My grandmother regularly receives letters from my dead father. I’m on my way to see her now with one of them. Uncle Kirby wrote it. He writes them all.
Before he died, my father did write my grandmother long letters. He told her he’d abandoned his public relations job for chicken ranching. Of course he hadn’t. Now Uncle Kirby has my father telling her that he’s in Japan on business. Apparently, his business there is extensive; it’s kept him in Japan for two years, which, by the way, is exactly how long he’s been dead. When he started writing the letters, Uncle Kirby probably thought my grandmother would be dead herself by now, and that the deceit wouldn’t have to go on very long. But at eighty-one, she’s probably holding out for my father’s return so she can chastise him for squandering his money on chickens.
I haven’t seen my grandmother since she visited my brother and me once when we were kids. My father disappeared for the two hours she spent with us. He’d told us she was bald, so when she arrived my brother and I were surprised to see that she had plenty of bright red hair. She gave us presents and told us about her hotel. She kept asking us how old we were. Suddenly my father reappeared. He walked her out to the front gate and gave her a brief peck on the forehead and a little shove toward the street. She didn’t want to leave. She wanted to come back in, have dinner with us, visit longer. He said no. She left crying. My brother and I cried too. My father told us to shut up, then he lit the barbecue for hot dogs.
“Is she really bald?” we asked.
“You both disgust me,” he said.
We were in bed when she came back. My father was drunk. She stood at the gate and called his name sweetly, pleadingly.
“Go away, go home,” my father shouted through the door. “Leave me alone. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want you polluting my children.”
We watched through our bedroom window as he went out into the street in his underwear. His sagging jockey shorts glowed in the moonlight, bobbing along in the dark like a cartoon ball bouncing over the words to a song. He pushed her into her car, then silenced her by slamming the door shut. I wanted to run into the street and tell her I was sorry, but I hid beneath the blankets, ashamed. Two weeks later she mailed my brother and me the brass bell from the front desk of her hotel. Our father made both of us write her a thank-you note.
Uncle Kirby and my grandmother live two blocks from each other on the outskirts of Watts. He owns much of the property in the area, which means he can afford to live somewhere else, but he stays there instead. I drive through their neighborhood past groups of men who yell and gesture at me. My doors are locked, the windows rolled up.
I can’t find a place to park on my grandmother’s street, so I pull into the church parking lot next to the Rosemary Hotel, where she lives. The lot is empty except for a black van with Ooooh Baaaaby lettered in gold along its side. I park my car near a lamppost and hesitate before I get out. In the cold light of the parking lot, it feels like midnight instead of seven. A drug deal will be going down any minute. I watch the van for telltale signs of movement. Nothing. I slide out of my car, lock the door quickly, and head for the sidewalk. I can’t imagine why my uncle insists on living here, or why my grandmother must live here too.
In the driveway is a dead cat someone has run over. “Oh no,” I say out loud, without meaning to. The cat is dark gray with a white chest. Looking more closely, I see that its neck is limp and turned in a pathetic, awkward angle, its face pointing up at the street light. I swing wide to avoid it, but then I see that it’s not a cat at all — it’s a pile of leaves. I kick the pile hard, and the leaves scatter and scrape along the concrete, crunching under my feet as I reach my grandmother’s building. What will I say when she asks about my father?
My father always wished he were Jewish. He used a lot of Yiddish words, and almost all of his friends were Jewish. He made fun of Christians and of Christ. He said Jesus was just a man, a prophet.
My father’s second wife, a Catholic, unpacked and lovingly set up a hand-carved wooden Nativity scene every Christmas. She played Christmas carols. My brother once asked why she was crying as she listened to the music, and my father defended her sentimentality and her joy at the miracle of Christ’s birth. That’s what he said: “the miracle of Christ’s birth.” Consistency was not his forte.
No one in my father’s family turned out as he or she would have liked. Uncle Kirby would rather have been black, perhaps to make up for being white. His children are half black. My father told me that my grandmother is a card-carrying bigot. She would rather have been a screen star instead of the grandmother of two half-black children. My father said that she calls them “nigger bastards.” Perhaps she takes solace in the fact that although my uncle gave his name to the children, he never married their mother.
My mother’s family is Italian, and when my father married her, he sent his mother the only picture of his bride he could find in which she looked olive-skinned. To my father’s infinite satisfaction, his mother said, “Couldn’t you have married a white girl?”
My father always felt guilty because his side of the family is Norwegian, blond and blue-eyed. He told me that when he was a boy, his mother said that if he were dying and the only doctor around were black, she’d allow him to die before she’d let a “nigger” touch him. He told me this with a quiver in his voice and distance in his eyes.
