Grandpa: The old man who resembled another old man framed above our entryway in a painting which appears to be a cheap knock off of a Winslow Homer. In the painting, the old man is out to sea during a vicious storm, and he is at the helm of a small boat which is balancing precariously on the crest of a wave. He seems especially concerned in the painting, for next to him in the boat sits an innocent girl, oblivious to the raging storm all around her. The old man must be her grandpa. Grandpa knows, and you can see the knowing in his eyes, he is steering the boat for another, and underneath the concern, if you look close, barely glistening, is the infinitesimal fear that he may not be able to control the boat when they crash from the top of the fulcrum wave. The oars in grandpa’s hands, the only instruments to brace and direct a boat otherwise at the mercy of an indifferent sea, seem so puny. As a child, I would often stop in front of the painting and think to myself: “What is going to happen when the wave breaks, Grandpa?”
Twenty years later I was talking to my grandmother about Grandpa. The two had been divorced ever since I could recollect, but their relationship remained amicable. On this occasion, my grandmother had out an old photo album and thumbed through it. She stopped on a picture of grandpa. He is decorated in his World War II attire. To this day I do not know what title, regiment, division of the armed forces Grandpa served under; I am only certain he was a veteran of war, and this fact alone entitled him my respect and awe, especially as a child.
The picture evoked memories of his funeral. Men came in uniforms and one of them played “Taps” on the horn, and then the others fired an M-16 salvo into the air. After they buried Grandpa, he received a bronze tombstone for being a veteran and for giving his service to his country. My grandmother stared at the picture of him in his WWII attire with deep admiration. Grandpa wasn’t especially handsome, but in the picture, he has a certain aura about him. My grandmother kept thumbing through the photos, but it seemed obvious her inner thoughts reverted back to the same picture of Grandpa in his war attire, mumbling the intermittent “That was Kenneth,” underneath her breath, which served notice she had been mesmerized too. I thought about other things.
Grandpa was a recovering alcoholic. Until the day he died, he would go to his weekly meeting and out for coffee afterwards. Stalwart is an understatement when describing Grandpa’s recovery efforts. Even today, you can walk into the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at St. Benedict’s Hospital and one or two people will remember Kenneth—the man with the deep voice.
Grandpa smoked religiously. His 71’ Buick Skylark smelled of tobacco. It clung to the fabric, but it wasn’t a smell that reeked. The smell was just his, that and coffee. And although a whiff of those two smells do not evoke memories—probably because even his car had a scent particular to him, the smoke and coffee were just a part of it—back then I remember thinking, “When I get old enough, I want to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes because that is what grown men do.” Now, the non-nostalgic smells just seem like plain Folgers or cheap nicotine.
Grandpa quit smoking at about sixty-five. That didn’t stop him from suffering a heart attack at sixty-nine. When we went to clean out his apartment, his smell, co-mingled with stale coffee and cigarettes, served as a memento that should have lasted a lifetime. We didn’t keep much of his stuff. Most went to generic thrift stores or Salvation Army. However, at the back of my mother’s laundry room, among a rack full of moth-ridden clothes, hangs an old flannel shirt of my grandpa’s we could not bring ourselves to throw away. He wore the shirt every Sunday he came over for dinner, and it still smells of smoke, coffee and him.
The earliest recollection I have of my grandpa is as the playground or recess supervisor. I see vivid images of him blowing the whistle when he wanted to let the kids know their mischief or the bullying had gone too far. The memories cause a surge of pride to well up when I think the man with the whistle was my grandpa; the man who could strike the fear of death into kids with one yell from that raspy deep voice was related to me. And even though he gave me a sense of security out on the playground, he never did play favorites with his grandchildren. Even at the moment I think upon this, an incident demonstrating both his authoritative uprightness and his raw power rattles itself loose from the latent web of forgetfulness and descends upon my memory.
I do not know how the fight started or even what it was we fought over. I just remember that a certain kid and I were rolling around in the sand pile struggling to get on top of each other. I gained the desired position and prepared to rain down my vicious third-grade blows upon the kid’s cranium when a hand bore down upon the small of my back. The hand closed into a fist, capturing my wringed shirt in its grasp—I knew this, even though I couldn’t see the hand, by the way my shirt yanked tight in the front and forced me back. He flung me about twenty yards (not an exaggeration) across the sand pile, and I crashed down near the slippery-slide. All the while, booming in my ears, that raspy and deep voice of authority, calling me by the nickname only family and close friends used with me, “Boo, get to the principal’s office… now!” The voice caused my legs to go queasy and give out from underneath me when I tried to stand up. I could not believe the voice I had grown so accustomed to and paired with the kind nature of a man who took me for ice cream once a week was now being used to strike an immobile fear within my scrawny body. Before I could move, I felt that same hand grab me by the collar, lift me to my feet, and drag me out of the sand pile and on to the pavement.
