By Chaily Bitton
I remember excruciatingly long summers in my childhood. Hot summers, red hot. There was always a camping trip, even though we all hated camping. I suppose it was the principle of camping: family time. The running around on the bare grass and the smell of horribly burnt barbeques. The high pitched sounds of my cousins and I tripping and stumbling all over one another. The river that flowed through all the tents, the river that was filled with the most agonizingly cold water. That pinching cold water that reminded you you were still alive, still breathing in this suffocating heat. That cold that reminded me of the dead.
No one was ever truly dead in my family. Physically they were gone, but their memories, the ideas of them, were so vivid. So alive. As a child, it sounds absurd, but I never really thought of my grandfather as dead. We would sing for him on his birthday, and make his holiday cards with glitter and stick figures with an arm and a half. To me, his gravestone was a home like any other. I’d even sit at the edge of the grave as if I was sitting on his lap.
He was, in a way, this godly ominous being. Unfamiliar territory. The feeling of having a grandfather has always been unknown to me, but what’s strange is that I didn’t feel a strong connection to my father’s father, which isn’t to invalidate him or his significance, but with my mother’s father, it was different. There was always this unspoken connection between him and me, a vulnerability bestowed on me because I had his name. And I always searched for more from him. I wanted to be like him. The gold chain with the life amulet, the high cheekbones, and the gap in his teeth. For my birthday I was given a chain, but mine was smaller and softer. My cheeks aren’t full, but there’s a gap between my teeth, so small, but it’s there. Almost like a remnant of him. Throughout my childhood, I looked for things like this. He was quiet like me, he smiled a lot, like me, but this was only a fraction of who he was, only a memory of good. To me, as a child so innocent, so pure, he could have done no wrong.
I remember tapping softly on the window of my mother’s living room, my knuckles cool to the touch of the frosty glass.
“Look at me, look at me,” I whispered lowly, a sound too shy to be heard. My tiny hand unclenched and leaped forward in a soft wave. The veil of the curtain wrapped around me, hugging me, enclosing me between the shade and the window. There he stood, tall and dark. His smile, charming and welcoming, full cheeks so satisfied with red; you would think he was still living. His arm was welcoming. He was exactly as I had always seen him, how I’d always expected him to be.
“Who are you waving at?” My mother crept up beside me.
“He’s there, can’t you see him? There, look, he’s calling to me. Reaching for me.”
My mother, unfittingly, played along, with what I now look to as childish antics, and crouched beside me.
“Who?” She asked again, and I rolled my eyes, because how could she not see him?! He was tall and regal and, not to mention, her father. I reached for my brother, who was sitting on the floor, and asked if he could see him too. He could! He too started waving alongside me.
“Who are you two waving at?” My mother laughed loudly. We waved in such synchronicity, it was like something out of a horror movie.
“Papi,” we both said in unison, and at that moment, her laughter stopped. After I looked at her face, I turned back to the window to see no man, but an empty street. He had gone away.
It’s funny that we would use such a familiar name for someone who was essentially a stranger, but he really wasn’t a stranger. And as I grew more and more, I thought my curiosity for him and his life would die out, but it’s only gotten stronger.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” my mother had always said to me. His real life was like a secret shared between a few people in my family. There was one time we were sitting in my aunt’s living room, talking about a DNA test for Ancestry. My mother refused.
“I wouldn’t like to find out I have a couple of long-lost siblings somewhere around the world.” I was maybe eleven, or twelve. I sat there and didn’t even think before saying, “Why would Papi cheat on Savta?” (Savta means grandmother in Hebrew.) Looking back, it was such a juvenile response. But this was a reflection of how he had been perceived to me: this holy entity.
My aunt looked at me, then at my mother, then back at me and said, “there’s a lot of things you don’t know.” I grew tired of this response, for my curiosity was only growing.
It was at this time that I had discovered a tactic. The drive back from Long Island, New York to Montreal, Canada was a gruesome six hours. Six hours spent between just the two of us. It was at these times that my mother would be most vulnerable with me. I don’t know if it was the distraction of driving or the idea that we were truly alone, but she opened up to me most at these times.
This was the first time she had told me her father was an addict, and about the not-so-good days. The enthralling gossip within the bundle of siblings: which sibling fought with the other, which brother slept with which wife. I was sworn to secrecy, but I was twelve. This news was only the surface. When my mother first told me my grandfather was an addict, it was more of a warning for me, and she had told me it was cocaine. She thought that if she told me he was actually addicted to heroin, I would somehow be afraid of him. My mother so badly wanted my perception of my grandfather to be pure; she clung on to that memory of him. As did all my family.
We were back in New York, sitting around the table. Just my aunt, my cousin, my mother, and I looking through photo albums. When we’d move on to videos, someone would cry. The first time I saw my grandfather in a video, I cried. It was more of a surprising cry, a cry of “I can’t believe he was actually real.”
As we sat there, engulfed in our mothers’ pasts, we came across a photo of my grandmother and my grandfather’s brother, Edmond. My cousin reached for it, recognizing the man he had visited this summer.
“He has a funny way of drinking wine.” He chuckled and put the photo down, turning to my mother. “Have you noticed?”
My mother shook her head and mumbled, “No. I haven’t spoken to him in a while.” I looked at my mother, then at the picture, and then back at my mother.
“Why not?” He responded curiously. I knew the reason, and it became clear that neither mother was prepared to elaborate. My mother does not speak to her uncle anymore, because when my grandfather was selling drugs and doing heroin, my great uncle would cross the street and pretend he knew nothing of his little brother. But my cousin didn’t know that.
There was a tension-filled silence until I jokingly cheered, “I know all the secrets,” and my mother laughed because I was very aware of her father’s past. My aunt, however, much like the rest of my family, was not.
“Oh, that’s so cute that you think you know!” My aunt laughed. She probably didn’t mean for it to come off as condescending, and I wasn’t offended anyway. None of my family could possibly imagine that I knew my grandfather was a heroin addict because that would taint the figure that has been presented to all the grandchildren.
I love him because my mother loves him, and I love my mother unconditionally. But perhaps because I am not blinded by a child’s unconditional love, perhaps I can see my grandfather for who he really was. The cold water that still haunts me to this day pierces me and allows me to see the dead more clearly. I saw him as more than just a memory of someone else. I understood that this man was an addict. That he lost his mother, clinging to her grave as a young boy, and was beaten by his father. But I also saw that this man had anger deep inside him. He could be harsh and abrasive and aggressive; he would not always be happy, not as charming as the ghost I once saw when I was so little. He was vulnerable, loving, and caring. Always giving. I saw him, but most of all, I saw my mother clinging to the memory of her father and harbouring it. I suppose when you get married a year after your father’s death, there is never much room to grieve. So instead of grieving the dead, she celebrated the living—his living. And she took his life and bottled it up, keeping him perfectly and extraordinarily frozen in good, forever.