Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The first and last day I spent with my grandfather

There are no books to help guide one through the murky waters of divorce.  All that remains are fragments of relationships and  -- Lord willing -- enough of a relationship between family members where the next generation that's detached from the gory details of the marital split can still connect with the adults 1 or 2 generations before them.

From stories, I knew the grandmother on my mother's side had 3 husbands.  I remember the 2nd to last or the last one with her as a young child.  Most of my time with my grandmother I knew her to be single.  Picture a Dominican women in a bad neighborhood wielding a machete to prune her bushes.  The showy use of the machete was intentional and she saw it to be necessary given the crime rates of Lawrence, MA 1980-1990s.

One summer, in a surprising turn of events, my mother arranged a trip for me, my siblings, and her mother to visit my grandmother's first husband.  He was a very successful architect in Hoboken, NJ in his 60s.  The apartment he had housed his 2nd wife and his daughter who I had never met before.

As time passes, memories compress tightly to obtain new information and new experiences.  So goes my memory which compressed 1 day with my grandfather into two specific events.

The walk

My grandfather had never met me before, but he seemed very proud to introduce me to his neighborhood friends.  He waved and greeted several people he passed or saw across the street.  I remember a conversation or two, but the prominent memory I have is him pointing out the buildings he designed.

Here I was just a 5 to 6 foot high school student and seeing the fruits of his mind cast 100 foot shadows across blocks and parks while simultaneously reflecting the sky and sunlight.  There were several buildings he pointed to and would proudly say, "I made that".

The generational hand off

One of the last stops on our walk he entered a very unpolished bodega.  The moment I stepped in, I knew where I was without even seeing the business sign.  There was a bodega in my former town in Lawrence, MA and it was almost identical to the one in stepped into in New Jersey. It was a place to grab produce, manufactured goods, and candy.  Candy like swedish fish, other junk food, American and Carribean Sodas, Malta, and frozen treats.  Back before I was 10 I could purchase a piece of swedish fish for a penny.  A dollar would get me a small paper bag full of the juicy fish shaped sweets.

These bodegas also dueled as a cultural meeting place.  To continue in the traditions of the Caribbean Islands,  these bodegas provided the foods islanders were familiar with:  Yuca, Platanos, and a variety of other foods.  And on American soil, they could keep their culture in their mouths and hearts too with this small business which served as a bridge between where they were from and their present abode in America.

We both walk into the store and, of course, my grandfather knew the store owner very well.  The owner tried speaking to me in Spanish, but my grandfather told him I didn't speak any Spanish.  The owner said, "La rapidez con que se va".  Loosely translated he was lamenting how even as his bodega helped keep the Hispanic language, cuisine, and traditions of conversation alive, this culture somehow hadn't been passed down to me.