Neither the sentence nor the pronouncement of going to the “principal’s office” struck me with fear; the next ten years of constant occupancy in a place termed “the principal’s office” would prove me right on this theory. It was the voice of authority and the disappointment I could discern underneath it that made his words feel like a death sentence. That voice struck fear into the very marrow of my bones. Now at thirty, picturing the skid marks my dragging feet left in the sand, I think if the imprint of a hand could be left on metal bars by those dragged along death row to the electric chair, or if someone being dragged to the guillotine could leave marks on the pavement with their feet, I think they would look no different than my two tracks of defiance in the sand. This episode alone offered me enough evidence to be convinced of Grandpa’s power and authority.
The day grandpa died, our family was in the process of packing up our belongings and moving to Germany. We had already sold our house and were finishing out the year in an apartment. I remember our messy apartment and how my mom’s older sister had come over to the house to cry with her. The calamity shocked us all into disbelief and deepest bereavement. As a child, not only the loss of our grandpa caused the pain, but it also made me cry just to see my aunt and mother shed tears of anguish.
The next day my mother made my brother and me go to school. I think she thought the rote of every day life would take our minds off of his death. And it did, until the end of school, as we were about to be dismissed for the day, when I began to feel a hollow pang in my breast. I put my head down on my desk, and I knew I would cry unless I distracted myself. So, I picked my head right back up and looked at the teacher for the final minutes. That seemed to work. Before school dismissed, however, our principal’s voice came over the intercom. He said some trite and official things about tomorrow’s school day and what would be served for lunch, and then he paused and announced, over the public speaker: “Students and faculty, it is with a heavy heart that I relate to you this sad news. Kenneth Pierson, the recess supervisor, passed away yesterday. He will be dearly missed.” The intercom went silent; the final bell rang.
I felt my cheeks burn like two miniature suns when he spoke this news. It was the first blush I ever experienced—the first of many. I put my head down and bawled. My body convulsed horribly. I knew my classmates were watching me. I knew they knew the recess supervisor was my grandpa. I saw them turn towards me from the onset of the news. It was this, their turning towards me, which caused my blush. I could feel their eyes upon me as my head lay buried in the dark comfort of my arms. My mother should have known better than to send us to school. The moment a family deserves to be left alone to lament its loss is the very moment the public sphere interferes. I thought to myself: Those eyes, all those eyes that have pasted their consolatory stare on me; they do not deserve to see my tears. They cannot understand what Grandpa meant to me. Damn them. Damn them all. Leave me alone.
I waited for the classroom to empty out. I waited to feel the hand of my teacher come off my back and to hear her voice stop saying she was sorry then I bolted to the coat rack, grabbed my book bag and coat, and headed for home. I made it to the foyer, saw a classmate whom I was not familiar with, sitting Indian style in the middle of the foyer, and for some unknown reason, I collapsed at his feet. Tears streamed down my cheeks. As I sat there crying, I blurted out to the kid, “Why did he have to die,” in a voice incomprehensible because of its squeakiness. I remember the kid had a perplexed look on his face, seeming to say, “What do I do to help?” I got up and ran out the door, ran to our apartment as fast as I could, and gladdened to enter a place where the common bereavement could be both understood and not belittled. I cried until I got it out of my system.
I remember the funeral as beautiful. The school choir sang three songs. The eulogies did not try to paint a picture of Grandpa as a perfect man. Someone even talked about his foibles and faults and addictions, and I felt glad. No one mentioned the smell of his car or apartment. No one mentioned the role he played in my life, and I felt sad. A few weeks later we moved to Germany.
Twenty years have passed since Grandpa’s death.
Just the other day, I entered my mother’s laundry room searching for a jar of salsa. Grandpa’s flannel shirt still hung, as always, on the rack of old clothes. I kept rummaging through the laundry room. For unknown reasons my mother puts the salsa in hard to reach places. I didn’t find the salsa. What I found, on a shelf, covered in dust, was the painting of a little girl sitting next to my grandpa in a small wooden boat. I dusted the painting off and then stood in front of it and looked at the old man rowing as best he could in an attempt to bring the little girl to safety. I saw a new fear in my grandpa’s eyes. The fear in his eyes said, “What is she going to do when I am gone?” The father: relegated to a flannel shirt smelling of smoke in the back of a laundry room. A flannel shirt that will never be worn again but cannot be thrown out because of the memories attached to it. I looked at the painting one last time before I put it back on the shelf. In the painting, the wave is still about to break. The wave is always on the verge of breaking.