The next morning my grandma was sitting at the tiny breakfast table just off the kitchen. She was staring off into space and wearing the same white blouse and yellow-sequined-button- down-sweater she wore when I first met her. I still wondered if she lived with my father or just stayed with me to make me more comfortable.
“Good morning,” I said tying the drawstring of my gray NYU sweat pants.
“Good morning, Portia. How did you sleep?”
“I slept fine.” I lied. Sleeping in my father’s bed felt strange. My mind whirled with doubt, and fear, and wouldn't unwind. The green light of the small clock on his desk had stared at me like the eyes of a serpent all-night, almost daring me to sleep.
“Everything is so sudden. There are so many questions. Where do I begin?” I asked while making myself some tea with the bags I had discovered the night before. My stomach was growling with hunger, but I knew there was no food in the house.
“How far did you get with the trunks?” she asked as if she’d waited up all-night for my response.
“Why did he not go to Dartmouth when he graduated from high school?”
“Your grandfather thought he was too young to attend a university. He graduated from high school early. Your father’s dream was to write plays and musicals. Music school would allow him to mature, and he could study without the distractions that young men have. Then he could go to Dartmouth and join the rest of the young men entering college,” she said as if reading from a script.
I was looking for the poisoned arrow in his perfect life. Maybe this was a clue. The child of a perfectionist could be a child with problems. Parents, who lived their own dreams through their children, created psychological problems for them. They signed them up for every activity, sport, and music lessons—professional college tutors at the age of six. Most kids don’t want to play the violin at the age of five. They pressured them to be perfect, to do it all. Their young minds aren’t able to handle and they break. When they become young adults, many rebel and take the road opposing their parents demands. Or they simply take too many pills one day like Madeline and end their pain.
I could see my grandma’s eyes wandering the old recesses of her mind. Her memories were perfect. All neat and tidy like the biography she kept. Most people’s lives weren't as they appeared. Everyone has demons. I wondered what hers were.
My mother stopped collecting things about me when I reached grammar school, about the same time Daddy left. She didn’t collect photo albums like most mother's do. Our apartment was barren of pictures. We had no family. It was just the two of us.
She always said, "What’s past is past and we shouldn’t dwell on it." The problem was she didn’t dwell on anything. I always thought she never had time for keeping scrapbooks, always working two or three jobs to support us.
Once, I came home with a blue ribbon from school, earning first prize in a spelling bee in the third grade. I was so proud. The next morning I found it in the trash. Why didn’t she love me? What did I do wrong? Wasn't she proud of me? It hurt. I can still feel the blow today as if she hit me in the stomach, whenever I think of it. She wasn’t a perfectionist. She just didn’t care.
I tried to be a good daughter and make her proud, but it didn’t matter what I did. I was a burden—a chore that she didn’t need around. I used to think she was mad at me for making Daddy leave. Maybe it was my fault? Now, I use that first place ribbon as a bookmark, reminding myself that I am someone.
Mama suffers from depression and is borderline bipolar. I had to force her to see a psychiatrist to take medication. But even with the medication, she still leaves the blinds closed all the time. Her only passion is books. They sit in piles all over her apartment. We have that in common. They are our escape. The lives authors wrote about were better than our own. Maybe I got in the way of her having a happy life.
In my teenage years, we didn’t talk much at all. Others taught me about life, the swelling of my breasts, the blood I found in my panties at thirteen, and sex. I learned everything alone and sometimes the hard way.
I opened the piano cover and found the keys were all dusty. I struck a key, which let out a dull thud not resembling a musical note. No one had played this piano for years.
“Your father would play such beautiful music for hours. He could play all the great classics from memory. He'd just needed to look at a piece of sheet music and he could play the song. He played with such emotion and feeling,” she reflected. “I remember once he played in Central Park with a great big audience and an orchestra behind him. The audience was mesmerized,” she added watching me. She was distant. Her mind seemed stuck in the past, almost scripted.
