Sunday, March 05, 2006

For Us, There Is Only The Trying.

I remember walking up the crumbling steps to my grandparents' home, into the sloping porch where the horrendous gold-and-green vinyl-covered glider always sat, and finally into the familiar kitchen that always smelled of Grandma's cookies.

My grandfather was always seated near the door, at the head of the kitchen table. He'd take the cigarette out of his mouth with his tobacco-stained fingers, look up from his evening paper and say to me "Did your Daddy do your hair?"

I would giggle as I removed my shoes and tossed them into the corner. Sometimes I would be brave enough to shout "No!" in his general direction as I ran to the relative comfort and safety of the living room, where my sisters and I would play quietly on the floor and not get in the way until Grandma said it was time to open up the tin canisters and divvy up the cookies.

My grandfather believed that children should be seen and not heard...and seen very little, for that matter. He was a farmer transplanted from the old country. He believed himself to be the patriarch in a disappointing dynasty that had only produced one male grandchild to carry on the name. No matter how full his house would be, he only left his reigning seat in the kitchen to watch a hockey game with his oldest son. He spoke little. He rarely showed interest in anything but his crops or anyone other than the son who had inherited the farm, piece by piece. He did not show emotion or affection. I have no memory of ever touching or hugging my grandfather, or even of being in close proximity of him, save for his usual greeting - Did your daddy do your hair? This was partly my own fault - I was deathly afraid of the man, and I thought, with good reason. He was an imposing, impenetrable figure on his best day.

The only contact I ever had with my grandfather was indirect: usually too shy to respond to his greeting in any way, my sisters and I would nervously break for the living room, filled with dusty rose furniture and an old television set that lacked cable, and that we would hesitate to turn on anyway. My grandparents had 11 grandchildren, and only 2 toys to speak of - an ancient edition of the boardgame Payday, missing most of its original pieces, and a plastic horse that was too big for our Barbies to ride successfully. The bulk of our entertainment on these Sunday visits would therefore be left to the ritualistic raiding of the couch cushions. My grandfather, traditional to the core, unfailingly took a nap on the couch while my grandmother got his dinner ready. The coins from his trousers would roll from his pockets and get lost in the couch, hidden treasure for my sisters and I to unearth during our visits.

My sisters and I received no allowance, and the family had little money to spare. These dimes and nickels were precious to us; a rare quarter was something to be marveled at and discussed with passionate whispers. These coins that had fallen from a farmer's green overalls were as close to my grandfather as I would ever get.

I was 11 years old when he died suddenly, though not suddenly enough in the end. He had contracted a Strep A bacteria that would become known as flesh-eating disease. My proud grandfather was felled, eaten alive. He was betrayed by his own body, the body that had reaped, reared, planted and produced. His grown children saw his anguish and watched his deterioration while his grandchildren were denied entrance to the intensive care unit and denied the opportunity for goodbye.

Would I have said goodbye? I know the answer. The answer is no. I lacked the words. He was a stranger. There was no precedent in our relationship for any kind of intimacy at all. I doubt that it would have made a difference.

As my classmates cut heart shapes out of red construction paper, and decorated doilies with glitter, my family sat in the second hard-backed pew of a church that seemed to be as imposing as my grandfather had been. Strangers stood and talked of a man who, to me, was completely disconnected from the man I had known. A bagpipe blew us out of the church, into the cold air, and into an irrevocably changed life for my family, though we hardly knew it then. On the way back to the old farm house of sloping floor and outdated furniture, my mother suggested that it would be kind to give my grandmother a hug.

When I stepped into the kitchen and struggled out of my black patent leather Sunday shoes, my hair was indeed fancified, but no one asked who'd done it. My grandmother sat stoically in the seat where she'd always sat, whether writing on flowery stationary, trimming green beans, or pasting obituaries of people she'd known into a yellowed scrapbook. She sat there still, as if nothing had changed, but my grandfather's chair sat empty. Awfully empty. Conspicuously empty in a house crowded with relatives and not enough seating. It remained empty the whole day.

I did not hug my grandmother that day. I remember thinking about it, I remember trying to muster the courage, and I remember being defeated by bashfulness and my inability to remember having hugged her before. And I know that we did, when I was small. But also that we hadn't in any of my memories. I couldn't do it. I didn't know how to go up to this woman who must have been mourning but never showed it. I didn't know how to hug my own grandmother.

Years later, I would wonder if this non-hug had changed the course of our lives. If, perhaps, it had made it easier for her to reject me in deference to her son, my father, who no longer had a place in my life. If the non-hug had facilitated her descent into non-grandmotherhood.

After my grandfather's funeral, I began to include him in my nightly prayers. Soon, I was engaging him in full-blown conversations. During my prayers, I kept him abreast of family goings-on, told him all the trivial details of the life of an 11 year old catholic schoolgirl. I talked to him in death the way I never did in life. A year later, I felt extremely close to a man I had never really known on earth.

Somewhere along the way, I lost faith in religion. My prayers dropped off, and with them, the closeness I shared with my dead grandfather. But I had made my peace, and I had said goodbye.

When my grandmother died, I didn't belong to the family, and I was acutely aware of not belonging at the funeral. I didn't go. I chose not to go. While Jason and I toasted quietly to our first wedding anniversary, the rest of my family sat on the same hard-backed second pew.

This time, I ached for the easy rapprochement that prayer had offered, but I could never get it back, not in the innocent way of an 11 year old girl who simply believed. Goodbye has been a longer journey this time around. I'm still trying. We're all trying: the living, the dead, the yet unborn. We're trying, and we're getting closer, but we're not there yet.