Sunday, February 7, 2010

Love Letter to my Grandfather

The day you died, the blue Pacific stretched wide and thin, pulled taut as the string of a bow around the huge, rounded windows of your hospital room.

Brilliant in the July shimmer, surfers dotted its docile surface. Out your window, it was just another summer day; families crossed the PCH on foot, laden down with coolers and beach chairs and boogie boards. I remember feeling startled, watching a person such as you die while people searched for parking spaces and clapped sand from their flip-flops.

It was akin to walking out of a darkened theater to bright sunshine. Disorienting. Wrong.

To my recollection, you never told me--outloud--that you loved me, nor I you. But you did. And I did. Mostly though, I knew you from afar. A bit formally, with moments of familiarity in-between. When I was very young, and you were working, I saw you rarely. You were a mystery to me in your suit and tie, up early for your commute, your L.A. Times under your arm, your coffee in your hand. You read books I didn't understand and listened to opera music I couldn't decifer.

You were a man of the world in the truest, best sense of the phrase. You took holidays in Europe back when air travel was luxurious and Atlantic passages romantic. My entire life, you were either planning your next trip or returning from one. You allowed yourself to be humbled by the very essence that is travel—the removal of personal comforts and the stripping of lifelong assumptions. To me, as a child, it seemed in stark contrast to your very nature of a man among men, and I admired you for it. Each country and language and cuisine brought you to a new point of view, a new standard that you considered and weighed and brought back, in the form of Kodak slides and small gifts in foreign paper bags: cookoo clocks for all your granddaughters one year, frilly pinafores another. Wooden shoes from Holland. A tiny music box from France. And what I remember most—a collection of hotel soaps that sat in a glass bell jar in your bathroom, each small square wrapped in its own distinctive paper and smelling of musk, or jasmine, or pure exotic climes.

You were a California native, a child raised against the backdrop of 1930s Hollywood. In my mind, you are still as you described for me in the few soliloquies of memory I was privy to. You are a boy on a bike, weaving through streets that even then seemed a fairy tale in the making, a part of something brighter and shinier than life. You are the cocky teenager graduating from Beverly Hills High School, then the young man walking the privileged, manicured greens of Claremont McKenna, Occidental, and USC.

War broke out, and so much of the world that had been carefully constructed for you was altered. You did your part amidst a new world order, in a time of shattered idealism I can only try to imagine, born so many years later.

You were a family man. You went to work every day, carving out a comfortable life for your wife and children. You knew who you were, where you were, and what you intended to achieve, your finger firmly on that pulse-point of your life purpose so few of us can find. You raised children in the idyllic 1950s, and when I close my eyes to picture your young family, my mind is crowded by images of Normal Rockwell-esque prints and the few grainy photos I have studied. I see pleated skirts, upturned faces, and a procession of events that were before my time. I can clearly imagine the setting however, as your beach home is a thread of your past of which I‘m still a part…of which your great-grandchildren are now a part. I can imagine sand between toes, silver tinsel on a tree, and rubber rafts that would someday be replaced by skim boards and sand castle kits stacked haphazardly amongst beach bags and towels in your garage.

The turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s caught you with teenagers and confusion and impossible problems that threatened to undo you. You navigated the chaos the best you knew how, and though you were no doubt a product of your time, somehow, you seized and held onto a seemingly impossible foresight—a sense of the greater picture—that would serve as a lasting gift to the generations later born and the people you loved who stumbled and fell and righted themselves by nothing more than the strength of their past and their hope for their own newly honed futures.

You watched your children become parents themselves. You stood at the ready as they worked and struggled and made their way, and you were a foundation they could stand upon. You remained a provider, a cornerstone of support they could weigh in their hands. You were needed, which at times, when circumstances became an uphill climb and difficulties mounted, may have been all you wanted.

By the time I knew you, the passage of your life was already etched into the planes of your face. In my youth, I thought you were old, which you were not, and wise, which you often (but not always) were. You ended each evening with a cocktail or two, and you would read to my sister and me of ancient civilizations and pirates and knights in shining armor, your glasses perched on your nose, a cigarette permanently secured between two fingers. These reading sessions stirred my imagination in ways you’ll never know. In ways I never told you.

You lived your entire life near the ocean, and though it pains me to remember it, I‘m glad you died near it as well.

I think you know this, but I'll tell you anyway: what you set out to do, you achieved. Your beautiful home will not be in our family forever, and your job has long since been deligated to someone else, but your work ethic, your love of the arts, your cultured appreciation of travel and your devotion to family carries on, as all examples set before the younger generation--good and bad--usually do.

If you sit on the roof of your house--as we used to on July 4th to watch the fireworks over the Pacific--and stare out at the horizon, it seems to go on forever. The demarcation of water and sky waver and blur until it defies its linear form and at that moment, it's easy to imagine the earth we live on as rounded as the rising moon, curving effortlessly in a circle of hazy eternity. Which it does, of course. We're all going on: your wife and children and grandchildren and their children, born and unborn. Each life on this planet, each family that multiplies into generations to span history like a river flowing into the sea, is an epic in its own right. You were an epic; not an island, but an individual who shaped the people who would follow, through your life of deliberate purpose.

And I'm thankful for the legacy you left.


This post was taken in part from a letter I wrote to my grandmother shortly after my grandfather's passing, and was inspired by the Love It Up challenge currently held at Momalom. Go read more love letters! Then go read of other small treasures of life at Tuesdays Unwrapped.
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