It’s illegal to pump your own gas in New Jersey. All of the gas stations are full-service, something which always seems like a luxury to me, and so it seems doubly strange to see my father rolling down his window and asking for a fill-up; my father who has been, for all of my lifetime anyway, by American standards, poor.
We’ve driven to New Jersey on a bitter January day. It’s the kind of day that’s deceptively clear and sunny, where you walk outside and are surprised by the cold. In under an hour we’re transported from the idyllic sleepy Hudson Valley town where my father and his wife live and are shuttling along the New Jersey turnpike, its traffic four lanes deep with drivers very much on their way somewhere. I’m always surprised that my father can still handle this kind of driving, in spite of the numerous solo drives he’s taken back and forth across the country, in spite of his years living in and around Manhattan and San Francisco and other high-powered, high-traffic cities, in spite of his still being very much alive and functional at age 75. For some reason I still find myself clutching a bit every time a car looms toward what I think might be his blind spot, or when it seems as though he’s drifting ever so slightly into the other lane.
The gas station attendant speaks with an accent, and my father responds too loudly, something that in years past I might’ve attributed to the whole people-shouting-at-foreigners thing, but that these days I’m more inclined to see as a function of my father losing his hearing. It’s still hard for me to view him as an old man, though he’s always been so, to a certain degree, even during my childhood. Thirteen years my mother’s senior, he was always much older than my friends’ parents, sometimes closer to their grandparents’ age.
I’ve received a travel grant from a Jewish arts organization, and the stated goal of my visit is to get to know my grandfather more. I want to find out about his past and the history of my father’s side of the family—the Jewish side, the side I know relatively little about, having been raised almost entirely in the bosom of my mother’s exceedingly non-Jewish kin. I have a list of questions to ask my grandfather, questions about his early life, about his parents’ journey from Russia to New York, and about his experience living as a Jew in America for the last century. And I do mean that last part literally; he’s 100 years old. We’ve seen one another only a handful of times, the most recent nearly 20 years ago at my uncle’s wedding, when I was 16 and likely talked to my grandfather very little.
I’m partway through some question about his father’s blacksmith business when my grandfather interrupts me. “When are you going to start a family?”
When I was young, my grandfather sent me money on my birthdays and on Hanukah, each bill tucked into a card with a circle cut out to expose the president’s face: Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson if I was lucky. I wrote him back thank-you notes, each one starting with the phrase “Dear Grandpa Sapiro.” The inclusion of his surname made it sound formal, one step away from “Dear Mr. Sapiro.” He was my only grandfather at the time (my maternal grandfather having died long before I was old enough to write thank-you notes) but I didn’t really know him, so it must’ve seemed disingenuous to me to refer to him simply as “Grandpa.” Or possibly—and more likely—I asked my mother what to write and this is what she recommended. The content of the notes varied between “I’m going to put it in my bank account” to the occasional “I’m going to buy something nice for myself,” though even as I wrote it, I always worried that the latter sentiment would make me seem frivolous, like a spendthrift who knew nothing about saving money.
My father hands the gas station attendant a twenty, rubbing it tightly between his thumb and fingers as he does, a habit of his meant to dislodge another bill that might’ve piggybacked along without his knowledge, sticking together the way paper plates and coffee filters do. It’s a habit of a pre-plastic era, of the time when checks were cashed and envelopes of crisp bills handed over, a habit of either the very rich or the under-the-radar poor, both of which my father has been at different points in his life.
We stare ahead at the gas station mini-mart as the tank fills. My father comments with a combination of derision and bemusement on the young hasid chatting on his cell phone under the eaves, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a Dr Pepper. No religion has a monopoly on craziness, my father says, with a shake of his head. The tank is full now, and he waves to the attendant and eases out of the gas station while I nervously watch my side mirror.
I’ve been to my grandfather’s house before, though it’s one of those early childhood memories where the mind’s camera hovers stubbornly around a single non-essential detail. I remember only a table laid out with bagels and their necessary accoutrements: cream cheese, lox, slices of tomatoes and red onion. I don’t remember how old I was, who else was there, nor how long we stayed, but for some reason the food made an impact.