Great musicians play because they have to. They need music like they need air to breathe. Locking it away would be torture. What makes a man’s love for life drift away like a passing cloud? He loved music or he wouldn’t have excelled at it.
“I saw the newspaper article on that in the trunk. Robert Miller, the young composer, gives a thrilling performance to an audience of five-thousand performing with members from the Julliard Orchestra,” I said, tapping the piano keys creating something that wasn’t music.
She nodded her head. A tear came to her eye and she whispered to herself, “So much hope, so much promise—all wasted.” I cocked my head. She said it. His life was wasted.
“What happened to him? The man in these trunks doesn’t abandon his family and leave his five-year old daughter at a Yankee game. Who is he? Where has he been all these years?” I said so flustered that tears began to pour from my eyes.
“I grew up without a father. Now finding out that he was a talented musician and gifted athletic genius is very frustrating,” I said, wanting to hit something.
“Portia, it’s all in the trunks dear,” she said calmly.
I wanted to scream and pounce on her. She had the answers. She could tell me. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. Change the subject, Portia. Therapists listen first. The questions about my father were endless, but I wanted to learn about her as well. It wouldn’t be right to go on the attack like a pit bull.
“Who is this girl?” I asked handing her one of the photos.
She held the photo and her eyes welled up with tears, “That is my daughter, Mary, your father’s younger sister.”
“What happened to her?” I asked guessing that something bad had happened because of her reaction to the photo.
She placed the photo back into the trunk saying, “She was eighteen-months younger than your father. She doted on her big brother growing up, always wanting to be with the boys. She followed him around everywhere he went. He loved her too, but boys will be boys.” She stopped as if struggling to find the correct words.
“Your grandfather’s family owned a summer home on Otisco Lake, near Syracuse, where we vacationed during the summer months. When your father was thirteen, I took some of his friends, and Mary, for a month’s stay. Your grandfather was away on business. It was just me and the kids. Mary worshiped the ground your father walked on. She followed him everywhere, and he was usually fine with her being around. That summer was different. Maybe it was because his friends were with him, but he left Mary behind, and they often ran or hid from her. Poor Mary would come into the house crying because she felt left out. They were just being kids. You know how kids are at that age?”
I shook my head. “I don’t have any children, but I do know what you mean.”
“The boys gathered up some old logs and tied them together with a rope to make a raft. I remember your father saying he was the ‘Huckleberry Finn’ of the group. They took the raft far out into the lake to fish. Your father was a strong swimmer, so I didn't worry. I remember Mary sitting by the shore crying. They wouldn’t let her go with them because she was a girl. I told her it was okay to let her brother have time with his friends. Boys needed their space. Of course she didn’t understand. All her life she wanted to be just one of the them. I was glad she wasn't out on the raft, because she wasn’t a good swimmer. Mary was a little slower than your father.”
“What do you mean slower?” I asked.
“She didn’t have it upstairs," she answered. "She wasn’t as quick as him. School was difficult for her. We gave her swim lessons, but she never seemed to grasp the concept.”
“Was she retarded?”
“No. She was just slow. She was the exact opposite of Robert. She was a sweet girl. She helped me in the kitchen when your father would not,” she said taking a deep breath as if trying to control her emotions.
“You don’t have to keep going if you don’t want to,” I said holding her hand. I didn’t want to push her. Talking about Mary was obviously painful. I could sense her loss.
She forced a smile and squeezed my hand. “After dinner that night we couldn’t find Mary. The house is about a hundred feet from the lake, but we assumed she wouldn’t go in the water because she couldn’t swim. We searched everywhere. I called the police who came and we went door-to-door asking the neighbors if they’d seen her. I thought someone had kidnapped her," she said and stopped, holding her hands over her eyes. "The next morning your father found her.”
“Where was she?”
“Your father saw the raft, wedged up against some rocks, out in the lake. I remember him running up to the house screaming, ‘She’s in the water. Mom! She’s in the water.’ I ran down screaming not understanding what he meant. When I got to him he was crying. I grabbed him by the shirt. Where is she Robert? He pointed, ‘I think she took the raft out there.’
