I sit on the floor in front of the old, low, brown bookcase in the dining room. People walk back and forth behind me in a silent rush, going nowhere in the small empty house. Now everyone that lived there is gone leaving two tiny empty bedrooms, his and hers.
I’m staring at the bottom row of books on the shelf. There are scratches on the shelf above from my Grandfather’s nails, there are so many scratches that you can’t see the original color of the wood. He was an avid reader, the shelf well-used. The books seem remote and somehow intangible, dusty and worn covers, old with repeated use, vaguely mysterious titles on the floppy spines. The Tao Te Ching, The Sayings of Lao Tzu, A Drifting Boat, and The Art of War among them.
When Grandpa’s curiosity took him in this eastern direction I was young, maybe six or seven. I’d been watching him digging in the yard. Straw hat, old rake in hand, handkerchief to wipe his brow; he looked like a farmer in Provence. No one really knew what he was digging for or why. I suppose it may have been to get out of the house and have something to do. Perhaps he was trying to improve the drainage of the yard. Everyone teased him about it calling him Digger O’Dell.
Standing next to him in the heat while he took a break, he began to tell me about Chinese poetry, Lao Tzu and Confucius. His face glowed and he looked intently at me with his beautiful light blue, watery eyes. I never felt diminished in his gaze. I was hooked because he was hooked. While it was interesting, I needed to belong to something that was just my own with someone that was safe, I decided this was it and clung to every word.
I picked up the book of poetry we had looked at together over the years, tears welling in my eyes. Crying is a sign of weakness and I try hard to keep a stony face as the pain shipwrecks inside me.
Everyone is deciding who gets what as if by clinging to the things he lived with he wouldn’t really be gone. I put the book back and look at the second shelf. There, neatly labeled by year are rows and rows of black and white composition books. I remember how he spent a lot of time in his room at his beautiful old desk scribbling in the books. I never wondered what he was writing. I accepted that it was something important, some kind of record or accounting or something, based totally on the fact that this was what my own Father, his Son-in-Law, did.
My mind drifts off in thoughts about family lore; I know that I can be free from the hurt and emotions if I escape into my head. The family narrative is a force, there are tales about everyone. Often these tales are told in the person’s presence, humor at their expense; poor, sweet Grandpa was no exception.
I think about the day Grandpa came in from the yard with their toy poodle, a decrepit old thing with matted carmel fur, no teeth, cataracts, and a shitty personality. He wandered around in the dining room sniffing. Mom is a sniffer too, very smell sensitive, it is a French-Canadian thing she said, giving it some undescribed cache.
Round and round the dining room table Grandpa went asking the dog what smelled bad. Finally my ornery Grandmother could take it no more and bustled in growling, “Willie, check your shoes, you stepped in poop!” She followed him around the table shaking carpet powder in ever widening circles on the floor.
Back in the present, I stop to listen for a moment and hear some muffled arguing from Grandpa’s bedroom in the back. Something about the desk, Grandpa raising my cousin Jason, and important memories. My Aunt’s voice is a “nails on a chalkboard” sound for my Dad and I. Hearing her voice now I assumed the usual, she wanted more of everything and my Mother was trying to negotiate without being hurtful. I wish Mom would just let her have it and tell her what an unrelenting whiny bitch she is. I start to get angry at my Aunt and resentful at my Mother for being “weak-willed”.
My Grandfather was never like that to his siblings, where did these two get this from. Grandpa had a Sister in Canada who he wrote letters to in French, his beautiful lilting script running across the pages. He spoke French the same way, soft and deliberate with technical purity. He had a Brother who was “trouble from the start”. Their Father died too young and Uncle Wilfred was a ruffian and a drunk who, at fifteen couldn’t manage the job of helping to support the family. Grandpa stopped going to school in the eighth grade so he could work in a local factory to help his Mother and younger Sister. My Aunt would never dream of doing something so selfless and my Mother would do it but martyr herself over it. I wonder if anyone in the family got any of Grandpa’s traits. Maybe it was the middle Daughter, Leonie, who died at fifteen of a heart condition. I guess I’ll never know.
I haven’t moved in what feels like hours. I can’t just sit here but I can’t stay in the house either. They all had their own agenda and I was never asked to help, I was nobody’s favorite. They were always happier when I wasn’t involved. I wandered out to my car for a cigarette thinking about my bad reputation in the family. I was the Uncle Wilfred I guess, tough as a little kid, rebellious as a teenager, drunk as an adult. I was in the same class as my second cousin Patty who’s claim to fame was breaking a toilet seat and blaming it on my Mother. You didn’t have to do much to get a bad rap in my family and I was always a high achiever.
I look over at the dark green cellar doors as I lean against the car, remembering my Grandmother emerging from the stairs into the sunshine only to insult Grandpa for something. She especially liked to call him a “dumb bunny” and whack him on the head with tissue boxes. Why he put up with this I’ll never know yet somehow he managed to just ignore her.