My grandfather’s companion Catherine, meets us at the door. She’s the woman for whom he left his wife more than 50 years ago. Catherine’s in her eighties, but with the ebullient bearing of a woman decades her junior. She’s sweet and bubbly and well put together in a manner that looks practiced and effortless. It’s hard to imagine her even stepping outside to get the paper without having put her face on. She’s Catholic, which seems important to know. They’ve never married, though not necessarily for any great reason. Just never got around to it, really. It was later in life, their children were grown, and they were both accepted and respected in their shared and separate communities. There was nothing to prove to anyone. They loved each other, and that was that.
The house is hot, and I immediately regret my choice of clothing, a wool turtleneck sweater that I chose because of all of the clothes I’d traveled home with, it seemed like the most appropriate item for wearing to visit one’s grandparents. And, because I’ve been living in Minnesota for the past five years, I’m wearing long underwear beneath my pants, as this is what we do out there for at least four months of the year. I’m sweating, and the waistband of the pants clamps tightly around my waist, the extra layer of long underwear making them all the more uncomfortable. I imagine I’ll cool down once my initial arrival anxiety subsides, but I don’t, and I remain slightly flushed for the duration of the visit, as though I’m just running hotter than usual.
We gather in the living room where my grandfather sits in a large leather recliner. He’s gotten up from his chair and leans forward on his walker to greet me. His mental acuity has suffered very little over the years, but his physical self is on the wane and he’s losing his sight. I lean in close and hope that I’m on the side of the eye that works better, though I can’t remember which one my father said it was. On the table beside the recliner lies a large-print political thriller from the library. (The large-print book section of my library has always just been a curiosity to me, something I walk past en route to the new releases. I’m suddenly so grateful for it, though, aware of its being not so much a necessity as a kindness.)
It was the first and last time that I would bear witness to my father playing the role of son; he, to my being someone’s granddaughter.
Because it has been so long since we’ve seen one another, my grandfather has nearly as many questions for me as I for him: How old am I? Where do I live? What is my husband’s name? Freeman? he says, incredulous. And he’s not Jewish? Just add a “D” and he’s Jewish. And though it’s said as a joke, there’s a certain odd truth to it, in the way that so much can change with the addition or subtraction of a few letters, or a wholesale changing of a name. My father and mother came up with a new last name for themselves when they got married. Though they divorced just a few short years later, they’ve both kept this name plucked from the ether, a name that neither my older sister nor I still use, having taken our husband’s last names perhaps in part for the connection to a bona fide heritage of some kind.
We get down to business. I proceed down the list of questions that I’ve prepared, skipping over some of the more personal questions that my sister has insisted I include (“Ask him when he realized that Dad was an alcoholic,” “Ask him what he thought of Mom”), questions that somehow don’t seem appropriate now that I’m actually sitting here with him. Before I arrived, it was easy for me to conceive of him as an interview subject, but now I’m keenly aware of his being just an affable, tired old man enjoying time with his family. Grilling him about the hard stuff seems unkind.
I’m partway through some question about his father’s blacksmith business when my grandfather interrupts me. “When are you going to start a family?” It’s the same question my husband has asked of me periodically over the last decade, a question that unsettles me because I feel so utterly unready for it. I always imagined that one day I’d just wake up and feel an overwhelming maternal urge, or even a panicked awareness of my waning fecundity—anything, really, that would spur me into action. I offer my grandfather what has become my standard response to inquiries of this type: Yes, well, eventually, when we’re more settled geographically, financially. And so on. He’s not buying it, though, any of these well-rehearsed excuses. He wants to see his family grow, to know that as he prepares to exit this lifetime someone else is coming to take his place.
After a little while, Catherine asks if anyone’s hungry, perhaps sensing that my grandfather might be fading a bit. She’s been sitting quietly, placidly, in an overstuffed flowered armchair nearby. I wonder what she makes of my questions, this project of mine that suddenly seems like something assigned in elementary school. Interview your grandparents. Ask them about the past.
I help my grandfather up onto his walker, and we slowly make our way to the kitchen, to what may or may not be the same table that decades before was laid out with the bagels that so entranced me. Catherine sets out a tray of sandwiches that’s been ordered from a nearby kosher deli, enormous stacks of meat toothpicked between good dark bread. Though I’ve done nothing more than sit in a car for the past hour, I’m ravenous. I eat two sandwiches in quick succession, happily playing the role of the growing grandchild to the doting grandparents. Eat, eat! You’re all skin and bones! Even as we’re gorging ourselves on corned beef, Catherine tells us that she’s made us up some tuna sandwiches in case we get hungry on the ride home. She’s like a grandmother from a cartoon or a cookie package—all soft-edged and food-foisting.
