My grandfather is dead now. I never got to know him very well. I suppose I could have made more of an effort but I had my own problems. My mother’s family all lived out East. We never visited them. I think my father feared that if we went out there he would be the only coming back. He kept us prisoner like some paranoid cult-leader. My mother was only allowed to leave the house to go to the laundromat, the grocery store or her job. I guess with two kids and so little help from him, what else did she have time for? Neither of my parents had any friends. I cannot recall a single instance of us going out together to eat in a restaurant. Sometimes we ordered pizza or went through the Burger King drive-thru. My mother spoke to her parents or her siblings in hushed tones only when my father wasn’t there. He became angry if he found out she had been communicating with them, even in a letter. He seemed to regard it as some form of betrayal, like she was chatting up some old lover.
My father and my grandfather probably hated each other. I mean, who would want an arm-breaker like my father married to their daughter? But my granddad could be a prick as well, and a lot of that had to do with how much money my father made. I remember one visit in particular. My parents were both at work and I was tasked with letting my grandfather into the house and keeping him company until they arrived. He wore an expensive-looking suit as he always did when he traveled to see us. My father was a man who did not own a suit. He hated men in suits. I doubt if ever wore a tie in his entire adult-life. My grandfather breezed past me and looked the place over. We had just moved into a double-wide down the block from our old trailer.
“Well, it’s nicer than the last place,” my grandfather muttered contemptuously.
I took offense to his comment but I didn’t say anything. I was my father’s boy at that point, still loyal to him. And who was this man to put down the way we lived? I never appreciated adults who talked as if the children in the room weren’t even there. I was proud of our double-wide. I had my own room and by the standards of the trailer court we were rich now.
I weathered the formality of his visits, eager for him and my grandmother to leave, even though I knew my parents would begin to argue once they had done so. At Christmas we always received clothing from expensive stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. I suppose my grandmother was someone who simply enjoyed shopping in New York. But on some level I always felt my mother’s parents were putting us in our place. I can still remember the red sweater and Saks Fifth Avenue written so fancily on the box. I had never been east of the Mississippi. New York City seemed like something out of a book—ladies of fashion walking their poodles and men in suits hailing taxicabs with rolled-up newspapers. I lived in a trailer court! What in hell was I going to do with a sweater from Saks Fifth Avenue?
Actually, I wore the shit out of it. I didn’t want to live in some tin shack on wheels and have a raging asshole for a father. This bit of finery seemed an escape from all that. I took a foppish delight in stroking my own arm as I wore it in class, the only one knowing that it came from Saks Fifth Avenue. My grandfather’s suits were worn with a bit of pretension as well, I suspect. I grew up believing he was an architect. This was not so. He was a laborer like my father, a construction worker who built roads. He had to delay retirement because some corrupt union official embezzled away his pension. It was actually my uncle who became an architect, hence the confusion.
Of course, my grandfather was a man who grew up in a time when even working-class people dressed up. Nowadays it’s the fashion to wear dress-shirts untucked and if you wore sweat clothes to a funeral no one would probably notice so long as they didn’t have the word JUICY spelled out on the butt.
My father and my grandfather were on opposite sides of what became known as “the generation gap.” My grandfather was a veteran like my father, but he experienced a different sort of war. World War II was a war you could believe in with good guys and bad guys. It was a war we won. My grandfather served his country aboard a ship in the Pacific. He claimed he didn’t see a lot of action. What he remembered most were the high-stakes poker games the men played after payday, games where guys bet it all because they didn’t think they were coming back or were simply bored off their asses.
My father didn’t stack chips in Vietnam, he stacked bodies. He was a hospital corpsman. Sometimes when he was sorting through the dead he would find a live one–someone still breathing through a hole in his neck or without a leg. My father would pull the guy out and the surgeons would have a look at him to see if anything could be done. It was the “live ones” that disturbed my father and gave him nightmares. He spent the war as high as possible to avoid seeing them when he closed his eyes.
My father did not believe in Christianity. He did not believe in the United States government. He did not believe in capitalism. My grandfather believed in all those things. He believed in wearing suits.
My grandfather was kind enough to attend my college graduation. I was kind enough to show up in spite of my hangover. His suit was appropriate to the occasion and I was mature enough at that point not to begrudge anyone their clothes. It was the last time we would see each other.
The conversation turned to baseball and he said to me, “I might have made it to the majors if my old man had been there to work with me.”
I was taken aback by this admission. It seemed sad to me that a man of such advanced age should still harbor such a childish regret as not becoming a professional baseball player. But as I took a moment to look into his weepy eyes, I quickly realized that what he really lamented was never getting to know his father. My great-grandfather died in a motorcycle accident. He had been riding an Indian in the early-morning fog after ending his shift at a steel mill. My grandfather wound up in an orphanage. Not having a father was the defining regret of my grandfather’s life. Just as not having a father I could actually love because life had twisted him into some sick monster was mine. I couldn’t articulate these feelings back then. It was all part of this shame that made it impossible for me to talk to people.
My grandfather suffered from dementia late in his life. Telemarketers would call his house and he would imagine they were kidnappers demanding ransom for his grandchildren. One day the nurse his son hired came to the door and he threatened her with a revolver. A police standoff was avoided and the weapon eventually found in a jar of flour. My grandfather had to be placed in a nursing home–a fate, ironically, he was hoping to escape by answering the door armed.
People tend to be judged by where they begin and how they end up. I wish I could tell you more about the in-between parts of my grandfather’s life, but aside from LeBron James I barely know what’s in Ohio.
Author’s note: this essay was written prior to James signing with the Lakers.