I inherited, like silver, the ghost of a grandfather I never knew. He is my mother’s father, a doctor in a small town on a bay. He takes his children swimming each summer, drives back at night to make the hospital rounds. Though I know him only in shades of gray, I see that he is handsome. Sundays he hits golf balls, returns to his wife for dinner.
At dinner, all of the neighborhood children come. A Sunday tradition, meal on the table for all four children and any hungry mouth they wish to invite; my grandmother makes pasta, occasionally meatloaf and fish?always fish. She was born near the ocean and cannot stop returning to it, even after her husband has left her for a woman he met golfing. Even after the neighborhood children are told by their parents not to visit anymore.
The night he left, she came into my mother’s room and closed the door behind her. “You’re his favorite,” she said. “Maybe you can make him stay.” My fourteen-year-old mother listened and ultimately failed. Her father said good-bye to the children before their bedtime, and my mother stayed awake all night. Around midnight she tip-toed into her parents’ bedroom; she found an unfamiliar bottle on her mother’s bed, her mother asleep. Cutty Sark, Scot’s whiskey. Later she would learn from a Robert Burns poem that Cutty Sark was a Scottish term for a loose-fitting shirt. She would come home one afternoon to find her mother packing for a new country, and she would follow her mother, one summer, to Spain. Near the ocean, where her mother rented a one-bedroom and each night cooked fish.
My grandfather, with his new wife, still lived on the bay. He brought gifts for her children and on Sundays they golfed. Once my mother saw his wife at a pool, among other children and their mothers. The children darted like minnows in and around the pool while their mothers sat on towels like cherubs on the edge of a frame. Except for one mother, one wife?her swimsuit plunged down toward her stomach, her golden hair coiled around her chin like beckoning curls of smoke. They all smoked cigarettes because doctors recommended them, but this woman left a claret ring around each stub, painting her lips again before re-lighting. She was not soft like the other mothers; she bore no traces of having given birth.
I see all of the women, but where is the man? He is invisible, a vague object of pursuit, while the women around him come to me in rouge and peach, smelling like ocean and powder. They are animated in a way that he is not; yet he is their center, and I share his mythology. He once poured a pitcher of ice-water on my mother when she threw a childish tantrum. He gave his old fishing tackle to his oldest son, who interpreted the age and not the message, and resented his younger brothers for receiving new fishing equipment instead of hand-me-downs. But the man himself, have I lost him? Can my imagination not stretch beyond a single photograph of a suited, unsmiling man?
My grandmother lived in Spain for almost twenty years, on the island of Majorca. She had very little money and could sew a little?and somehow she got by. She made friends easily, and all of the shopkeepers recognized her and smiled. Her hearing grew fainter and so learning the language was difficult. She wintered in Portugal and figured out that “Lone Ranger” sounded like a café orange soda, and that murmuring “gobble gobble” after being helped sounded like thank-you. Her two youngest sons finished high school in Spain, decided against college. When the news came that my grandfather had died, my mother was twenty-four and working as a journalist in America. My grandmother had mourned her husband years before, so my mother went alone to the funeral. She left when she heard his new wife sobbing to her daughter, “Now I must find a new doctor to marry.”