The police divers found her at the bottom of lake near rocks. She drowned. She took the raft out by herself. She was going to show those boys."
“My God,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said composing herself. “It was a long ago. Your father blamed himself for her death and I think it always haunted him. It wasn’t his fault. But in my heart I blamed him. If he would have just let her go on the raft,” she said shrugging her shoulders.
“She was eleven years old?”
She nodded slowly. “Yes. A piece of me died with her.”
We sat in silence for an awkward few minutes. I still felt like a stranger even though I could feel our bond.
“Tell me about you, Grandma.”
“What do you want to know?” she asked. I was happy that she didn’t point to one of the trunks. Her life must not be in them.
“Tell me everything. Where were you born, how many siblings did you have, where did you meet my grandfather? Things like that,” I said probing like a good therapist does with a patient. Ask questions, it will get a patient talking. People like to talk about themselves. Except for my mother. She didn’t answer questions.
Her mind drifted to that faraway place elderly people go when they think about the past. She had the same square jaw, with the dimple in the chin, that we shared with my father. Her face was like a porcelain doll.
“I’m not sure my life is as interesting as your father’s, dear.”
“Grandma Esther, I’ve known you for less than a day... please,” I begged.
She was born in 1899 in a small coal mining town called Shickshinny, in northeastern Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Susquehanna River. She was the second youngest of thirteen children.
"Two of them are twins. You should know that when you decide to have children—twins run in the family,” she said patting my leg.
I smiled thinking of Frank. He is a good man, who loved me unconditionally no matter how I acted. The closer he got, the more I pulled away. My fear of commitment was too strong. He couldn’t blame me, but said he would wait. It was sweet gesture, but I knew that it might take me forever to trust love. Maybe I was like my mother in that regard. It was easier to be alone. No one can run away and abandon you.
“One of my brothers, Nick, died of rabies when he was ten. His screams were horrible and have haunted me all my life. A bat bit him and he died,” she said continuing her story. “There was no medicine for Rabies or many other diseases back then. My oldest sister died giving birth to her first child. I named my daughter after her.”
I often wondered how life was when the average life span was forty-five years old. Only the tough and lucky survived. I remember reading that only three out or ten children lived until their eighteenth birthday. A common cold could turn into pneumonia. A splinter could turn into gangrene. They didn't have Penicillin when she was born.
“My mother’s name was Caroline," she said smiling. "She had a clubfoot, with no toes, that caused to her limp. Her father was a respected man with money, but she always felt tainted by God and not worthy of a respectable man, so she married my father. His name was Sheridan McCandless.
"He was a coal miner, who died of black lung disease, consumption, or cirrhosis of the liver—maybe all three, no one knew for sure. He was a bad tempered man. My guess is he raped my mother to have that many children.”
Good lord, I thought. That was a harsh statement. She had a father. At least he was around. Was it better to have an abusive father or no father at all? I wondered.
She shook her head from side-to-side and said, “Portia, that man was nuts. He would come home from working in the mines all black, covered with coal dust, and start drinking. About three drinks in, he’d get mean. We just wanted to get out of his way, but we didn’t live in that big of a house. I once hit him over the head with an iron my mother kept on the stove,” she said with smile.
“You knocked your father out with an iron?”
“He was trying to take my money to buy moonshine, and I wasn’t having any of it.”
“Moonshine?” I said and laughed.
“You don’t think coal miners drank the good stuff do you?” she said and winked.
The thought never crossed my mind. She was a feisty lady. I fell in love with her and my guard began to drop.
“How did you meet my grandfather?" I asked taking his photo out of the trunk. She took it from me, touched the picture with her hand, as if she was blowing him a kiss, and set it back in the trunk.
She smiled and said, “I met him because of my voice.”
“I sang in the church choir," she said smiling. "My son got his talent from my side of the family.”
