A Singular Presence

August 8th, 2015 § 0 comments

I never knew until I was much older why we visited my grandfather so much, having no conception of obligation and little understanding of what my grandma dying meant. All I knew was that every weekend like clockwork we’d pile into the backseat of the family truck and drive from our rural valley—already becoming suburban in the early ’80s—toward Los Angeles. Speeding down the 5 freeway, we’d look for the towering smokestack with word BINGO written vertically down the side. The familiar landmark promised us that we were almost there, and closer still we would singsong the words up potato and down tomato as the truck navigated the Frisco-like slopes that led to our grandpa’s street. Resting at the end of a shady cul-de-sac was his mid-century home, with its familiar orange door, stained glass entry and brick-lined walkway. I can still hear the sound of that deep but melodic doorbell ringing.


Our family was the definition of nuclear. Homeschooled, our friends came from the motley group of mismatched children who lived on our quiet street. I didn’t have cousins I saw with frequency and both my grandmothers were absent: one dead, the other estranged. My quirky aunt and uncle lived in rainy faraway states, and my youngest aunt was busy with a life that didn’t revolve around her sister’s children. What we did have, however, was our grandpa. I later learned we visited so often to cheer him up, and recall my mother saying he was often sad. Oblivious, I remember instead his pool—deep with a diving board and rings we’d chase down until our ears burned—a wonderful chest of toys left behind by my mother and her siblings, stacks of National Geographic magazines that were taller than I was, an always blooming bottlebrush tree I adored, countless well-tended orchids and plentiful guava trees by the pool. He passed on to me a love for lamb, impeccable table manners and a strong interest in the idea of cookie jars.

His house, singed with loneliness and drenched in nostalgia, was my favorite place to be. I remember it more vividly than the home where I spent the first fourteen years of my life. To this day I’ve never discovered or created a sense of home I appreciated more. The artist grandmother I never knew who imbued it with so much creativity is the missing person from my memory, and it is perhaps her vision and aesthetic that made such an impression. The setting of countless photographs throughout the years, I unintentionally documented its slow descent into disrepair. With the unflinching eye of youth I ruthlessly aimed my camera at the caved in roof, broken washer machines and dishwashers, an unswimmably green pool and my aging grandfather. Unsurprisingly, it was in this house that I discovered a lifelong interest in objects, memory and the effects of time. My photographs that question the spaces we inhabit and our unnoticed gestures were born inside this home.


I can hear my grandpa’s voice as clearly as anything in my head, stretching my childish patience to its limits. A Caltech engineer, he’d sit me down to explain in painful detail the inner workings of anything mechanical. I can hear the slow pacing of his plodding deep voice, and feel his overbearing sense of logic: its was the perfect antidote to the fantastic and almost too imaginative world I was allowed to inhabit. When I made up words he countered with ones that sounded even more made up than mine. “Oh, you mean a jeroboam?” he casually asked me one afternoon, questioning the creative use of my vocabulary. His laugh was magnificent, guttural and deep, and his sense of mischief delighted us children and amused us as adults. I can still see the smile on his face when he admitted to being soused on his wedding day.


He wasn’t affectionate but it never mattered, as he had inherited our unconditional devotion. He was our only babysitter, trekked to all our track meets and ballet recitals, attended graduations and questionable theater productions. He was there for every last thing we considered important, and even gave me pepper spray when I became a teenager. He brought pies for holidays, sat in what we enviously referred to as the grandpa chair, and demanded that hands be washed before dinner. Waiting to be excused afterward, we learned quickly that if we asked too soon he’d make us sit there longer. He disapproved of rock & roll when we discovered our parent’s records but loved folk songs, the Kingston Trio and silly lyrics.


After I moved away and visiting became less frequent, when I did come home I noticed broken things that were never fixed, magazines resting in piles older than I was and rooms too full to enter. Pushing open the door of what was once the computer room on a random visit home, I glanced around a room now filled floor to ceiling with papers, and remembered watching my parents and grandpa play Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? on his Commodore 64. An engineer but also a hoarder, I remember these contradictions well. His house piled with things, and it sometimes felt like nothing was let go between the time my grandmother died and I left for college.


What we remember about people doesn’t necessarily say much about them, but it can say a lot about how we felt about them. A month ago, coming home on the subway after a long and stressful day at work, packed into a rush hour train full of people jostling and angrily shoving, I suddenly remembered a long ago lunch with my grandpa and mom. I was fifteen or sixteen and enthralled to find we had a particularly handsome server that afternoon named Clayton. A couple years older than myself, he’d asked what our plans were for the evening and I’d imagined it was with a glance in my direction. My grandpa patted his stomach and said happily, “we’re going home to burp.” Leaning against the subway doors almost fifteen years later I laughed out loud, drawing a few casual but quizzical stares. Why that memory I wondered, and wish I could tease him about it now.

There is no illness long enough that allows us to prepare for the stark difference between being sick and being gone. The gap is wide, sad and unexpected. After all the unfair deaths I’ve known that have left me irrevocably bitter and angry, this loss simply fills me with sadness. The pillars of our childhood that disappear slowly, one by one as we age, are crushing to lose. I can remember leaving my grandpa’s house as a child long after dark, making the trip homeward while yawning sleepily in the backseat of the car. I’d stay awake long enough to watch a familiar neon sign by the freeway onramp. Waiting for the light to change, the massive billboard slowly blinked out the word C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A, one letter at a time. I miss that house as much as I miss asking grandpa’s good-natured permission to check for ripe strawberries on the plant by the pool.


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