He sat in an over-sized chair in the living room wearing bib overalls. One leg crossed over the other, his ankle rested on the opposite knee. He wore men’s classic style leather slippers and the bottoms of his pant legs were folded up forming cuffs. Every so often, he flicked the ashes from his ever-present cigarette into the cuff of the pant leg perched on his knee. It seemed such a bizarre ritual to me and, although I never asked, I wondered why my grandmother tolerated it.
He said very little. As I think back on those visits now, I have no recollection of him ever directly addressing me, and yet I tell myself that he must have at least asked me how I was, how things were at school . . . But I cannot clearly hear his voice in my head. All I remember is that he was soft-spoken and as I sat uncomfortably on the couch across the room from him, I noted the resemblance my father bore to him and wondered if, as my father aged, he too would be bald.
I don’t remember the day we learned that he had lung cancer. But I do recall that there came a point when I was no longer to required to accompany my parents when they visited him in the convalescent hospital where he was spending his last days. One night, they returned and told us that he had died while they were sitting at his bedside. He was in a coma. My mother relayed that, as she gazed at him lying in the bed, she realized he was not breathing and alerted my father. The medical personnel confirmed that he was gone.
I was in the fourth grade and his was the first funeral I ever attended. My parents talked about the logistics in advance, so I knew that there would be two areas in which attendees would be seated. We would be in the larger of the two rooms, rather than on the couches in the little room off to the side where the rest of his family would gather. My father made it clear that he would be driving us to the service at the funeral home and, afterward, the cemetery, in his own car. We would not be joining his relatives in the funeral home’s limousine.
Frankly, the image of that old, bald man lying in the casket is more vivid to me than all of the visits we paid to him in his home combined. I remember thinking how odd he looked. His face was different; his skinned appeared waxy and as though it had been pulled tightly across his face. His lips were an odd shade of red. But what really stood out was his salmon color, double-breasted suit with the unusually wide lapels. They were completely out of place in 1966 when men, including my father on that cold January day, wore dark suits with one row of buttons and narrow lapels.
I sat on the pew next to my father while a man I didn’t know talked about the man lying in the coffin behind him, whom I had never really known, either. Off to the side, I could see the room about which my parents had spoken and caught glimpses of my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins through the opaque curtain that separated us from them.
Although I could not shake the vague sense that I should feel sad, I had no real emotional attachment to the man in the casket. I had never gotten the sense that my parents did, either, until I looked up at my father and saw him wiping tears from his cheek. I had never seen him cry before and it was only then that I realized that the man I always called “Daddy” had lost his own father. Still, his emotional reaction was baffling given that we never celebrated holidays or birthdays with any of his family members, and the only time we saw my grandparents was when my mother would announce, “Well, I guess we should go visit your parents.” My father never said anything more than “I suppose” in response, but he would dutifully arise from his recliner and get ready to go. Then we would grudgingly pile into the car for the less than one mile journey to their house. We were never offered even a cookie or glass of milk, and usually didn’t even remove our coats. Rather, we sat in silence listening to the grown-ups “visit” for what my parents deemed a respectable period of time. And then one of them — usually my father — would announce that “we’d better be going.” We would trek back to the car, come home, and savor the relief that accompanies the knowledge that you have performed some type of duty. Until the next time, that is.
When my friends talked about their grandfathers, I was awestruck. I wondered why I was not blessed with grandparents who invited me to spend the night at their house, take me on adventures with them, bake birthday cakes for me or do any of the myriad other things that grandparents usually love doing with and for their grandchildren. To this day, I don’t fully understand why we were, for all intents and purposes, estranged from my father’s family, although I gleaned bits and pieces of their dysfunctional history from my mother over the years. My father said precious little about it, although his actions spoke volumes. I wish now that I had asked him more questions about his feelings when I had the chance. His thoughts on the matter are forever lost to me.
But that’s one of the reasons why I decided to return to Lodi after spending a few years living in other parts of California. I reasoned that if I ever had children, I wanted them to live near their grandparents and enjoy the kind of relationship with them that I never had the opportunity to experience. I anticipated that my parents would be involved, loving grandparents and I was absolutely right. In fact, I used to watch them interacting with the boys and jokingly ask, “Who are you people and what have you done with my parents?” To say that they doted on their precious grandsons would be an understatement. They seemed virtually reborn after their first grandchild, my oldest nephew, Paul, arrived.