In the house just outside the bathroom there is an antique, stained glass picture of a fat battle-axe with a rolling pin standing next to a thin and anxious man. I was fascinated with the picture as a little kid, only understanding the irony and symbolism as I got older. No one ever says anything about that picture but I think the whole situation is plainly ironic.
Several years earlier Grandpa tried to either commit suicide or get drunk by drinking rubbing alcohol in that bathroom which got him promptly admitted to the psych ward at Stony Brook Hospital for evaluation. He was the sanest one there. The building was a cylinder, each floor was a circle around an office in the middle. The patients used to walk laps around the floor for something to do. Grandpa would sit in a chair in his doorway and just watch them, especially the woman he called the “sashay-er”. She had this really odd hip swinging, runway-disaster kind of strut. When I called to talk to him I always asked how she was doing and we’d laugh.
When Grandpa came to the States by boat from Quebec he landed in Worcester, Massachusetts. There was a large French-Canadian settlement there and he had family and cousins he could stay with. When he met and married my Grandmother they ended up in Queens, then Brooklyn where he’d had various careers. He owned a dry cleaning business for a while and the family lived above the store, the rooms separated by sheets. He’d been a janitor; he’d worked at a hotel. Another time he owned an antique store, many of the remnants from which my family was now inside fighting about.
My favorite story is from the time he worked in a large building in Manhattan shuttling businessmen up and down in a gilded elevator. He always giggled as he said with feigned pomp, “I was an indoor aviator you know!”
Eventually they’d saved enough money to buy a small house and ended up in Bridgehampton on a sweet Oak lined street next to a railroad track. Everything about him was curious and magical, even where he lived. He knew so much, was curious about everything, read for hours, and wore out his library card.
The house will be gone soon too. Real estate in the Hampton’s is a feeding frenzy so I’m sure no one will have time to grieve or pack much before it’s sold. We already heard from a realtor that Cindy Adams, the syndicated NY Post columnist, wanted the house and was prepared to purchase before it was even listed.
I head back inside planning to take all the books and notebooks off the shelf and sit with them on the couch so it looks like I’m sorting and packing. I want no part of this, it makes me thirsty for a cold glass of vodka with some olives. I always add the olives and some ice to appear respectable but I’m mostly concerned with ingesting the booze as fast as humanly possible. Emotions are not my thing, family is a source of anger and resentment and I just won’t deal with that. Gotta keep moving.
I finally get all the books over to the couch and sit in the midst of the pile. I leave the composition notebooks off to my left, I’m not sure I want to know what is in there. I start flipping through the other books not seeing the contents. The doorbell rings and shakes me from my mental slumber. “I’ll get it”, I yell. No one responds. They are still locked in a discussion about who will take what. My Father and my Uncle Peter have gone in to mediate. My Parents will talk about this for days to come I’m sure. They usually spend a lot of time analyzing things and lamenting their mistakes. Come to think of it, I guess they are as tough on themselves as they are on me.
I open the screen door and take a stack of mail from the postman and carry it back to the couch tossing it next to the composition notebooks. A my eyes come to rest on them curiosity takes over and I pick up one at random. There are neatly drawn rows where he’d written account names and numbers. The columns underneath held stock symbols, the date purchased and the amount purchased. The rest of the pages tracked the stocks he held and the value at monthly intervals. There were eighteen notebooks beginning in 1980 and ending with the current year, 1998.
I went through each notebook, scanning what he’d bought and sold, seeing the values rise with occasional dips, none ever really low. Although I worked at one of the largest investment firms in the country, Grandpa never really talked to me about investing. He always wanted to know how work was going, was I enjoying it, that kind of stuff. Sometimes he’d laugh and ask me how Bill Gross, our rockstar fund manager, was doing as if I knew him personally.
I got to the notebook for 1998, the last column was entered six weeks ago, three weeks before Uncle Peter had driven over to the house to check on him and found Grandpa peacefully laying in his bed, pajamas on, dead. He simply went to sleep and never woke up. He had visited me the week before he died, in my very first apartment, and had given me a sweet little cat figurine that looked like the kitten that I had just adopted. I loved him more than anyone in the world and I was shaken to my core when my Mother called me at work to tell me the news. This was the first time I had experienced grief and loss at that level. I grieved silently, in a daze in my apartment after work every night. I made drink after drink and pretended to read while I sobbed and got drunker and drunker. Now there was no one left on the planet that liked me. My one and only friend was gone.
The funeral was done, he’d been buried. All that was left was cleaning the house out and the reading of the will. When the attorney reads the will to my Aunt and Mother next week they will be shocked to learn Grandpa had several pieces of land and nearly one million dollars in investments. No one ever knew but it was all there in the black and white composition notebooks the family teased him about. He had taught himself how to invest and was quite good at it for a man that never finished the eighth grade.
And no one ever knew, but me.