[about the author]
i actually like speaking in front of large crowds. freakish,
i work crossword puzzles in ink.
i am the american nigella lawson. or maybe the american eddie
izzard. can't decide, really.
i would be a really good mom, but i'm cool with being a really
i am sometimes more perceptive than i would like to be.
i am fiercely loyal. sometimes, stupidly so.
i never play dumb. never.
i am way too hard on myself.
i am a change agent.
i sometimes cross that fine line between assertive and aggressive.
i am not afraid to tell people that i love them.
i am militantly pro-choice.
i am pro-adoption.
i know a little bit about alot of things.
i typically enjoy the company of men more than women.
i am capable of being really mean and nasty, but i fight it.
i am a lifelong cubs fan. do not laugh.
i have been known to hold a grudge.
i have hips.
i am not my sister.
i am lousy at forgiving myself.
i am an indoor kind of gal.
i am a bargain shopper. to the point of obsession.
i am 32 flavors. and then some.
lester was my grandfather. not the grandfather i spilled in the back of our volare station wagon. that was my maternal grandfather. lester was my paternal grandfather. although you won’t find lester standing next to my paternal grandmother in any of our family photos. no, that is gene.
i was probably ten before i knew that lester existed. in going through a box of old black and white photos with my mother one day, i pulled out a snapshot of a man whose face seemed vaguely familiar to me.
he was sinewy. short. he had piercing dark eyes with the beginnings of crinkles around them. his nose was sharp, and beak-like. even though the photo was black and white, you could tell his skin was olive.
he wore a plain white t-shirt and wrinkled khaki work pants. he sat in a lawn chair with his legs crossed, bouncing one bare foot in front of the other. on his left hand was a simple gold wedding band, and a cigarette dangled between his fingers. with his right hand, he petted a spotted dog who looked up at him with a shaggy smile. next to the chair, nestled in the deep even summer grass, was a bottle.
“who’s this?” i asked my mom.
she took the photo from me and looked at it for a moment. as she handed it back to me, all she said was “that’s lester.”
i turned the photo over. there on the back, in faded fountain ink, in primer-perfect cursive was the proof. it said simply: lester.
my mom looked at me for a moment. in that hesitation, she lost. she gave away her secret that lester was someone. that there was something to know about lester.
“lester was your grandfather. is your grandfather. lester is your dad’s father.”
“but grandpa is dad’s dad.”
this was before the word “divorce” became a term of familiarity. everyone at my school had two parents. well, everyone except terri skinner, whose mother had died. of course, years later it came to be known that she hadn’t “died” so much as “run off with terri’s father’s brother.” but, “died” it was. no one was divorced.
“well, lester is your dad’s dad. he was married to your grandmother. then, after your dad was born, lester and your grandmother decided to not be married anymore. they got a divorce. then, your grandmother married gene.”
“how come we never see him?”
“he doesn’t live around here.”
“doesn’t he miss us?”
“i’m sure he does.”
i looked again at the crinkles around his eyes. the sparkle there.
“i think i miss him too.”
“i’m sure you do.”
the things i learned about lester were things i stole. bits and pieces of conversations. the eavesdropping of a young girl determined to uncover what she was sure was a grand mystery buried right under her nose. i’d try and slip into casual conversation a question here and there, hoping someone would slip up and let fly the revelations.
i was desperate to ask my father questions. didn’t he miss having his dad around growing up? was he mad at him for never coming to see us? didn’t he think it was weird the way i looked so much like him?
but my dad wasn’t a talker. my dad kept things locked up tight. especially secrets. he was a mystery to me all on his own. his silence pushed further the chasm between us with each passing year. as i grew into a young woman, he was baffled by me and, i think, resentful of my distance. for my part, i grew to resent him with every play, every ballgame, every spelling bee at which his chair sat empty in the audience.
we were strangers to one another. and, in some way, the growing distance between us made me even more determined to find out about lester. as though unraveling the mystery of lester might give me the key to unraveling the mystery of my father.
in the absence of any real information, i invented a life for lester. he was a world traveler. someone who set out to do great things. he was suave, like cary grant. or jimmy stewart. he ate in the finest restaurants. danced with beautiful women. gambled in monte carlo…and won. lester drinking champagne from ladies’ slippers. ordering martinis shaken, not stirred. a bon vivant. a silver-tongued con man. or maybe an adventurer a la hemingway, living life on the edge of experience.
i wondered if lester ever thought about us. if he missed us and, once he had accomplished all one man could accomplish, if he would come back to spend his days with us, his family. i imagined he would sweep back into our lives and shower us with attention. and money. regale us with stories of his adventures. tell me in whispers about the glamorous life he had slipped away to lead.
one day my mom grew weary of my sleuthing and agreed to tell me what she knew about lester.
“you met him when you were just a little girl.”
“i think you were three. i had you in the bike seat on the back of my green schwinn. do you remember that bike? you know how i was always trying to find something entertaining for us to do. something that didn’t cost any money,” she laughed.