My grandmother has been living at the Rosemary Hotel for six years, ever since her old hotel burned. My brother often visited her before he moved away from L.A. three years ago. I don’t know her at all. I only know that my father hated her. I learned after he died that she had loaned him money many times while my brother and I were growing up. But he still hated her.
Despite her refusal to accept his children, Uncle Kirby has taken care of my grandmother’s affairs for the past twenty years, either because he loves her or because he’s the responsible sort. He’d always shrugged off and excused my father’s hatred of her. I’m sure that no one but my uncle visits her now.
My brother told me she once asked him to name something he wanted, saying she would give him anything he liked. He told her he’d like to have something that belonged to his grandfather. One day she presented him with an old pocket watch and said, “This didn’t belong to your grandpa. I don’t have anything of his left since the fire. But if he’d seen this, he would’ve liked it and wanted it, and it would have been his to give you.”
My grandmother opens the door when I ring the bell. I’m sure she won’t know who I am, even though I called to let her know I was coming. “Hello, Grandmother,” I say.
“Come in, darling,” she replies, pulling me toward her and kissing me lightly at the corner of my mouth. She smells powdery. Leading me into a small sitting room, she says, “My room is so small the rats have to go outside to turn around.” I start to laugh, but her face tells me it’s not entirely a joke. I return her gaze with what I hope looks like an expression of surprise and dismay. Now she laughs.
She has a bun on top of her head, and the rest of her hair falls straight down from it like a mushroom cap. Her bangs are cut straight across her forehead. Her hair is still quite red and there’s still plenty of it.
She has coffee and small blueberry muffins set out on a TV tray.
“Did you make these? They’re delicious,” I say.
“No,” she says. “The Negro woman who cleans here brings them for me. Since coming here I’ve gained ten pounds. Unless I die soon, I’ll have to start stepping outside with the rats.”
I’m sure that’s unlikely; my brother has told me that she lives on next to nothing and that Uncle Kirby gives her just enough of her own money to pay her weekly rent and keep her in Campbell’s tomato soup. When I asked him why Uncle Kirby put her in such a rough neighborhood when they both can afford to live someplace nicer, my brother said that it was sheer meanness. That plus Uncle Kirby rejects anything that hints of pretense — unless it’s the pretense of living in a ghetto when they don’t have to.
“Grandma always believed she was better,” my brother said. “That her family stood out. Her sons would become something, the family name would be known. This is Uncle Kirby’s way of letting her know she’s just a poor old woman.”
“How is your daddy?” my grandmother asks.
“Daddy” is foreign to me. My father never allowed us to call him Daddy. We called him Papá. We could never do anything normally. If such a wish was ever expressed, we were ridiculed. “What’s the matter?” my father would say. “Are you afraid to be different? Don’t you want to be special?” I never understood what was so special about being embarrassed every time I had to address him in public.
Kids in school always asked why we called him Papá, and my face burned and my voice tightened when I tried to answer. He had his own names for everything, and he made us use them too. We couldn’t say fart; we had to say bottom burp. We couldn’t say number two; we said BM. I didn’t even know what BM stood for until my high school health class. I thought it was just another of his made-up words, like acmelosapugalisticextralaferocious, which he used to compete with supercalifragilisticexpialadocious.
He had embarrassing words for body parts, too. We didn’t say butt; we said fanny. For my brother’s particular parts he used the word pilili. He said it was a Majorcan word. He had another word for a girl’s parts; it was m__. Well, I can’t say it. To this day I can’t say it.
He told me the M-word was Yiddish. I used to whisper it to myself in my room, and I’d blush in the dark to hear it. I’ve told it to someone only once, when I was twenty-five. I was having dinner with a friend, and we’d been laughing and telling childhood stories all night. I’d had just enough to drink to bring up the dreaded M-word. It took almost twenty minutes of his egging me on before I finally whispered it into his ear. He said he’d never heard it before, though he was Jewish and knew Yiddish. It was all the more humiliating to have spoken it aloud when it wasn’t even really a word.
I tell my grandmother, “My father is fine.” I’m about to embellish, describe his proficiency in Japanese. It will be easy to lie because we are talking about someone — “Daddy” — who doesn’t exist, but she interrupts me.
“Do you think he’s enjoying his work now?”
What work does she mean? Chickens? Public relations?
“Do you think he is finally happy?” she continues.
No, I don’t think so, I want to say. I don’t think so because he killed himself two years ago. “He seems to be,” I say.
