For as long as I can remember, I’ve bristled at any mention of my maternal grandfather. Whenever I’ve heard stories of his escapades as an Italian immigrant adapting to life in the US, instead of remembering him fondly, I’ve felt curiously annoyed or irritated.
I’ve often played devil’s advocate aloud or in my head whenever a family member lovingly described an interaction with him.
My father would affectionately reminisce, “He was loud and blustery and always laughing. What a character he was; forever joking and telling great stories.”
Instead of feeling happy my dad had positive memories of his father-in-law, I’d think, “Sure, Grandpa was always talking, but he never said more than five words to me. I was invisible to him.”
My mom would wax poetic about my grandfather’s ongoing financial support of his church. And laugh about how he admonished my grandmother for spending money on groceries for their six children. Instead of appreciating his quirkiness or relating to his financial fears, I was happy to point out my grandfather’s hypocrisy.
I’d hear repeatedly about how hard he worked and how much he sacrificed to come to this country. Instead of admiring his tenacity, I’d think, “Oy, enough with the martyrdom. He had it good – his wife and kids took care of his every need. The cheap bastard never spent a dime on them and hid all his money in metal pipes in his basement.”
If fault-finding and bitterness were marketable skills, I’d be as wealthy as my grandfather was upon his death at age 96.
I’ve often wondered why I never felt the warm, loving feelings toward him that appear to flow freely among my parents, siblings and extended family members; why mostly what I felt toward him was resentment.
Though I grew up seeing him regularly, my grandfather and I didn’t have much of a relationship. Perhaps it was the language barrier, he spoke only broken English, but we didn’t interact at all until I was a young adult and even then, our conversations were limited.
“Have some wine. Drink, drink!” was the extent of our connection. I’d giggle. He’d laugh. Enough said.
Except it wasn’t enough. Now, as an adult watching my father interact lovingly with my daughters, I’ve often felt deprived of a loving, committed grandfather figure who doted on me and showered me with affection.
Instead I experienced my grandfather as distant and demanding. Even at a young age, I hated what I perceived to be his favoritism of his sons and the disrespectful way he treated my grandmother. She was my hero – all warmth and hugs and generous bosom.
Grandma was the saint in my eyes. I’d prefer to hear more stories about her; to have known her as an adult instead of losing her as a young teenager. I’d like one of my grandmother’s impossibly comforting hugs right now.
My grandfather died in 1998. On the day of his funeral, I wrote a long, heartfelt letter to him expressing my anger and resentment. I blamed him for a lot of the dysfunction I saw in my family of origin and held him accountable. I tore up the letter all those years ago hoping to release the pain and ill feelings I was carrying. And all the shame I felt for resenting instead of admiring him.
Two weeks ago, my husband and I had lunch with my mom and dad. For the first time in my life, I felt eager to hear stories from them of my grandfather’s antics. Rather than judgment, I found myself fascinated by his life, compelled by his struggles and achievements, curious about his foibles and his larger than life persona.
I found myself wondering about his fears, jealousies and resentments. The stories I’d heard about him rarely acknowledged his weaknesses or failings. He was the hero in everyone’s eyes but mine, and I could only see his flaws. Suddenly, in wondering about his doubts and compulsions, I could feel his humanity. And my own.
During lunch my parents recounted many funny anecdotes about my grandfather, including the day he found an old toilet in the alley on his way home from work. Confident he could put this toilet to good use, he carried it on to the bus, eliciting disparaging comments from the bus driver.
His response? “The seats here stink. I brought my own.” He placed that toilet in the aisle and rode on his throne all the way home, confident no one would mess with him. I can clearly picture the self-congratulatory smirk on his face, the triumphant strut in his step.
I realized my grandfather did have something I admire – the ability not to care what other people thought of his actions. He was shameless. And fearless.
I’d like to steal some of my grandfather’s confidence and joie de vivre. (For the record, he can keep the old toilets. Not my thing.)
Maybe my family members could see all along what I’m only now experiencing – my grandfather was a human being, capable of great sacrifice and greater folly. He loved his family enough to provide for them day in and day out and what he lacked in affection, he perhaps made up for in marrying a woman capable of nothing but.
I imagine him as a little boy, 12 years old and living on his own in a foreign country. Working by day as a water boy for the railroad builders, fending for himself at night.
My heart is softening toward this man. I miss my grandmother. Maybe one day soon I’ll also miss my grandfather.