My grandfather and my dad sat on the couch, leafing through a family photo album. I stood behind them and snapped a picture surreptitiously. The profile of my grandfather’s face is in view, and in it there is recognition and joy.
There was no recognition or joy when my parents and I FaceTimed him from Pittsburgh the afternoon before he died. No recognition or joy when my grandmother smoothed his hair against the pillow of his deathbed and said calmly, “I don’t think I can stay in Miami once he’s gone.”
My grandfather struggled to comprehend for close to the last decade of his life. I know he loved me, but I can’t conjure an example: no meaningful conversations, no firm hugs, no stories beginning with “when I was your age.”
Instead, I got to know him indirectly. I got to know him through the music he liked—“Evergreen” by Barbara Streisand—and the photos he took with his wife and children. I compiled these fragments of him into a slideshow, which we played during his abbreviated Zoom shiva. I got to know him through the people who spoke that day—people who had no blood relation to him but who shared a closeness with him that I never had. I was aware that my grandfather was a doctor, but it was only from one of his colleagues that I learned he wrote the chapter on streptococcal infections in all three major medical textbooks. I was aware that my grandfather experienced vicious anti-Semitism while an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1950s, but it was only from one of his friends that I learned of his lifelong support of movements for racial justice: he and my grandmother hosted campaign events for W. Otis Higgs, a Black mayoral candidate taking on the white political establishment in their home of Memphis in 1975.
Most of all, I got to know him in that moment when my dad received the call about the infection that would later take his life. My dad truly never stops working—this semester, I’ve had to talk to him at 7:00 a.m. on multiple occasions to catch him before his 7:30 meeting—so I knew something was wrong when I heard him say to his coworkers, “Sorry, I’m going to go off camera for a bit.” I was in the next room over, and I opened the door to find him slumped in his desk chair, trying not to cry. His voice cracked: “Alan’s not going to come home from the hospital just yet.”
My grandfather had too many hospitalizations to count in recent years, most of them relatively brief and with clear prognoses, so it was clear to me that this one was different. I made my way over to him and timidly placed my hand on his shoulder, unsure of what to say: my dad rarely expresses strong emotions of any sort.
“I’m okay. I’m okay. Thanks.” He wiped his eyes, took a breath, and turned his camera back on. “Sorry, something with my dad. What did I miss?”
I might not have many particularly noteworthy memories of my grandfather, but I won’t soon forget that 30-second glimpse of vulnerability—of my dad’s carefully constructed outer wall of stoic composure, shattered. Shattered because of what my grandfather meant.
My grandpa died when I was five years old. I didn’t even know that he existed, so when my dad told me that his dad was dead, I wasn’t sure who he was talking about. I didn’t feel the loss the same way he did. He lost a father, a person he knew. I lost only the possibility to know him. We had two different types of gaps.
My dad tried to fill mine with stories. He loved to tell me about the type of man my grandpa was, how he had gone to Seoul by himself at the age of seventeen, how he had invited his coworkers and bosses out for drinks. The man was unphased by liquor. He would challenge his bosses and coworkers to drinking games and win every time. After he won, he would drive the sore losers home.
I was apparently his favorite. One time during a family gathering, when I was barely old enough to speak, he had told my aunt to turn off the TV because of how loud it was. I was so bewildered by the TV suddenly turning off. I turned around to face him, pointed at the TV, and demanded with crystal clarity: “On.” Everyone else in the room fell silent, but he laughed. He had said that I had got the confidence from him.
I know him through prepared and polished tales. He is a person who has been processed into an idea for me to hold onto. I’m not sure if I can even say he’s really a person to me. He’s a bundle of stories, a narrative mirage that barely makes sense. There’s nothing much holding him together, but there’s just enough for me to hold onto.
Sometimes I see them see her, watch them dream up her likeness in the dark pink of my cheeks; sunlight and age stained hers the same way. From her I’ve inherited the smallest of genetic nitpicks—the peachskin feel of our faces, soft and immune to leathering, the ability to curl the corners of my mouth all the way down into the perfect scowl, the darkest eyes on my dad’s side of the family.
I saw her in me once, while she was alive. We lay in her bed and looked up at the ceiling—planks of pale, knotted wood, and she pointed to a spot up above and said, “It’s the Little Dipper,” referring to a jagged collection of deep brown knots. “What?” I asked, although I saw it—of course I did—the quadrilateral ladle with its long, bent handle, made entirely from arboreal imperfections. I let myself grapple with the unfathomable: beyond loving me and scolding my grandfather and fixing my mangled knitting projects, my grandmother could think. I realized, somewhat dully, that she was, in fact, a person. She was the sort of person to invite the stars down to earth and impress them onto the textured expanse of her bedroom ceiling. It’s the sort of person I am, too.
They want to see her in my cooking, so they offer me her recipes scrawled on tiny folds of lineless paper in the cursive to end all cursive. I leave them in the files and cabinets where heirloom documents cohabitate with government papers, content to bastardize her specialties with new wave California vegetarianism and youthful impatience. Hers is better, but mine is different, and with every nerve in my hands I feel her need to care, her love of caring. She was a professional, a teacher of high school Home Economics for countless years.
They see her in my disappointment—the perfect frown and the tendency to be old-world severe, like the Yiddish name she traded for Beatrice.
I went to the Jewish cemetery alone seeking melodrama, brought tulips that should have been orchids and stared at her grave. I remembered how I modeled my sixth grade graduation dress after my black funeral tunic from Ross-Dress-For-Less and how I wouldn’t look at the open casket because I didn’t want to remember her in morgue makeup and dress shoes. I lined up my toes with the black slab of granite and laid the flowers on either side. She was particular in that way, and I’ve grown up to be the same. I hope you saw me there.