Later that night, back at my father’s house, I will tiptoe from the guest room into the kitchen, silently unwrap one of the tuna sandwiches and devour it standing up in my pajamas in the middle of the kitchen. I’ll stare at the refrigerator door, where the same faded photographs and brittle yellowed papers have been magneted for as long as I can remember. A photo of my father’s wife and her best friend. My husband’s and my post-elopement announcement. A New Yorker cartoon that perfectly encapsulates my father’s unflagging devotion to his dog, and his ambivalence towards marriage. Yes, yes, yes, I miss you too honey, says a man sitting on a hotel bed with a phone to his ear. Now put the dog on.
Catherine takes me down the basement, where for decades she’s run a beauty salon. She tells me that it keeps her in the loop of what’s going on in their town, gives her a chance to swap gossip even as she spends most of her days now at home taking care of my grandfather. She opens a drawer and digs around for some photos, shows me one of my grandfather dressed as Santa Claus with her grandchildren on his lap. I wish I’d thought to have arranged beforehand to have her cut my hair, which is long overdue for a trim and growing unruly. It seems like it would’ve been a nice thing to do, like a fast-track to intimacy or something, making up for all of those years that we weren’t in contact with one another for no reason other than that no one tried very hard to make it happen.
Here is what I didn’t know at the time, but that I would find out a week later, and which would cast my experience of the visit in a different light entirely: I was pregnant. And not just a little bit, either, but four months in. The kind of pregnancy surprise that TV shows are made about, the kind that people imagine only happen to the obese, or to women who’ve remained entirely ignorant of the facts of life even while engaging in the acts of it. Yet it happened to me, slender-built and higher-educated as I am. The news of the pregnancy would make my grandfather’s inquiry about my family status seem oddly prescient, as though toward the end of his life the veil had grown thin between this world and the realm of spirits from which my baby had yet to emerge. Unbeknownst to any of us (on a conscious level, anyway), we were four generations together. Four generations breathing the same oxygen, hearing the same sounds, sitting around the table eating the same corned beef sandwiches. Though intended as an exploration of the past, the visit could have been easily recast as a celebration of the future.
My father and I drive home in darkness, stopping at a rest stop for coffee and a shared tuna sandwich eaten in the car. There’s a poignancy to the mood, a tacit recognition that a visit like this will likely never happen again, that it was the first and last time that I would bear witness to my father playing the role of son; he, to my being someone’s granddaughter. The relationships are all about to shift. Through death and birth, a reshuffling will occur, a reorganization of how we relate to one another, what subjects are covered, what questions asked. A week later, in the bathroom at my sister’s house, I’ll take a drug-store pregnancy test and discover that I’m going to have a baby, a completely unexpected turn of events, unplanned and on the face of it ill-timed, the near divine perfection of it yet to be revealed.
Almost a year to the date later, my father is once again in New Jersey, this time because his father’s health has taken a turn, and it seems probable that this is the end. The other sons are flying in, hotel rooms are being reserved, the vigil is beginning.
I know what’s going on not because my father called and told me, but because I’ve emailed him some pictures of my son and hadn’t received the usual immediate kvelling in response. I call his house, and his wife brings me up to date. That my father himself has failed to report this news is slightly disappointing, but not particularly surprising.
My father will call me to share a humorous interaction he had at the public library, or a dispiriting one at the supermarket, or just because he wants to hear my voice on a day when he feels the fog of gloom descending. But he’s historically failed to make contact about the more substantive events in his life: his marriage to my stepmother (a small backyard affair with a minister and two friends, which I learned about a few days later), a recent night spent in the hospital due to excessive bleeding after a routine test, or his trip to New Jersey to see his father off to whatever mysterious experience next awaits. The kinds of events that others might make a big deal about sharing—the life and death type things—for whatever reason don’t register with him as being necessary to share. And yet he’ll leave an enthusiastic voicemail, or send a long and carefully written email, to share with me the absurdity of a moment in which he rubbed up against the modern world and felt—once again—out of place and time. Or to share with me just how much he’s enjoying a memoir written by a woman of certain age living by the ocean (one of his favorite literary genres, which I find sort of odd and sweet). I don’t know if this disparity represents a miscalibrated sense of judgment on his part, or simply a writerly fixation on the unique tension or beauty in small moments. Or maybe it’s a realization that partnerships and sickness and death are so ordinary and expected as to be in some ways unworthy of remarking.