I noticed that when she talked her hands continually pressed her skirt like she was smoothing out the wrinkles. She seemed to like everything perfect and neat.
“Shickshinny is a small-town that lies beside a river,” she continued. “Your grandfather worked for the company that was building a bridge across the river. Two of my brothers worked on the bridge too.”
“He was from Shickshinny?”
She held her hands up. “Good gracious, no.”
When she smiled two small dimples appeared on her cheeks. Her whole face lit up when she was animated. A far cry from when we first met at the hospital. I wished she had always been part of my life. Joy and anger filled my head at the same time. I was happy that I was sitting next to my grandmother hearing stories about my history, and angry with my mother, and father, for not giving me my past.
“He was a young man. There wasn’t much to do at night, so he’d wander the street,” she said chuckling and patted my knee. “In Shickshinny, there’s only one main street and it’s not very long. He once walked back and forth fifty times just to get tired enough to go to sleep.”
“He’d just walk up and down the road at night?” I said trying to picture it in my mind.
Her hands kept moving all the time, straightening everything she touched—her skirt, her sweater, and then she would repeat the process. She was obsessive compulsive or maybe just nervous. I couldn’t tell.
“Not all the time. He would sit outside the church and listen to the choir singing,” she answered, closing her eyes reliving those moments. "I was the lead singer."
“So you met in the church?” I asked.
“Nope. He wouldn’t set foot in that church. He would sit outside on a little stone bench.”
“Why wouldn’t he just go in and listen?” I said bewildered.
“I don’t know. He was very superstitious. He was never church going. I think he felt if he went in, then God would want something from him.”
“What would God want from him?”
She smiled. “Your grandfather was a womanizing, hard living, carousing rascal. I think he’d thought if he went into the church, he’d have to stop sinning.”
I was confused, “But he heard you sing. How’d he know it was you?”
“He didn’t!” She let out a little giggle. “That winter your grandfather jumped into the Susquehanna River and saved my older brother, Ezra, from drowning. He caught pneumonia or so we thought. He could have died. There was no one to take care of him in town, so my mother nursed him back to health. She was pretty good at it after having thirteen children. That’s how we met. He discovered that I was the singer he listened to outside of the church.”
It sounded romantic in an odd way. True love was predestined somehow. At least I had to believe it. Maybe Frank was the right man for me? Maybe I was like my grandfather who had to be near death to see what was right in front of him.
“So you fell in love.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t call it that,” she said looking into my eyes. “We had chemistry. Once he was well and the bridge finished—he was leaving. He wasn’t going to stay in a small poor coal-mining town for long.” She paused looking into the past with a smile. “You know how he asked me to marry him?”
I pleaded with open arms.
“He said to me, ‘I’m leaving on the train at midnight. If you want to get hitched, meet me there.’”
I have heard many strange wedding proposals in my life, but that one was quite different. “So you said yes?”
“Not right away. I went home and asked my mother what I should do. You know what she told me?”
I shook my head.
“She told me I wasn’t ever going to find anything in that town but men with black lung disease and poverty. You’d best be on that train at midnight. And that’s my story.”
Maybe it was that simple? Maybe love wasn’t complicated? Maybe I just needed to get on the train like my grandma. She risked it all for love. Why couldn’t I?
I stood up and hugged her. “Thank you. You don’t know how much this means to me.”
It felt good to have a grandma. Now I had a small white haired grandmother just like all my friends had growing up. I used to be so jealous of them when their grandparents came to visit. Grandmas were like mothers without the scolding. They played card games with you and listened to every story without prejudice. If they had advice, they offered it, instead of cramming it down your throat with pointed fingers the way mothers do, or at least mine did.
“Did he ever go in the church?” I questioned.
“How old were you?” I asked. “When you got married.”
“Twenty,” she said sighing. “We took the train to Wilkes-Barre up the river. We were married by a justice of the peace. It was just the two of us. No family. It wasn’t the wedding I’d pictured growing up, but you don’t always get what you want. We honeymooned in Chicago. Charles had some business there as well,” she said looking at his picture on the wall. A memory touched her. She still loved him. I wondered what happened to him, but didn’t want to stop her from continuing.
