My paternal grandfather used to say, “You see me? I’m an original. I am not a copy.” He was a man who always presented his true self to the world—and without apology. He was not a follower. He was not an imitator. He thought and spoke for himself—and boldly. He gave his sons names (and nicknames) like Caesar, Augustus, and Kingsley. He named his home “Triumph.” He was not inclined towards humility.
Once a year (when I was a child) he packed a suitcase, boarded a plane, and left his wife (my grandmother) behind to spend a month in England with his mistress and the son they shared. He would pack a dark brown leather suitcase, the old-fashioned kind with four small and ineffective wheels that were just as useless as the leash attached to the bag’s side. He would pack that large brown suitcase and go to England for no less than a month at a time. Before I knew what those trips were really for, I’d beg him to take me along on his “vacation.” His answer was always, “Maybe next year.” And then one year it occurred to me that he’d stopped going.
My grandfather was stubborn and resolute. He would drive my grandmother and me to our favorite beach and sit in the car while we swam. He didn’t even step onto the sand of that beach because he had vowed never to swim in its waters again. He was the only one who could change his mind, and even that was an exceptional event. He did as he pleased, and he was not to be manipulated, even when it was in his own interest. He died with one loose tooth in his head because he was too stubborn to follow doctor’s orders—let alone those of a dentist.
He was not timid or deferential. He may even have been a bully. His presence was powerful and massive. His personality and voice demanded attention. I never felt anything other than safe and protected with him, but my biggest fear was making him angry. It wasn’t that I feared punishment, I simply had too much love and respect for him to find letting him down anything other than unacceptable. I wanted him to love me. And he did—always making sure that the fridge was stocked with my favorite sodas whenever I came to visit, helping me make a checker set with a piece of cardboard and bottle caps—and then playing checker games with me and, knowing that I hate shallow victories, never letting me win.
My grandfather liked what he liked, wanted what he wanted, and did as he pleased. Every evening after dinner he took his “medicine” from a shot glass. He loved his country—his island—Grenada. In fact, I think some of his pride was internalized patriotism. But be that as it may, there were certain things he preferred from America. Whenever my family visited him, we brought two things: Juicy Fruit gum and Kentucky Fried Chicken. If I was old enough back then to know what a stereotype was, I might have resented my grandfather for making us board a plane with an Igloo cooler packed full of fried chicken. But in my youth, I simply took pride in being able to provide my grandfather with something he couldn’t get on his own. Plus, I looked forward to eating that chicken with him.
My grandfather was protective and loving like a lion. However, he was not given to marital fidelity. He had two sons by two different women who weren’t my grandmother—both affairs taking place after they were married. And while I know nothing about his mistresses other than that they existed, I know their offspring. I met the one from England once. And the other son I knew well and loved. He’s my uncle. My grandmother raised him. Because before my grandparents had any children of their own, my grandfather brought his infant son by another woman home with him. The audacity of that act still fills me with disbelief, indignation, and queries—knots my brain with questions I can’t imagine asking.
How did my grandfather convince his young bride to raise another woman’s child as their son? How did he bring a living, breathing, crying, pamper sullying product of his infidelity into his marriage—a marriage too new to have produced its own progeny? And how did my grandmother bear it all—the wounds of betrayal, the sting of jealousy, mothering a baby she hadn’t borne?
And what escapes my understanding to an even greater degree is how the love between my grandparents survived such systematic and chronic infidelity—cheating that (as far as I could tell) wasn’t discussed or denied, but the result of which my grandmother had to raise as her own child—feeding, cleaning, and clothing the product of her husband’s adultery.
Knowing what I know now but didn’t know then, I search my memories for clues that my grandmother was bitter. I find none. As a child I saw nothing both love between them. It was palpable—oozed out of them like melted sugar.
It makes me wonder who my grandmother was. I know her as a sweet but firm, generous but shrewd, and funny woman. But what was her inner life like? Was she really that forgiving and long-suffering? How deeply did my grandfather’s wandering eye hurt her? Did she forgive him or just get phenomenal at faking? But most of all, I want to know this: with what in mind does she say she hopes my husband and I will be as happy in our relationship as they were in theirs? How does she perceive her marriage? It looks different to me—full of love, yes, but also hard and trying in ways that aren’t necessary. Has she moved on? Has she detached the hurtful parts from her memory? Has she managed to literally forgive and forget?
This is what I know. My grandmother is a woman who will suffer in secret to save her son from worrying when he’s too far away to really do anything. She has been left bed-ridden by a stroke and is impatient for death, but still she laughs with ease—and deeply. In her weakened and fully dependent state, she has been neglected and abused, but does not complain. She apologizes instead—sorry that her need for ceaseless care will lessen the inheritance she’ll be able to leave. What kind of woman is capable of all that? I suppose the same woman who could begin her family with the son of her husband’s mistress, bearing any feelings of betrayal and jealousy without loosing her joy. It makes me think that there is only one answer to all of my unasked questions, and it’s quite simple, really—simple not to be confused with easy.
My grandmother is patient. My grandmother is kind. I have never known her to be envious, boastful, or full of pride. She is selfless and slow to anger. And if her relationship with her husband is any example, she does not catalog wrongs or acts of indiscretion—never plays the martyr. She is an honest and God-fearing woman. Whenever she verbalizes a hope or plan she always adds the words, “God willing.” She is a consummate nurturer and protector. She is trusting and hopeful—always expecting the best from all people and situations, but able to persevere when things become very bad or worse. She joyfully gives more than she receives without counting the cost. She is as lovable as she is loving. She is lovable because she is loving. She is the essence and epitome of love—love in spirit, love in action, love personified. It is with love that she has lived her life, and so it is with love that I will answer all of my unasked questions.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. . . . And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8, 13).