I set the computer on the ground and my son rolls around, not yet crawling but nonetheless propelling himself masterfully across the wood floor. My father watches him from a thousand miles away.
One more week and my father is now an orphan, and I, grandparentless. It’s a natural state for someone of his age, and of mine, and yet it seems weighty. The end of an era, as my father likes to say. We video-chat online and he marvels, as he always does, that he is able to connect with his grandson over a thousand-mile distance.
My father appears at first shrouded in darkness, the only lights are the screen’s glow reflected off of his glasses and the whiteness of his teeth, barely visible in the shadows. Evening has fallen around him, mercifully having shut out the gloaming that can fill us both with dread at the wrong time of year.
I can’t see you, I say.
But I can see you, he responds, slightly confused.
You’re in the dark.
Then I say nothing, giving him a moment to realize that although he’s looking at a well-lit room in Minnesota, the lights are still off in his room in New York. His just-visible teeth curve into a smile and he stands up and exits the frame. A lamp clicks on, and I can see the familiar backdrop of his bedroom: a battalion of pill jars lined up on his dresser, a framed photo of his wife as a young woman, the assorted articles and photographs that have been Scotch-taped to the walls of nearly every place he’s lived, for all of the decades that I’ve known him, and likely before.
Hello, Winston, he says, the nickname he’s given to my chubby-cheeked infant son for his resemblance to the prime minister. Oh, Em, he sighs, staring at his grandson.
I set the computer on the ground and my son rolls around, not yet crawling but nonetheless propelling himself masterfully across the wood floor, stopping to investigate the baseboard molding or to reach a fat and tentative finger to the dark hinge of a door. My father watches him from a thousand miles away, grinning to beat the band. It’s quiet between us, as we sit with this moment of blessed normalcy.
Realistically, I’ll probably never live near my father, and I know that we’ll have to work hard to ensure that he and my son develop the kind of intimacy that I long for them to have. In some ways, though, it’s only fitting that the relationship develop in this technology-assisted fashion—as bizarre and futuristic as it sometimes seems to me, having been raised in a pre-internet world.
My father was gone for large chunks of my childhood, spending weeks or sometimes months driving across the country, making regular pilgrimages out to California from New York, often living in his car, searching for something that he couldn’t even name. And yet somehow, through phone calls and letters, we managed to develop a strong and authentic connection, one that has only strengthened in the years since he’s settled down. I’ve often thought that if I could add up the hours that we’ve actually spent together in the flesh, it would fall far short of the time logged talking on the phone, eventually emailing, and now video-chatting. Maybe these technology-mediated interactions with his grandson make perfect sense, are in some way carrying on a family tradition. Maybe emotional closeness isn’t necessarily predicated by physical proximity.
The two of them are playing some kind of game now, my father smacking out a rhythm with his palm on his desk while my son does the same on the floor in front of him. They’re already starting to develop a relationship and are transfixed. My father’s a fool for babies now, his curmudgeonly mien softened. He notices them in supermarkets, tells me in great detail about a toddler in the park who gave him a dandelion. This side of him came as a lovely surprise to me, as he’d never hounded me or ever really inquired much on the subject, was reticent to the point that I sometimes wondered if he even ever thought about my having children, or would’ve recommended it.
I feel myself drifting to the edges of both my father and son’s focus as they continue their game; each palm smack, each mimicked coo, each and every technology-assisted moment laying down the foundation of what will hopefully be a long and rich relationship—geography be damned. I find a kind of relief in this momentary marginalization, as theirs is ordinarily an attention so intense that I’ve more than once found myself laboring under its weight. So it is with a kind of relief that I step aside and allow new love to bloom in the space I’ve left behind, comforted to know that there’s enough of it to fill some of the newly vacated spaces in my father’s life. I delight in watching him to embrace this new role of his even as he’s had to say goodbye to an old one, to go from son to grandfather, bringing the lessons and gifts of the former to bear on the latter. For this is how we carry on.