Last week I made a pit stop at my parent's house after my follow-up appointment with the dentist. It was late Friday afternoon and my parents were sitting in front of the house taking advantage of the rare refreshing breeze after a week's worth of punishing temperatures.
I poured myself a glass of lemon-lime seltzer (my favorite non-alcoholic beverage) and parked myself on the stoop. In the midst of our conversation, I found myself remembering my teenage years when I wouldn't be caught dead hanging out with my parents. But I thoroughly enjoy chatting with them now and I'm grateful to have the opportunity. I'm aware of how fleeting these moments are.
Since my parents retired, they've become quite adept at mixing leisure with nagging household chores. They've managed to already go on a whirlwind trip through Scotland, Ireland and Portugal as well as knock off several daunting tasks on the home to-do list.
My mother is now focusing on the basement. She keeps going on about the sorry state of things down there and is hoping to tap into my anal-retentive organizing skills to help get things sorted. As sick as it sounds, I'm looking forward to it. Give me a disheveled, messy area and I'll have things labeled, filed, stacked and stored in no time. However, my mother doesn't want to eat up my precious summer weekends so we have an appointment in early fall to get cracking.
In the meantime, my mother has been going through various filing cabinets and drawers to see what's what in preparation of my organizing blitz. Much to her delight, she unearthed a treasure trove of old photos and documents. She found pictures of really distant relatives as well as photos of my grandmother and herself as a child, a teenager and a young woman. And most exciting of all, a photo of her father -- my grandfather.
I vaguely remember seeing a picture of him at my gran's apartment in Greenock, Scotland when I was much younger but I don't recall the details. I know my ancestry in terms of last names and geography but, sadly, faces and personalities and quirks are a mystery to me.
I never knew either of my grandfathers. My mother's father died when she was about 12 and my father's father... well, I don't really know what happened to him. The last I heard, he lives in Belfast and looks like Howard Cosell (according to my aunt). My sisters and I were never told why my father grew up without a dad. My father won't talk about it. All I know is that my Dad didn't care for his father and wasn't too sad to see him head back to Northern Ireland. Apparently my grandfather's behavior caused shame for my grandmother and that earned him a lifetime of silence as far as my father was concerned. We continue to respect my father's wishes and don't ask questions so I really can't and won't talk about him.
On my mother's side, the lack of family knowledge isn't nearly as dramatic. My mother moved to America in her twenties to find work and hang out with her Irish cousins. She didn't bring family photos and heirlooms because I don't think she imagined that she'd find a husband and settle down here. But through my matchmaking uncle, she landed herself a strapping dark-haired Scottish man, found an apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and thus began the McDimple family as I -- and now you -- know it.
I saw scattered snapshots and other evidence of our family history over the years but it wasn't until my grandmother passed away that a lot of the photo albums made their way across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, they somehow got lost in the shuffle and ended up buried among old tax forms and mortgage statements at my parents' house. But, in the midst of an otherwise gruesome cleaning task, my mother struck gold.
During our chat, she said, "Oh! I have something to show you!" and jumped up from her chair. My mother has had some leg problems in recent years but the aches and pains were overpowered by sheer adrenalin and she was in and out of the house in what seemed like seconds.
The look of joy on her face when she handed me the photos was just unforgettable. I'm not always good at holding a gaze but we locked eyes for a moment and I just drank in her exuberance. Her excitement was contagious.
My family history is spotty and vague. I've always hungered for it and now, here it was, in bits and pieces, in peeling, yellowing photos and some surprisingly well-preserved black-and-white ones.
I saw elements of me in my mother's twenty-something face. I laughed at her dancing school photo where she was decked out in a kilt and knee-high argyle socks with hands on her hips looking ready to launch into the Highland Fling.
I perused some more pictures and complimented my Mom's mod clothing style back in the 60s.
Mrs. McDimple was hot.
I swooned over a photo of my father in a tux when he was serving as best man in his best friend's wedding. Mr. McDimple was quite the stud, you see. When I was about twelve, we were visiting my parents' friends out on Long Island. One of the women told me that back in the day all the girls wanted to get their hooks into my Dad. At the time, I instantly felt protective of my mother and wanted to kick that woman's ass but good. However, I've since grown to appreciate -- and envy -- my Dad's ladykilling ways.
I reverently picked up the photo of my grandfather and studied the details of his face. I definitely saw my three uncles in him. He even had a bit of a Kevin Costner look about him. He was so handsome and rugged standing with the rest of the crew of the tugboat he worked on. He spent most of his life in the ship yards and that's where he died too. He suffered a heart attack and was found, alone, on a boat. He left behind a young wife and five children.
Among the photos was a letter written in October 1950. The handwriting was elegant with a strong slant. It was a letter to my newly-widowed grandmother written by the parish priest. My mother grew up in a tenement right across from a church so during Lent, when the priest spent a lot of time saying Mass, hearing confessions and otherwise prepping for the holiest of Catholic holy days, my grandmother was always generous with a cup of tea and some biscuits to help him through.
In her time of need, the priest took the time to compose a beautiful and very personal four-page letter full of comfort and consolation. It was so interesting to read. As warm and supportive as the letter was, there were also several lines demonstrating the old belief in a punishing God who sometimes calls his children back to the fold in order to show his power and keep everyone in line. Yet it wasn't harsh or threatening, as odd as that may seem.
I returned to the photo of my grandfather. I continued to study his face as my mother told me a bit more about him. "Oh, he was such a good man," she said. Quiet and dignified and just adored by his children and "always made sure to give to the missions."
I looked at the photo again in an effort to get to know him myself. I thought about whether he knows me. What does he think of me and the rest of his grandkids? And then I recalled a random memory from my last visit with my Granny when I was about ten years old. As we sat together drinking tea, she gave my younger sister and me a little insight into the man. It was hard to get her to put down her knitting but a cup of tea, an episode of Dynasty (or Din-asty, as she said) or a good story could stop her from counting stitches and moving those busy hands of hers. She was always making us cardigans or a "nice wee bonnet" to keep our ears warm in the harsh New Jersey winters, you see.
Her eyes wandered off and a smile overtook her face and she said, "He was a wonderful man... and he would have spoiled you girls rotten. If he were alive today, he'd forever be giving you sweeties and putting pence in your pocket."
As a child, that made me so proud. I had already inherited a love of my grandfather much in the same way I inherited my fair skin, eyes, etc. I reflexively loved my grandfather without question but in that moment, it became real. It became an active, personal love. Not obligatory.
I carried my grandmother's words with me and wore them like an amulet. I didn't get tons of presents for Christmas or birthdays like some of my friends did. When I'd see them flaunting new toys or clothes that I didn't have, instead of feeling bad, I'd comfort myself in the knowledge that my granddad would have done the same for me. Selfish, weak-minded and materialistic, perhaps, but I was young and that's what mattered to me then. But, really, what I was savoring was the gracious and kind heart of my grandfather, not the material things.
I held up the picture one more time and looked into his piercing, light blue eyes and at last saw beyond the serious look on his face and found the soft-center of the man I never knew.