Grandfather, you died on Tuesday in a Spanish hospital. Your second wife and second daughter -- the other family -- were with you. We were told you opened your eyes, smiled against the faint beat of the heart machine, and sighed, and that was it.
Grandfather, when your son-in-law called, the second one from the other family, his grief was so violent that my own father, your son, cried for the first time in 14 years. I had forgotten that with Latin machismo comes serious grieving. I am thankful that my father could weep for you, but it seems strange that I say thank you at all, and to whom? Not to you. I can't thank you for that.
Grandfather, were you there when all of us, the ones in America, gathered at my parents' house on Tuesday night? Did you see the candles we lit for you, your photograph from the seven months you trained to be a pilot, your eyes cast toward the sky where your body encased in a tube of metal would never be? Did you hear the stories we told about you?
Grandfather, did you ever want to come back?
Grandfather, the first time I met you I was eight years old. It was our first trip to Spain. You seemed friendly, but I had been warned. I didn't speak enough French or Spanish, and your English was rusty. I spent most of that visit terrorizing your dogs and tripping on the narrow marble stairs that twisted up the three stories of your Torremolinos condominium. From the rooftop, if I hung my wiry body carefully from the balcony, I could see the white gleaming buildings of the Costa del Sol, their red roofs like stepping stones to a glittering, hard Mediterranean coast line. I never told you this, but I didn't like the Spanish beaches.
Grandfather, I fear I was a childish nuisance when we visited: I pet the stray cats that hung around your restaurant and was too friendly with the gypsy children that sold roses in the evenings.
Grandfather, my memories of you include food: the tomato and onion salads, the fried anchovies drowning in lemon juice, the paealla your restaurant served heaped with mussels and saffroned rice. I remember the steak dinners, too -- Spain has good beef, you told us, even though we lived in America and beef was plentiful, the national meat. For you, eating beef was a rare treat, saved for your visiting son and his family, who were sick of it.
Grandfather, I can imagine you as a little boy, visiting your own grandfather on the Tunisian estate. What were you? French, Italian, Spanish? North African? You were born in Morocco, Grandfather, where I once visited; drank dark hot chocolate from a dirty glass; but Grandfather, your native tongue was French. How were you French at all? How am I American? How am I alive?
Grandfather, I know you spent two years fighting in the French Resistance when the Nazis came. I know those years for you were worse than if you had been in an army, where you would have known who your comrades were. You told my mother once that though you would still kill the man who ratted you out to the Gestapo, at the least you could, then, know whom to trust.
Grandfather, I cannot imagine what it must have been for you to sit to dinner with your family in Montpelier, to hear the Gestapo agents coming up the steps of the apartment building, and to disappear for years out the back door. I cannot imagine your trek with the other Resistance refugees across the Pyrenees only to be caught by the Spanish Fascists at the border.
Grandfather, your war was seven lifetimes. How did you live? How did you manage to survive the camp, to befriend the Americans, to train for the air force in Pensacola where you rode out the end of the war. For years, I only knew about Pensacola -- thought you had it easy in Florida, drinking rum and coke while my grandmother, your future wife, stood in French bread lines.
Grandfather, for years I knew only the things that made you a blackguard.
Grandfather, your love for my grandmother is a family legend: your letters and poems, your serenades at the balcony. I can imagine the two of you, good-looking, young, and slightly crazed from six years of war, dashing off to Brazil to live the good life at last.
Grandfather, someone should have told you that good lives don't last like that.
Grandfather, there was America in front you. In Los Angeles, you had a comfortable existence. Your beautiful wife wore a mink and drove a Mustang. Maybe you craved something that erased your senses, or heightened them, made your heart beat like a bird in your throat. It's what the war did to you. It's not for me to enumerate your sins. I would have to enumerate my own.
Grandfather, our ancestor: your grandmother, my great-great-grandmother. What did they call her, those French writers? La Colonelle du Sud. Beautiful, ruthless, adulterous, in love with the heady lifestyle of the North African colonial elite. They say she gambled, too.
Grandfather, you left in 1968 in a taxi hurtling toward Burbank airport. You never returned to the US.
Grandfather, I know it wasn't all your fault.
Grandfather, you were human, you were human.
Grandfather, I grew up with an empty space there. Your presence in my life amounted to a rare visit, a disembodied voice on the telephone. What was I to you? A strange, American granddaughter who looked like your first wife, your first love? Who played the same Chopin waltzes but could not understand your thick, southern French accent?
Grandfather, does it matter?
Grandfather, last summer your daughter, my aunt, videotaped you speaking about the happiest time in your life: those years in Brazil with my grandmother, after the war. Did my aunt tell you that my grandmother, when asked the same question, said the same thing? You said you hoped to see her some day, insh'Allah.
Grandfather, I know your death is not a tragedy. I know that to die at 88 years old, surrounded by love, is not tragic. Nevertheless, I am moved by your passing. I grieve your life, your beautiful and imperfect life. I grieve for my father and my aunt, who miss you. I grieve for my grandmother, who still loves you. I grieve that we never knew each other, really knew each other. I grieve the death of future possibilities.
Grandfather, your greatest strength and greatest weakness was your ability to start over from scratch.
Grandfather, I am also starting from scratch.
Grandfather, I love you.
Grandfather, God bless you.
Grandfather, rest in peace.