have landed.” And I’d shrink past him to avoid a back-hand flick on my shoulder. Then one summer, when we were between homes, his roof became ours. He let us sleep in his guest rooms on high beds with sheets ironed smooth, bathe in his Regency Blue bathtub overflowing with pine-scented bubbles, drink root beer, watch his giant 21-inch tube TV—as long as it was news or wrestling. Gave us kids money to spend as we pleased, then ridiculed us for what we bought with it. Complained that we ate all his doughnuts. Grumbled about his place turning into a funny farm. Later on, I tried to figure him out in psychology courses. Why he was hell-bent on reviling others, why he disparaged all they held dear.
Her name was Buena Vista. My grandfather with his superior airs and heartless ways fell in love with a farmer’s daughter who had the most heart-wrenching name. Who became the first wife, the one he held dear but never spoke of. Who cooked chicken dumplings and corn chowder by the barrel at a state institution with “feeble-minded” in its title those days. A collegiate-looking campus in the placid hills of western Pennsylvania. State-of-the-art classrooms and dormitories and gymnasium and bakery. Where he baked countless pounds of rolls and breads and powdered sugar doughnuts. Where employees were charged with constraining their tempers and monitoring their attitudes toward the “inmates” who were children regardless of age. Where the children recited the blessing before meals and drank their fill of milk and never graduated from school. Where they were husband and wife for five years and most surely tried to conceive children of their own. Where Buena Vista contracted typhoid fever—achiness, then severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, high fever, delirium. Where finally, after doctors exhausted all usual treatments—camphor injections, strychnine, belladonna—she died.
This, then, is what he wasn’t telling us. What he wouldn’t, couldn’t tell us, for reasons too confusing to sort out. Maybe he couldn’t bear the thought of her. Like her giddy laugh, how she looked in her church hat with ribbons down the back, silly songs hummed off-key. The scent of rose water, her skin soft as . . . And other thoughts too private, too painful to speak aloud. Which is reason enough to disconnect all thought of her and just blow smoke. Just tell cruel jokes at anyone’s expense but hers. Just rail against anything to forget love lost, expunge the past. And I hear his nicotine-crusted voice, “The past be hanged.”
Beautiful essay. I especially love the vivid details, the sense of place.