“Chicago must have been different from Shickshinny?”
She nodded her head agreeing. “The farthest I’d ever been from home was to the next town, which was only a few miles away. My father didn’t have a car. Hell, he didn’t even have a horse. The only way we got around was by foot.”
She had seen it all, I thought. In her lifetime, man had gone from traveling by horse to man to landing on the moon—radio, television, cars, airplanes, penicillin, two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, the roaring twenties, even electricity. Lucky her.
“Tell me about Chicago,” I said begging for more of her story.
“Chicago was big and busy, a different world from where I came from. Prohibition created many illegal enterprises—and your grandfather was knee-deep in it. He even carried a gun. Even good people were gangsters. We went out every night, seven days a week. We drank and we danced. Those were fun times. Your grandfather knew everyone in town. He knew where all the underground nightclubs were. Everyone treated us like royalty, even the police who considered him a criminal. When I got pregnant with your father everything changed. He didn’t want me to go out with him. He worried something bad would happen. So he left me home every night while he went out drinking. All the women loved him,” she said almost bragging with a smile.
“He was cheating on you?”
“Back then, men did what they did,” she said looking sly. “I wasn’t going back to the coal mines.”
“You just let him cheat on you?” I questioned.
“One time I took a stand," she said squaring her jaw. "I’d heard that he was going to meet a woman. Usually after work he’d come home, eat dinner, and then go out until all hours of the night. I took some sheers and cut holes in all his pants, and suits, and threw them out the window,” she said and laughed like a little girl, covering her mouth with her hand as if embarrassed by the outburst. “If that man wanted to go out on the town that night, he was going to look awfully funny.”
I laughed with her. “You cut up all his clothes?”
“When he got home, his clothes were scattered all over the yard in little pieces. He was so mad, he hit me. It was the first time he had ever laid a hand on me and the last.”
“What did you do?” I asked. She had become so animated.
“When he was sound asleep I fried some grease until it was crackling in the pan. I woke him up holding the pan over his head. The grease was still popping. I told him if he ever hit me again it would be the last time. It was a good thing he agreed because that pan was getting heavy,” she said and we both laughed.
She stands only about five-feet tall, but what she lacked in size she made up for with mental toughness. I will have to remember her story if a man ever lays his hands improperly on me ever again.
“Once the Depression hit, he traveled a lot, working on dams and bridges. During those years he stayed in hotels in places no one wanted to visit,” she said flattening her skirt for the hundredth time.
“We were living in New York City then, so I stayed home to take care of my children. In my day, you didn’t get divorced. I had my kids, my home, and some money—and found a way to be happy. Then Mary died and the war came. After that, nothing was ever the same.”
Rain began to fall outside. The tempo increasing as the clouds released their weight. The wind blew the twisted branches of the oak tree up against the house. It sounded like giant fingernails being raked across the roof.
“I’m going to the hospital to be with my son,” she said with a sense of urgency, as if an alarm clock went off telling her the time.
“I’ll go with you.”
“No!” she replied. “You must read about your father’s life. When he wakes up you need to know what happened to him and why you grew up without him. I saved it for you all these years. Please," she begged. "I promised him.”
I didn’t even think about arguing with her. Who’d argue with a woman who had held a pan of hot grease over her husband’s head while he was sleeping?
“There are many letters in the second trunk written by your father. They’re in order by date. I kept them because he was all I had. The letters are a piece of him when he was away. They comforted me during some dark times. You will hear your father’s voice in these letters, Portia,” she said and kissed me on the cheek. “The real Robert Miller is in the letters. Not the shell of a man dying in the hospital.”
She agreed to call me if he woke up. The hospital wasn’t far and I could be there in a hurry.
I needed to talk to my father before he died. Without hearing his voice there couldn’t be any closure, maybe for us both.