(A quick note: I will write about the hermeneutics of the Mary Jane Girls and other such matters of import soon. This couldn’t sit around on my work computer for long, though.)
If I leave to live abroad again, there’s a good chance it will be the last time I see my grandfather while he still recognizes me. This depresses me, and yet it doesn’t seem as if it’s that great a tragedy. He will die, I will die. Death happens, and accepting that it is painful and inevitable is a vital part of gleaning pleasure from life. I saw him yesterday, his massive frame shrinking as he approaches eighty. He forgets, acts erratically, and then he’s himself again, a boisterous oddball with an insatiable curiosity. I am not boisterous, but in all other aspects I am unmistakably of him, more the fourth and youngest child of his old age than a grandson.
I think I was 15 when I started calling him ‘Pop’. I’m not quite sure how it started, but the reason why is self-evident. We are grandfather and grandson in fact, but we are father and son in reality, and somehow I knew that calling him ‘Pop’ as my mother and her brothers did would solidify that relationship. I doubt that he ever commented on the change, and I’m not sure that I’ve called him ‘grandpa’ or ‘abuelo’ more than a few times since then.
Masculine to a fault, a tinkerer with an artist’s sensibility, he was my chief male role model as a child, alternately showing me how to take care of plants and how to suck the marrow out of pork chop bones. We are all sloppy if painstakingly constructed pastiches of genetics and the examples we carry forward from observation, and so it is that I tie knots in plastic bags when the handle breaks and readily eat things that just fell on the floor because wasting food is a far greater sin than consuming a few extra dirt particles. I look in the mirror and I see a mustachioed, brawny figure, too light-skinned and “carita de papa” (potato-faced translucent-skinned Irish peasant) to be my grandfather but nevertheless a reasonable facsimile of the genuine article. I hold the resemblance as a source of pride, though I find it hard to keep the mustache for long. It looks fine, but it feels burdensome after a while.
The curiosity we share led me to go live in France for the sake of a new experience, and it will likely lead me away from New York in the near future. My grandfather, though well-travelled for a man of his time and station, had never gone to Europe before last year. He noted that as a child in Puerto Rico, the oft-stated goal of he and other children his age was to make a trip back to la matria—Spain. Depression-era children in rural Puerto Rico were not a privileged lot, and most of those children he spoke of never left the island or, once World War II ended, ended up with a one-way ticket to a New York garment factory. That would be the sum of their travels, and it was to be expected in a time and place where illiteracy was the norm and basic sanitation and health care were luxuries.
El Fanguito, ca. 1940
My grandfather’s initial welcome to the United States was a spell as a migrant farmer in Rockland County, NY, where life pulling up beets in the sun with people yelling things at him in a language he didn’t understand made the garment factory floor seem a welcome respite. Spain was an idle childhood boast (“my dream is bigger than your dream”) that withered and died in an environment that demanded mean survival and painstaking progress. Yet, sixty years later, the fantasy that was created in the fetid mudflats was reborn into reality.
I neither subscribe to nor endorse the “American Dream,” as it assigns a nationalistic lens to a simple and universal ideal: that of the life well-lived. Pop’s lived that way, at times in spite of himself. He’s been married to the same woman since 1954, he brawled with Mafiosi as a matter of principle, he sat at segregated lunch counters for the sole purpose of forced expulsion, and he led people and achieved tangible gains for laborers that they used to fund the meandering educations of their well-meaning if misguided children and grandchildren (ahem). He also nearly worked himself to death before fifty and could have easily destroyed his marriage a few times not out of philandering or spite but from vanity that precluded him from knowing when to quit. The man had a horrifying temper that I only saw the embers of (but what embers! It was when I first confronted him that I learned of fear) and a predilection for food that caused him to look like a retired champion luchador (a very plausible alternative outcome) before he got it under control in his late sixties. (Read: my grandmother locked him in a cage with only an IV and a cup of rice and beans until he got the message.) He was flawed, he is flawed, and he will be flawed even when long gone because even our most idealized heroes of the past compel us because they are not perfect. Perfect is boring and stupid, a gross word in the guise of something noble and attainable. Even Superman, that most insipid and overrated archetype of a hero, had a colossal flaw (albeit one as silly and boring as his character).
I cannot be Pop, and it is foolish of me or anyone else to try. It is also foolish to eulogize the living. That can wait, and will wait for a while yet. The man and I have plenty of women’s tennis to watch together while having odd conversations about oil nationalization and the merits and debits of socialism. If and when I take off to wherever it is I’m going, then I may have to be a bit more serious. Until then, the only thing I can say is this: I love you, big guy. Don’t get on Grandma’s nerves.