“well, i loaded you into the bike seat, and headed into town. we went to the library and were headed home. i was cutting through the liquor store parking lot when i hit some pea gravel and the bike just went right out from under me. i panicked, worried that you would be hurt, and in trying to catch you, i cut my knee open on the pavement. i was so upset. then, a man came over. he had just come out of the liquor store and was carrying a brown paper bag. he came over and lifted the bike up. then he helped me up and stood there looking at me for a moment.
i thanked him and apologized for being such a wreck – literally. he looked sort of funny. he started to walk away, but then stopped and turned around. he just looked at me and said, ‘i’m gary’s dad. i’m lester.’
i couldn’t believe it. i mean, i knew about lester, but had never met him. honestly, i thought he might be dead. but there he was. it took me a moment to recover.”
“how did he know who you were?”
“well, he has two sisters who still live here in town. i’m sure they told him things. maybe gave him pictures.
i introduced you to him. we talked for a while. after a few moments, neither one of us knew what to say, really. so, i told him that you and i went to the park every saturday when the weather was nice. i told him that i wouldn’t mind if he met us there sometime. as long as he wasn’t drinking. i told him he couldn’t come around you if he had been drinking.”
“is lester an alcoholic?”
“yes. lester is an alcoholic. and, sometimes, when lester was drinking…he wasn’t very nice. i saw him at the park several times after that. he always sat on the bench over on the park street side. he never came over and spoke to me. he would just sit for a while and watch you play. then he would leave.”
“so, that was it?”
“no. he came here to the house once. it was the last time i saw him. he came to the house and played with you. i showed him some photo albums. he drank some coffee. i remember how badly his hands shook, and i knew he wouldn’t stay for very long because he needed a drink. and, for some reason, i knew we wouldn’t see him again. when he told me he was leaving, i gave him a picture of you. it wasn’t until after he left that i realized he had taken a picture of your dad out of the photo album. and twenty dollars out of my purse.”
“he stole your money?”
“he needed it. and was too proud to ask, i guess. i never told your dad about any of that.”
after my mom told me about lester, i wanted more than ever to ask my dad questions. was the fact that lester was an alcoholic why my dad didn’t drink? i only remember seeing my father drunk once in my entire life. he came home late one night, and there was a sharp edge to his face. i’d never seen him that way before. it was the night before thanksgiving, and mom and i were making peanut butter cookies. i don’t remember what happened exactly. i only know that i was scared of my father. that he wasn’t himself. and that there was a fight. and that he hit my mother.
i remember him crying the next day. he never laid another hand on her. and never took another drink. to this day, it is the only time i saw my father cry.
i wondered, too, if my father’s anger at lester kept him from being a better father to me. if he had felt worthy of lester’s attention would he have made me feel so unworthy of his own.
our den was a late 70s fantasy of chocolate brown and tangerine. my mom had made sofas for us, covered in a chocolate brown fabric that was stiff and ridged so that, if you fell asleep without a pillow, your face would be deeply lined when you awoke. so deeply lined that, after about 15 minutes of being awake, your face would ache as the skin tried to find its way back to normalcy. you could actually feel the indentations releasing.
in an effort to avoid such torture, i had fallen asleep on a saturday night with my head hanging off of the end of the sofa. when the phone rang, i jerked my head up, slamming it into the corner of the bookcase that held our hand-me-down encyclopedia.
a woman’s voice. asking for my father. a hospital. in florida. i noticed the clock on top of the television, its red digital numbers flashed 3:12 am.
i staggered into my parents’ bedroom, feeling my forehead for traces of blood.
“dad? dad? some woman’s on the phone asking to speak with you.”
i followed my father back to the den where he picked up the phone.
“hello? yes, this is him.”
there was a long silence. my mom was standing beside me in the glow of the digital clock.
“how did you get this number?”
another long silence.
“bury him wherever you bury people who have no family.”
and, with that, my father hung up the phone and went back to bed.
in the days that followed, my mother managed to get the basic information from my father, and she phoned the hospital to talk with them.
lester had been sleeping under a bridge with some other homeless men and one of them slit his throat for the bottle of scotch he had in his jacket.
my mother told the hospital that they could forward my grandfather’s belongings to her.
a month later, she waited for my father to leave the house before emptying the envelope onto our kitchen table.
inside was a small scrap of paper. the handwriting on it was meticulous, as though the person who wrote it had once been a draftsman.
“to whom it may concern: if anything should happen to me, please contact my only son. and please tell him i am very sorry.”
and there, in that perfect handwriting, was my father’s name and our address. the paper was deeply creased and smudged with what looked like years of dirt and grime.
the only other items found on my grandfather’s body were the two photographs – one of me, and one of my father – he took with him that day all those years ago, a tightly folded twenty-dollar bill and a simple gold wedding band with an inscription that reads “to my beloved.”
| [tell me about it] | [link to this entry]