Monday, December 18, 2006

Death of a Salesman

Three weeks ago my mother called me to tell me that my grandfather, her father, had died in his sleep. This should not have been a shock to me; he was nearing 80, was quite overweight, had smoked for about 30 years (before finally quitting 10 years ago,) and had had 2 previous heart attacks (the first when he was barely into his fifties.) I was shocked anyway and responded exactly the same way people on television do when getting news like this--I argued with her. "But you SAID he looked FINE when you saw him at Thanksgiving."

Over the next few days my entire family massed at my grandmother's house to take care of whatever needed to be taken care of and to attend the funeral. I could not be there, because I am here, in Germany, and could not afford to fly back. The strangled quality of my voice must have significantly alarmed my extended family because they all spent most of our phone time together trying to comfort me. Our biggest concern right now is my grandmother, who was/is the sort of 1950's-era housewife who never learned to drive a car, has no idea how bills are paid, and stands to collect almost no social security. Now she is alone in a big house in a fading ex-mining town in Northern Pennsylvania, and she has refused, thus far, all invitations to come and live with one of my aunts.

My grandparent's marriage remains a mystery to me. I was never under the impression that they loved, or even liked, each other very much...They married right out of high school and six months later gave birth to a 10 pound "premature infant" (my mother.) In my memory they never once hugged or kissed or slept a single night in the same room. Their interactions mainly consisted of decades worth of low-level bitching at one another, but, then again, as someone who really enjoys bitching, I can sort of imagine it as a building-block of a satisfying long-term relationship. My mother told me that, while clearly devastated, my grandmother carried out the role of the "brave but grieving widow" during the funeral as if she were Rose Kennedy and doing it for CNN.

I don't know much about my grandmother's early ambitions, except that she liked to sing and stopped after she married and had children. My grandfather, "Poppie" we called him, was one of those one-time small town high-school football and wrestling stars. After he married he spent his life working as a traveling salesmen for some kind of cleaning product company, watching TV in a series of increasingly padded and tricked out La-Z-Boy recliners, attending sporting events at his old high school, and grooming his only son, their fourth and final child, to follow in his footsteps in the sporting and business arenas. The pride with which my grandfather regarded his only son is still on display, shrine-like, in the upstairs hallway. Sometime in the late sixties my grandfather commissioned a painted portrait of his son, the only portrait he'd had done of any of his children. The painting features my then-teenage uncle's seemingly disembodied, floating head in the center of the canvas, surrounded by full-body images of him involved in a variety of varsity sports: winding up to pitch a baseball, winding up to throw a football, posing on the starting block at a track meet, and, most disturbingly, purple-faced and sweaty, tricked out like Tarzan in a fetchingly bikini-cut wrestling singlet, grinding some other kid's face into a floormat.

That picture still has the ability to make my mother and her sisters apoplectic with rage. They hiss softly every time they walk past it. My uncle, for his part, is now the only republican in a family of yellow-dog democrats and a disgustingly wealthy fundamentalist Christian to boot. All of this, I feel, can somehow all be traced back to that big floating head portrait.

My mother told me that, on a visit with them two summers ago, my grandfather suddenly told her that he didn't want her or her siblings to be sad when he died. "I've been waiting a long time for it," he said "I want to go and be back with my parents and my sister and brother." He had been waiting a long time. His father died in his early 50s, also of a heart attack. His brother before that even, in WWII. His sister, worst of all, was stabbed to death by her abusive husband when she was in her early 20s. So finally he got his wish. That is, if the people we love really are waiting for us some "other side" somewhere. I'd like to believe this is true, but I find it increasingly hard to do so. I lack my uncle's easy faith, after all.

As for me, the last time I saw m grandfather was last Christmas, as my mother and I were pulling away for our long drive back home. He was standing by the car's passenger side window crying, which he always did. He hated it when we all left at the end of the Holidays and his face would crumple and he'd start to sob quietly as we loaded up to go. I said something like, "Hey there old man, buck up, we'll see each other again soon," like I always did, in the kind of jovial voice that was supposed to make a joke of the whole thing. And he laughed a little, like he always did, as if I'd said something funny.

2 Comments:

Blogger AK said...

thanks for making me cry first thing in the morning. i JUST put in my contacts and now i have to wash them again.

it is hard to lose a grandparent. you have my deepest sympathy.

love,
abby

7:23 AM  
Blogger Belle Reve said...

Forgive the delay. I'm so sorry. The half of what made your mother, the half of what made you, died. I'm so sorry.
I lost my grandfather and father, in that order, within weeks of eachother. My mother lost the two men who loved her.
Not exactly who I lost.

4:32 PM  

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