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I almost always think of my grandfather when I eat sushi. Not because he liked it, or ever tried it, or – now that I think about it – maybe even knew about it, but instead because I imagine he’d look at me calling rice, seaweed, and raw fish a meal, and declare that I must have gone a little crazy.

No way would he have understood a $4 latte.

No way would he have understood a $4 latte with salt on it.

Today would have been my grandfather’s 97th birthday, which he missed by many years. He died of lung cancer when I was 12, in all likelihood because of the pipes he smoked, the ones that filled his house with a sweet vanilla warmth that still comforts me when I am fortunate enough to stumble across it. When he died, I declared in my adolescent anger that I would never smoke a cigarette, a promise I kept until the night of my senior prom, when I did all sorts of things I hadn’t anticipated.

Occasionally I come across a picture taken the October day we buried Papa. In it, I’m standing next to my cool older cousin, trying to appear cool myself, ignorant of my false, 8th-grade insouciance. It was a clear day, the sky liberal with its blue, and I remember the shock that death could take a man who had always seemed unbreakably strong to me. He was the first grandparent to go, the first person I lost.

I think there’s no one like a grandfather, though now, as an adult myself, I realize what a narrow view of him I had. He worked on the railroad, seemed as invincible as a myth, and made incredible hamburgers. He was warm, loving, and kind, though I’ve heard disturbing stories of his intense distaste for cats. He quieted us, the grandchildren, when my grandmother took her daily nap, and kept guns in a locked safe in his brown-colored study, though I don’t know if he hunted.

I know that Papa would not have allowed this sort of shenanigan!

I know that Papa would not have allowed this sort of shenanigan!

He cared for the generous vegetable garden in the backyard – the flowers belonged to Nana – and liked church music enough that he’d purchased a small organ at some point, which he kept in the dining room, overlooking the baby grand piano that he liked his daughters to play. His father taught English, and for a while they lived on a farm, and as far as I know, Texas was his only home.

I can still access a memory of the rumble of his voice, but I really knew very little of Papa, or of any of my grandparents. It’s limited not only by the fact that I knew them when I was just a kid, but also by the fact that we each craft our own image for various people in our lives to see. I’d like to talk with them now, see a little shade of what they were like as adults, with worries themselves, with moments of pride and shame, with all the accumulated stories that make up a lifetime.

There are so many ways in which I know my life is different from Papa’s, or from what he expected for me, his sixth granddaughter. The sushi is only the beginning. What would he think of my education, the fact that I’ve lived with men (plural, though only one at a time) without marriage, the trips I’ve taken to places that did not interest him?

I've looked through the windows at Giverny; I don't know my grandfather's favorite view.

I’ve looked through the windows at Giverny; I don’t know what window provided my grandfather’s favorite view of life.

I wonder what he would think of the Internet, September 11th, President Obama. Would he agree that my Honda was a wise purchase, or would he shake his head and wonder why I’d not chosen an American brand, in line with his Chevy truck and his Buick sedan?

I have no illusion that either life – his or mine – is better than the other; they are simply so different as to be incomparable. There were probably fewer choices in his lifetime, but perhaps that led to more freedom? It’s an unanswerable question. He had his role, as far as I know, as a husband, father, grandfather, worker, caretaker.

Any chance my love of rainbows was handed down to me?

Any chance my love of rainbows was handed down to me?

But what else was he? I just learned today, for example, that my grandmother played football, something that is so incongruous with her stately, finely-groomed stature that it makes me laugh. People surprise us all the time. And though sometimes I think of my life as complicated, isn’t longing for things we do not have, or sometimes for things that we cannot even name, a human trait, one that crosses eras and decades, and ages?

Could he have wondered about Seattle?

Could he have wondered about Seattle?

I’m curious about my Papa’s secrets. I like knowing that he had them, as I believe we each have them, even if they’re not racy or horrible, even if they are mundane and sometimes dull. In that way, as knowable as we choose to become to other people, we always remain our individual selves, harboring the thoughts that build upon themselves, moment after moment, that only we can ever experience, creating a world in the process that only we can ever inhabit. In a time of so much public visibility, this is a thought that comforts me.

I wonder who else remembers this late-night flea market in New Orleans, and I wonder what it means to them, in that patchwork of experiences.

I wonder who else remembers this late-night flea market in New Orleans, and what it means to them, in that patchwork of experiences.

What would Papa think of me now? I’m sitting on the back porch; though it’s 5:00 somewhere, it’s not yet that time in this neighborhood, but I have a glass of vinho verde next to me anyway. (“Vinho what?” Papa might have said.) I’m wearing a short, sleeveless dress, and the wind is strong and surprisingly cool on my exposed skin, a nod to the season to come instead of an acknowledgement of the summer in which I sit.

If he was here, on his 97th birthday, would my grandfather pull up a chair next to me, tell me about his life, let me pour him a glass that matched my own? I wonder if he would tell me about the mistakes he made, the regrets he carried, the dreams he did not fulfill. What advice would he offer, what wisdom would he wish to impart? I wonder if he would become any less infallible to the adult me than he was to the child me, and if he did, if I would mourn or celebrate that change.

Could I tell him about my failings, my curiosities, the accomplishments of which I am proud, and those autobiographical moments that haunt me? Maybe not. Maybe he’d rather see me as the person who loves reading, and dancing, and cookies, in those ways the same now as when he knew me.

If I brought him sushi, I wonder if he would take it in his age-spotted hand, dip it in soy sauce at my instruction, and remove his pipe long enough to pop it into his mouth.

I would, in return, take the tobacco from him, inhale it deeply, and then tuck it away, keeping it long enough so that the people who love me most could find it someday in the future. Let them realize then, hopefully with a bit of delight, that for all they knew about me, I was a bit of a mystery, too.

Cheers to my grandfather, and to the fact that I am the only person who knows exactly where and when this picture was taken.

Cheers to my grandfather, and to the funny fact that I am the only person who knows exactly where and when this picture was taken.

One comment on “The unknowable Papa

  1. What would your Papa say to you? It wouldn’t be about his life – he would tell you how special you are and how proud he is of you. He wouldn’t judge you. As far as the sushi is concerned, he would try it if he knew it was important to you. Most of all, he would tell you to live in hope. And he would tell you, “Papa loves you.”

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