Meeting my Grandfather
My mother was surprised when I asked to meet my grandfather. He had never been a topic of conversation before. But I was insistent: All my friends had grandparents, so why couldn’t I? My mother looked worried and warned me to not get too excited. I wish I had listened.
Following our return from a year in Belize my mom told me she had spoken to her father and that we were going to meet him. He was in New Jersey for a week for a work trip. On a Tuesday after school, we boarded a PATH Train from Manhattan to Hoboken, New Jersey. He would pick us up for dinner after work from the station. We arrived in New Jersey too early. Uncharacteristically, my mother was worried about being on time. Thinking about it now, she was probably trying to avoid any type of conflict. We had some time to kill before our dinner and found a close-by Barnes and Noble. As a professor, she’d created a family full of avid readers. We returned to the station, books in tow, and settled in to continue our wait, content with our stories.
My mother had told me about his prejudices. My grandfather was born in Connecticut on February 11, 1944, the only one in his family born in the North. His mother moved him to Texas when he was 2 years old, where he was tormented and teased about his birthplace. With taunts like “Yankee,” he hardened into the man he is today. Overcompensating, he embraced the racist ideals that were expected of him as a white man growing up in the South in Dallas, TX. He went to college in Southern California at CalPoly Technical Institute. During the height of the Vietnam War Era, he attended grad school for electrical engineering at UC Berkeley in San Francisco, the epicenter of counter culture hippiedom and the home of the Black Panther Party. For a MENSA member with a genius IQ, his views on the world are narrow minded and ignorant.
His racism was subtle. My mom says he wasn’t a proactive racist, though he did attempt to pass his ideas down to my mother. When she was five, an interracial couple moved in across the street. Neighbors helped them to settle in while children planted flowers in the garden. My mom wanted to play too, but he stopped her,
“You can’t play with those people” he’d say.
One instance in particular still resonates with her. She recalls a time when she spoke to her dad about a girl she went to school with. This girl was covered in freckles to the point where her race was indistinguishable. As a young and curious child, my mom asked why she was spotted. He responded that when two people of different races—white and black— had children the kids would come out spotted. This statement remained in my mother’s mind throughout her life. Later, as a more informed Black and Puerto Rican Studies major in college, my mother asked him why had told her that and he responded, “Well, I don’t know, but I’m not a doctor and that was what I was told, so that is what I believe.” Today, as the mother of mixed race children she knows that this isn’t true, but ashamed, she admitted that while holding me right after my birth she found herself subconsciously checking to see if maybe I had come out spotted and that there was some truth to what he had told her.
Finally, a car pulled up and a man got out. I had never seen my grandfather before. I didn’t even know what he looked like. But even in the midst of anxiety and fascination, I found myself looking not at him but at my mother. She looked uneasy—slightly uncomfortable. When she started walking towards him I felt the burn of excitement start to blossom in my stomach. He was a tall, slender man. I always thought my mom looked like her mother, but she looked like him, too.
My mother met my father in 1991 in Senegal when she was 18 years old. She was staying with a host-family and he lived down the street. He was a friend of the daughter, Sophie, and he came by one day because he heard that there was an American and he was curious. My mom thought he was cute. They went out dancing a week later. She traveled again to Senegal the summer of 1993 and they met up, picking up where they had left off. Following a sad breakup and the death of her mother in 1995, my mom returned to Senegal to visit friends. Unbeknownst to her, my dad had returned and was living in Dakar full time after graduating from university in France, and they fell back into comfortable patterns.
They were married in April 1996 during my mother’s spring break. In August my dad joined her in New York. A couple months later, she received an unexpected message from her father. He had some knowledge of her marriage but he had never met my father. This was the time. They went to dinner at Mogador—my mother’s favorite restaurant—my grandfather’s wife joined them. She talked the whole time—taking over the table—with her Jewish Bronx accent. My dad was on his best behavior but after dinner told my mom that her father wouldn’t even make eye contact. This was their first and only interaction ever.
My mother got pregnant in 1997 and I was born in December. She informed her father of her pregnancy as a formality. But, it didn’t matter what he thought. She was having a baby. Shortly after I was born, my mom received a letter and a package in the mail with a pre-printed card signed by his wife, “From ‘us.’” The added quotation seemed to lengthen the distance from grandparent to grandchild. Sent with the card was ceramic music box with a tiny bear in a ballerina costume that spun atop a piano. That music box is the only tangible link between my grandfather and me. It was my sole connection to him even after our meeting.
My mother chose an old-school diner for our dinner. There were plush red booths with jukeboxes on either side framing the silver bar down the middle. Old vinyl records decorated the walls. My mother and I sat on one side and my grandfather across from us. He sat in front of a window and, fascinated, my brother was climbing to see outside beside him. My younger brother, four years old at the time, couldn’t contain his excitement. Jumping on all the booths, pushing the jukeboxes’ buttons and bouncing around, he took up my mom’s attention. It was just my grandfather and I. I looked forward to getting to know him and for him to get to know me. I ordered a tuna melt and fries and settled into the booth.
He only spoke to my mother. I wonder if he knew that this meeting was my idea, not hers. He was visibly nervous. My brother jumping around next to him made him agitated. My mom remembers that he was always an anti-social person and he was certainly out of his element. He never made eye contact. His only attempt to share his life was showing my mom a picture of his new sports car. I was excited to tell him about my year in Belize. I had so much prepared to tell him, but I wasn’t given the chance. I had been expecting so much more. Why wasn’t there a connection? We were family. I was his granddaughter—the daughter of his only child. I had waited my whole life to meet someone that was supposed to always have been there and I was left with nothing but disappointment.
My mom likes to joke that I have a heart of ice—no feelings—but this isn’t true. I do attempt to make sure nothing affects me too much. But sometimes things slip through the cracks. A few years ago, I thought about contacting him, something I’d vowed never to do. In therapy, I realized that his rejection affected my confidence as a young woman. I needed to know if he would be part of my life or not. I needed to move on, so I wrote a letter on my phone, and it sat there for months. I didn’t have the courage to send it. Finally, I gathered the courage and wrote it out on paper. I addressed the envelope carefully and neatly. I wanted to ensure that he would receive it.
I never received a response.
I don’t know what he saw in me at that Hoboken diner. I have always been told I look like my grandmother—my mother’s mother. They had gotten divorced when my mom was in high school. She had been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and my grandfather took my mother to live in New York—leaving my grandmother in California with her sister. He has remarried since my grandmother’s death in 1996, but maybe my face stirred his guilty conscious and that was the reason for his discomfort towards me.
My brother doesn’t remember him at all and my sister was born two years after our meeting. I can’t tell if they’re the lucky ones. Following our meeting I was heartbroken but over the years my negative feelings towards him have slowly disappeared. My icy heart has taken over. I no longer worry about him being part of my life. I am content with my music box because it shows me that he has thought of me before and that will continue to be our sole link.
This article was made possible in part by a grant from the Civic Media Lab.