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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Memories I Never Knew

My grandfather on my father's side passed away recently and we have spent the past few months cleaning out his condo to get it ready to sell. It's been a daunting task- three floors of every piece of paper, every book, and every gift my grandfather ever got. The hardest part though has been digging through a life I was never a part of.

When my parents got married my father's mother made it clear she didn't care for my mother. In fact she made my parents miserable to the point where my father decided to sever ties with his family including his father and three brothers. Throughout my childhood I was aware that normal kids were supposed to have two sets of grandparents but I assumed that since I generally had such a nontraditional childhood that it was just the way things were for me.

One day when I was about 9 or so we were in church and my mother nudged me. She pointed to an older couple a few rows in front of us and said, "Those are your other grandparents. Your father's parents." And I stared at them for a moment, flabbergasted at the realization that yes, my father had his own mother and father, he wasn't hatched or formed out of primordial ooze. I looked back to my mother and asked, "Will they know who I am?"

"No," she said. "They've never seen you before."

As I grew older my parents began to tell me more stories about the other side of my family. My father's maternal grandparents were natives of Italy who came to the United States and settled in New York. A few of them were rumored to be in the mob which thrilled me no end. The idea of being related to mobsters was fascinating to me. He told me stories about his Uncle Gino and his dog Tiny. His father once owned a store that sold televisions, then took up professional baking for a time. He even made my parents' wedding cake.

Though most of my father's stories were fairly lighthearted, I knew that there was little happiness and kindness felt about his family. I knew that his mother was not a very nice person, nor had she been kind to my mother. Fast forward to 1999, the end of my freshman year of college. My grandmother on my mother's side to whom I was incredibly close had recently passed away. She was the woman for whom I was named and I essentially grew up in her house in historic Forest Park. A month or so after we buried her, my father's mother called. When I picked up the phone she asked if I knew who was calling. I told her coldly that I did indeed know who she was.

"Yes, this is your grammy."

"That's a neat trick. Seeing as how my grammy just died." (My newfound ability to be bitingly sarcastic reached new heights with this conversation by the way.)

"Yes well. Could you please tell your father I called?"

"Probably not." Click.

Of course I did tell my father she had called because it was his mother and I didn't feel right not telling him. She had called to tell him she was ill and the doctors didn't think she had long and she wanted to see us. All three of us. I met my grandparents for the first time a few months after that first phone call. My grandmother passed shortly after that, one of the hardest things I have ever watched my father go through.

After she passed, my father took over caring for my grandfather. His three brothers had moved to all points across the US which made it impossible for them to step in so it fell to him to visit my grandfather once a week, help him with his finances, and monitor his health which we suspected was also not in top condition. I visited occasionally as well but it was difficult to bring myself to forgive 19 years of silence and ostracism.

So the hardest part of helping my father clean out my grandfather's condo has been going through photos. There were at least 20 photo albums and 4 boxes worth of framed photos stashed in multiple rooms of the condo. My grandfather loved photography and as mentioned, never parted with anything. As I flipped through the albums, I realized I was flipping through a life I was never a part of. There were no photos of me, no photos of my parents. I was conspicuously absent from family holiday gatherings, summer picnics, and birthday parties. I barely recognized half the people in the photos though I knew many of them were my cousins.

Then I came to the photos my grandfather had taken on various trips to Europe. I was floored as I flipped, page by page through albums that my grandmother painstakingly arranged when they got back from their vacations. As I studied the technique, the composition, the lighting, I realized I was looking at the roots of my own photographic style. Many of the photos he took of architectural elements, city scenes, and landscapes looked frighteningly like my own.

And so with this post comes a photo my grandfather took in London in 1978 of a man walking up a hill. The photo was faded and slightly damaged so I scanned it into my own computer and restored it in PhotoShop. I have found memories I never knew I had as I learn a little more about myself while learning more about my grandfather.


  1. What a wonderful post. Very evocative and articulate. Thank you.

  2. I appreciate it! Look for more in the future!