A ghost sat at our kitchen table when I was a child, a ghost by the name of Grandpa Frank. He was my mother’s father, and he died seventy-six years ago in 1936. How he died always depended on who you asked. Stories range from scarlet fever to an accident brought about by falling from a church steeple he climbed on a dare. I don’t think I’ll ever know, but I have it on several counts that he was an invalid for the last two years of his life.
My mother has refused to let go of her father and carries his memory with her to this very day, speaking of him constantly. As a kid growing up it was as though Mom had fabricated him from a mental matrix, projecting his image at our kitchen table. Mom wasn’t a crackpot, didn’t actually believe he was present, but she’d speak of his exploits and achievements until I thought I could see him sitting in our kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand.
“Have I told you how much you look like your Grandpa Frank?” Mom would say. “You have his build and curly hair.”
I’d seen the old photographs and never saw much of a resemblance, but one contradicted my mother at their own risk.
“Your grandfather was born in the Azores, but the islands proved too small for him. He came to America with only a handful of dollars in his pockets. (The number of dollars changes with each telling.) He made his living as a professional gambler working the Gold Coast. He had beautiful hands, played the guitar and sang like an angel.”
Mother’s vision of her father was a fantasy, one she heaped with enough attributes to sink the Titanic: He had an amazingly sharp mind, believed in properly educating women and stood up for the rights of the downtrodden. In spite of his lack of formal schooling he was an intellectual and a scholar, a gifted storyteller. He was gentle with his three children but a stern parent with high expectations.
Even as a kid I realized that Grandpa Frank couldn’t have been the Portuguese Superman my mother described, but I did sometimes envision him as a Portuguese Brett Maverick, wearing fancy shirts and slapping cards on baize-covered tables in San Francisco gambling houses. Eventually, I realized that Grandpa Frank was a figment of my mother’s imagination, a fly caught in the web of her thoughts and fantasies. In fact, she knew very little about the father who passed away when she was only nine years old.
But my mother never allowed herself to be confined by facts. (Political discussions with her continue to be a nightmare.) She never questioned her contradictory beliefs about her father. He was whatever she needed him to be to illustrate whatever point she was pounding home.
When I was a kid, trapped in the snare of one of her lectures, her favorite expression was, “On my father’s grave this tyranny shall not stand!” She was only referring to the paperboy’s inability to land the newspaper on our doorstep or being overcharged a dime or two at the grocery store, but invoking the name of Grandpa Frank was her battle cry.
I’m not writing this with the intention of mocking my mother; being raised during the Depression without a father, the baby in an ethnic family and a mere girl to boot, couldn’t have been easy. Few took her seriously back then, and fewer do now. A few days ago I was visiting the retirement home where Mrs. C. and I moved her a few years ago after my father passed. She asked how my blog was going. I told her it was going well.
“That’s good,” she said. “I swear to you on my father’s grave that you got your ability to tell stories from me. I inherited the ability to fascinate people from your grandfather, a fabulous storyteller and a gifted writer with exquisite handwriting.” Strange that none of this writing has ever surfaced, but she continued to tout the Portuguese Charles Dickens who fathered her for the next forty minutes.
As often happens during these visits, I wonder what Grandpa Frank would think if he could see his little girl, now a withered woman of eighty-seven, working so hard to keep his memory alive all these years. Would he recognize himself in her stories?
I can almost see him in the corner of my eye, sitting at the tiny bistro table in Mom’s kitchenette. I imagine him smiling, but he does look tired by it all.
* The photograph shows Grandpa Frank on his wedding day in 1917
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