I first met my grandfather in 1955.
He did not know me. I was hidden in a woman’s face,
she 21 years old, pregnant from a love he’d promised was hers alone.
I loved his twinkling gaze and railroad hands, so good at holding her in place.
His voice blurs, a spatter of shadows,
drowned out by the cries exiting this woman’s mouth,
as she learns the truth of this man,
of the wife that he’d already had. Leaving town, soundless,
she believed the myth of distance making a man smaller,
promising that she’d never come back.
The second time I met my grandfather, fifty years later,
he did not know my voice. It was wrapped in a woman’s,
his daughter’s, as she finally decided to track him down, and call.
I remember his voice, coarse velvet, slinking through
the phone, offering something tangible; basement and flooring
for a bottomless house. This was not the man who’d uprooted
my grandmother’s heart. This was something else, a spectre
I didn’t know how to bury. Here he was, humming
benevolent bass into my mother’s open ear. He was real.
The storybook flooded unto itself.
The third time I met my grandfather, he did not know me.
I did not let him. In this moment, in a humble church in Cleveland,
my mother smiled as I shook his cavernous hand.
My father grinned, my brother was quiet.
My grandmother did not come.
I watched my mother hand him a photo album. He sat next to me. I stiffened. I split.
I was my mother, sharing the life he’d never known she had.
I was my grandmother, silent.
I am myself, shuddering at the intimacy he’s been allowed to see:
me as an infant, naked in a sink;
my parents, kissing and young;
my brother and I in graduation gowns;
my grandmother with hair done, filling a summer dress,
wearing her oldest skin.
Her heart simmers in my jaw; it will not move.
He tells me he would like to know me.
I cannot tell him how he already had.
It is August, 1956. Chicago. I am holding the infant daughter
that man may never meet. She is everything I’d believed in him,
everything he’d desired in me. She will not carry his name.
She will wear the faintest shape of his face. Her voice all air and attic.
All the rest is precious. All of her, mine.