“He could’ve been a movie star, you know. He had a beautiful face, nice ears, a perfect nose.” She smiles to herself. “Of course, his teeth were crooked,” she whispers, as if he were listening from behind the drapes. “He should have tried harder, stuck with it. When he was five I got him into the movies. Did he ever tell you about that?”
“Yes,” I say. My father played the part of Dynamite Bill in the “Our Gang” comedies. In response to our endless requests, he told me and my brother many times how he had walked off the job because he couldn’t bring himself to ride his bicycle into a man carrying a stack of twenty cream pies. He was afraid of hurting the man, he told us.
My grandmother says that my father was fired because he was a smart aleck. “He wouldn’t take direction, and even when he did, he just wasn’t convincing. But I paid for lessons after that; I spent what little money I had on acting and dancing lessons for him. He could’ve kept his job and made it big in the movies if he’d had more drive. He had a good profile, an excellent left side. But what good did it do him? He never gave it his all.”
My father was a failed-actor-turned-writer. For a while during the fifties he wrote a newspaper column, but then he got into public relations and quit publishing. When he died, he left behind stacks and stacks of unsold manuscripts.
I’ve been glancing at what I’d thought were bricks placed three or four feet apart along the baseboards. Now I see that they are Roach Motels. Goose bumps pop up along my arms and neck. I pull my feet up and wind my ankles around the rungs of my chair. I hook my purse over the arm of the chair so that it’s not resting on the floor.
Roaches aren’t part of my life anymore. When I was a kid, I dragged my small bed to the middle of the room every night and tucked all the covers under the mattress so the cockroaches couldn’t join me when the lights went out. Whenever I saw one I screamed, and my brother or my father came running in to kill it.
“Bubbie, you’re perfectly safe in your bed,” my father once said. “Cockroaches can’t climb walls.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Trust me, they can’t go up walls, and they can’t get up the legs of your bed. Have I ever lied to you?”
“No,” I said. When he left, I lay in the dark and thought about the big cockroach I’d seen a few days earlier running across the kitchen ceiling.
My grandmother asks how my mother is. I’m shocked. I almost say, “She’s still Italian,” but my grandmother’s tone is sincere. “She’s teaching female sexuality at Berkeley. She really enjoys it. She even lives on campus.”
“Your mother was always ahead of her time,” she says. “She was such a beautiful girl, and so talented. She had a mind for politics when it was not fashionable for women to have minds. I always thought she was smarter than your father. Of course, he could never accept that. Women are usually smarter than men, and men have never accepted it.” She leans forward a bit and laughs, then straightens her hair. So she is bald.
“Your grandfather was quite charmed by your mother. He always kidded your father that he would snatch her away the first chance he got.”
I’ve barely recovered from my surprise at her speaking kindly of my mother, and now this. How could her husband have known my mother? My father once told me, with bitterness in his voice, that my grandfather had died when my father was sixteen. He said, “My father died a broken man at the hands of my mother.”
I think my grandmother’s confused, maybe senile. But I have to ask. “When did your husband die?”
“December fifth, 1968,” she says. “It’ll be twenty-one years next month. When he died I thought I couldn’t go on living, and now it is twenty years past.”
My surprise is familiar, numb. How many other things have I learned in recent years that were not quite as my father told me?
I’m curious now about my grandfather. I want to know everything about him. My grandmother answers my questions precisely, then pulls a worn, red photograph wallet from her pocket and hands it to me. My Grandchildren, it says in faded gold letters. The first picture is of an older man who looks very much like my father.
“That’s your grandfather. He died the year after that picture was taken. It’s the only picture of him I have since the fire.” I flip through the book. Pieces of lint are stuck inside the stiff and yellowed plastic photo jackets. The wallet is full of pictures of my brother, me, and our two cousins.
When I hand the wallet back to her, several slips of paper fall out of the back flap. She bends to pick them up, carefully holding her bun in place. I recognize them as clippings of the column my father used to write; I have some of them myself. My grandmother has circled certain lines in red, lines that say, “My mother is from Norway,” and “My mother always said . . .” I try to help her gather them, but she scoops them up quickly, my father’s short obituary flashing past as she slips the papers into her pocket.
I’ve stayed longer than I intended. Standing up to leave I remember the letter Uncle Kirby wrote in my father’s name. I open my purse and run my finger along the hard edge of the envelope. When I reach the door my grandmother pulls her sweater tight around her. The envelope is in my hand. She leans to kiss my cheek and gently presses my hand back into my purse. She looks directly into my eyes, but there is no message, no intent other than kindness. I step toward her and hug her tightly for a moment, and then I hear my own voice whisper into her neck, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
Back in my car a few minutes later, I can smell her powder on my skin.