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when you're young, you're kind
june 1, 2013
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house.
My maternal grandparents.
My father's father died when I was quite young. Maybe five. I only remember a few moments here and there with him. His bald head, spectacles glinting while I sat on his lap, his extraordinary gentleness. He was German, worked in a factory that made clocks. I do remember asking my mother once if I could bring him cookies. A small child's greatest gift. My father's mother, Irish, had some form of dementia. Even as a kid I recognized that. I could have conversations with other adults, but whenever I tried having a conversation with her, she'd just mumble, watching her long nails dig at the kitchen tabletop while she sang old Irish songs. I was a little scared of her. But not much. As I got older, my father would take me to visit her in her apartment (she lost her house after my paternal grandfather's death.) It was in what was referred to back then as a project. A large, impersonal concrete complex for poor people. Her rooms were fairly spacious, especially considering they were for one person, but there was a sterility to the whole thing. Years later, when I was a teenager and had a job and a car, I used to visit her every once in a while, and bring her groceries. I forget now what I'd buy for her, but I seem to remember they weren't staples like flour or canned soup, but rather treats I knew she liked, but couldn't afford. When you're young, you're kind. I never mentioned my visits to her to my father, but apparently he found out about them during one of his own visits to her, and saw the treats himself in her kitchen cabinets so knew she wasn't imagining it. A son and his father can often be at odds, especially a first born son, and we certainly were at odds plenty of times, but I do remember one time while I still lived at home where he asked me about my visits to his mother, thanked me, and seemed genuinely moved (and surprised).
But I was much closer to my maternal grandparents. I suspect that happens a lot.
They lived on Steamboat Road in Greenwich, Connecticut. At the rear of their backyard was Long Island Sound. Their backyard literally ended with a small, sandy private beach at low tide, and a gray wood boat dock. Great environment for a little boy. Once the tide rolled out, I'd go out in the mud flats with a large stone, smashing it down in the black mud. If that smash produced water squirting up, I'd dig, pull out a clam.
My grandmother had Parkinson's. She needed an aluminum walker to get around in her home. The sweetest, kindest person I ever knew, growing up. One time, as an experiment, I squirted her flowered dress with a water pistol, probably while I was wearing a cowboy hat, just to see if she would get mad at me. A kid's flirtation, testing an older generation's tolerance. I felt ashamed doing that, even as my small finger compressed around the yellow plastic trigger, but she didn't get mad. Just tilted her old head at me. "Bobby…" And an incredible cook. My grandfather was a functioning alcoholic. All the years I knew him, he'd always dress in a black suit, flask of whiskey in his back trouser pocket. Taking little nips throughout the day. Screwing the cap back on, returning the hardness of its woman's shape with an awkward look, head turned around above his shoulder, eyes directed down, as he shoved the flask into his back pocket.
But this Lately isn't about them, really. It's about their neighbors.
A young couple who moved in next door after that house's occupant died. For a year or so, there were no changes. But then the following Summer, we noticed he spent a lot of time in his back yard, sawing wood. Hammering. The next Summer, he had built a large, long wooden support structure of tresses, and on top of that structure he balanced more nailed wood, bent into immense hoops. By the third Summer, everyone visiting my grandparents realized the guy with the long dark hair and beard was building a boat in his backyard. Not just any boat, but a huge boat, like an ark.
It was preposterous. No one had ever done that before, and certainly not next door to my drunk grandfather. My grandfather used to go out into his own backyard, late in the afternoon, dressed all in black, swaying like drunks do, staring up at the hull as it got filled-in with wood. It really pissed him off.
I was getting taller. The magic of this ark getting built intrigued me. A boy's adventure.
And then, it seemed like the neighbor stopped build the ark. Summer after Summer, the skeleton of the hull would sit out there, in rain and snow, but no more wood was added. Was it over? Had he failed? Was that what adult life was? Trying, failing?
One Sunday, while my family was visiting my grandparents, my father already antsy to leave, my mother said to me about him once that he didn't like to stay in any one place long, there was a pounding at my grandparents' front door. Alarms through all the adult family members in the house. At the sink, washing the dinner's dishes, in the living room, watching Ed Sullivan. It was left to my grandfather to open the front door and confront the poundings, since it was his house.
A long-haired woman, black hair, came rushing inside. "You must help me!"
The fuck? It was like the start of a TV show. She was sobbing, pulling her hair, so incoherent it took me, a little kid ordered to stay on the sofa in the living room, a while to realize she had a foreign accent. The men, my grandfather and my father, stood directly in front of her, blocking further access into the house, the women, my mother and my grandmother, close behind. At one point, while the arguing in the front hall was still going on, my grandmother came back into the living room, to make sure the kids were okay. "What's she saying?" I asked. My grandmother wasn't too sure how much a child should know. "She says he beats her." "The guy who's building the boat?"
One time when we were all gathered at my grandparents', I was reading the Greenwich Times as I always did, trying to gather as much information about the world as I could, and there was a story with a word I didn't know. I asked my grandfather. "What does 'rape' mean?" He said nothing for a long time. "You should ask your father." "What does the word 'rape' mean, dad?" Everyone looking at my father, waiting to see how he'd answer. "It means when a man hurts a woman.")
After an hour of loud conversation, the adults convinced her she had to leave. They wouldn't help her. Closed the front door on her, even though she was still pleading. Never get involved in a fight between a husband and a wife. If you do, and yell at the husband, the wife will change her colors and start defending him. Losing proposition.
We never saw the wife before, and we never saw the wife again. Did she stay? Did she go? One of those thousands of unanswered questions from my life, your life.
I went to high school. Still dropped by often at my grandparents, to help them out. My grandmother got worse. Started trembling, from the Parkinson's. I'd be talking to her, and a line of drool would fall out of the corner of her lower lip. I always acted as if I hadn't noticed, taking a sudden fascination in something behind her as her arthritic paw reached up, wiping, embarrassed. Eventually, she couldn't climb the stairs anymore. My grandfather put her in a small room off the kitchen. The crammed-in bed took up most of the space. One window, but he kept the blinds down. Death was sitting in the front parlor by then, where the TV was, polite and patient, almost a member of the family, slanted sunlight through the tall, old-fashioned windows. Nothing would be sudden. It would be gradual, year by year, straw by straw, which, in some ways, is kind. Isn't it?
I bought a house in another town. Stopped visiting as often. But one time I did, going out into the back yard to mow their lawn, which had gotten a bit overgrown, I noticed a lot of work had been done on the ark. The hull was all boarded, and a tall wood structure built above the deck. When did that happen?
After another year, I decided to leave my family, my state, and move to California. I drove back down to Steamboat Road one day to say goodbye to my grandfather. My grandmother had died earlier, in a hospital bed. I was the only family member she recognized during her final days.
And the ark was gone.
"Yeah, he launched a few months ago." My grandfather looking at the empty space where the ark had stood throughout my childhood, his slow alcoholic decline.
In every child's life, there's a ray of sunshine slanting down, telling you what to do. The ship had sailed. Leave. Leave your family. Leave your mother and father. Leave your siblings. Leave your history. Sail out into the world, untethered, free, frightened.
Here come the waves. Here come the green waves, giant swells ready to drown you and save you.
Last night I was standing in a room I realized I had been in at least once before in my life. There was a TV so I turned it on. Isn't that what you do with TV's? A male narrator talking: "…but Joyce had one more trick up his sleeve. Sometimes he'd write a story with x number of characters, then go back and rewrite the same story over and over, each time leaving out a different character. Whichever variation worked best, that would be his story, at which point he'd refashion it to turn it into a murder mystery about that missing character."