By Darrah Le Montre
When I was younger, my grandfather was like a father to me. My own father and I have always had a complicated and challenging relationship, and my grandfather, with all of his gentle, paternal, steady, and quiet strength provided a kind of stability that my father, with his broken childhood, and my mother, with hers, couldn’t offer me. Now, the irony that my grandpa created fractures in my mother’s landscape and spiritual foundation that she’s not been able to fix and yet provided the exact opposite for me, is not lost on me.
When he died two years ago, I remember looking out the kitchen window and feeling his essence around me. I admired the black birds doing somersaults against gravity, gliding through the air without care. The clouds were billowy but felt heavy and burdensome on the sky. The trees were wiry and thin, suddenly. But, still the sight was commanding. “Who am I now that Papa has died?” I thought.
I knew I would be forever changed when Irving Hoffman died because he forever changed me. I used to say to myself, “As long as Papa is alive, everything will be OK.”
There was always a mantle of mystique around my grandfather. Plus, stories are so convoluted as a child. Take his time in the service, for example. As a child, I didn’t understand what my family meant when they said he was “too late to fight in the war.” Not understanding that the war had ended, I imagined him being impunctual. Sleeping too late, he just missed the battlefields of World War II, which in my mind, looked like Balboa Park with a volleyball net.
Family folklore maintained that he met my grandmother at a party, while on leave from the Air Force. She danced the jitterbug manically, chewing gum as he looked on from the kitchen. Rumor has it, that she told a girlfriend she’d one day marry that handsome man with the black hair and tall, slender build.
There was a commitment to secrecy about his alcoholic father who beat him regularly. I still picture the path Papa took through the tiny bathroom window he had to hammer open with his small fist, to sneak out and roam the streets awhile when his father was feeling particularly ornery.
When my grandfather died, he was 95. He was dying to make it to 100. (He’d appreciate that pun.) For many years, he was fixed on the idea that he would be a centenarian. But, as the physical manifestations of age took residence in his body, he subtly stopped sharing his once feverish plight. His mind was always lucid and his memory was unchanged. The second to last time I visited him in the hospital before he died, he told me the full name of his kindergarten teacher. I can’t tell you the last names of more than two of my high school teachers!
The complicated part of losing a man who is irreplaceable, is coming to terms with the fact that you will never be the same as a woman.
I finally had a man to lean on. A man who would listen to me share stories about my day. Who helped me pay speeding tickets when I was eighteen and made a paltry income working as a full-time receptionist with no benefits and no car insurance. He demanded my address every time I moved, which was frequently, and sent a fifty-dollar bill each year for Hanukkah. In 2013, he moved into an assisted living facility. Up until then, he called twice monthly to check in on me and find out if “all the little puzzle pieces” were coming together. He was like clockwork and I appreciated it like an astronaut greeting the impossibly distant fairytale man in the moon. Consistency was a vacancy, a phantom otherwise.
From the time I was nineteen-years-old and for six years afterward, family members told me to stay quiet about my fluctuating sexual preferences. To refrain from sharing my sexuality with co-workers, friends, bosses, and especially with Papa. “He’ll have a stroke!” I was told. It was hurtful, but I silenced myself. In some ways, I understood their apprehensions.
When I was twenty-five, I told him that I was in love with a woman and may even marry her. He said, “Well, then, I must meet her!” He invited my then-girlfriend over for dinner in his home.
Much to my relief, he didn’t die because I was bisexual. In fact, he adored my girlfriend, and even wrote me a letter the following day—mailed and handwritten, of course, never emailed—letting me know of his support.
His house smelled like a combination of warm, freshly cooked chicken and potatoes, Polo cologne, mothballs, and time. There was stillness there. The piano in the front room; his beloved coo coo clock that was as loyal as he was; the patio, which oft-piped Frank Sinatra and other old tunes from its aerial speakers, all of it had a friendship with a soft still quality. Peace, I think it’s called. I just loved it there.
His home reminded me of my grandmother and their Independence Day barbecues, celebrating their anniversary, him wearing a “Kiss The Cook” apron and chef’s hat, manning the meat. Despite the fact that my grandmother died there, I never felt like there was any negativity hiding in the thick petal pink carpet fibers or floor-to-ceiling gold lamé wallpaper.
Not long before he died, Papa was thrilled to meet my infant daughter. Snug in her stroller, he looked over her, the way he had looked over me for so many years. He proudly declared, “Not many babies meet their great-grandparents!”
Sometimes, I drive by his old house, now gutted and resold, and imagine him walking down the front steps, full head of hair, a few greys loitering around, pants hanging off of his slim frame, black pen and index cards sticking up from his shirt pocket, waving to me before disappearing into the house, whose smell still surfaces in my mind once in a while, when I’m relaxed enough to let myself miss him.