Bald of head and eyes cleared of vision due to an industrial accident, Pa was a gentle man. His cologne came from his pipe: sweet cherries and burned oak. He’d sit quietly staring at nothing yet taking in everything. Pa was my great-grandfather on my dad’s side. I never knew much about him; but when my parents divorced and I lost my place in the world, we shared an afternoon together. In an awkward room converted to or from a sun porch at my aunt’s house, Pa sat with pipe in mouth and legs crossed. Playing with my cousins didn’t interest me; and I welcomed this visit as a respite from my father and his new wife. I kissed Pa hello and sat on the floor. For a long while, we were both quiet. Almost sleepy. For the first time in a year and a half, I knew peace. In this place where angels reigned, the twelve-year old girl that I was finally poured out her soul to a man born in the last year of the nineteenth century. And Pa did a beautiful thing: he listened. When I finished speaking, with tears in my eyes I wouldn’t have dared to show my father, Pa told me a truth, “Sometimes, adults don’t know what they are doing.” While he talked to me about my own strength, this truth is what stuck out; it is what allowed me to forgive the turmoil of the past and the turmoil that was yet to come and to view my parents with compassion. This truth prevented me from hating when I had every right to do so.
Ma, Pa’s wife, matched her husband’s kindness. Her hair was wiry gray. Her voice was river-polished gravel mixed with the melody of an untrained soprano. She seemed tiny to me but before I learned to shrug off hugs, she hugged me with simple strength and love. I knew her less than Pa but I always knew I was loved. I like to think that maybe in her younger years she was a bit sassy and I inherited some of her sass; like me, she, too, was older than her husband.
Shortly after my afternoon with Pa, my father and his family exited my life, deciding I no longer belonged. Pa and Ma, dependent on this younger generation, became collateral damage. I’m certain that if they could have, they would have kept me close.
Then, with never seeing or talking to her again, Ma died when I was fourteen. My aunt told my great-aunt who told me and my mother. We were able to go to Ma’s viewing. When I walked in, my father looked at me and then turned away. My grandmother hugged the cousins I had arrived with; when I reached to hug her, she pushed me away. With tears, I made my way toward Ma, wondering how this angel in her coffin had given birth to someone as cold as my grandmother. I found Pa and hugged him but he seemed too far gone in grief. I left; my departure from this family final. I got it. I didn’t belong.
Even though it hurt me terribly, I wasn’t surprised two years later when Pa died and no one bothered to call the great-aunt who had blundered until after Pa was already buried. As years passed, the hurt became more raw: I never truly got to say good-bye to the only two people from my father’s side who loved me unconditionally. I didn’t even know where they were buried. Or if they had been cremated. I knew nothing.
Until I experienced one of those beautiful and odd moments in which the intuition knows which road to take. When my husband and I returned from Italy, and moved into an apartment, we met a strange neighbor. His first words prompted my first thoughts, He’s got to be mortician! Ten minutes later, this neighbor revealed that he, in fact, had been a mortician. Without worrying about giving away too much of myself, I blurted, “Do you know how I can find my grandparents’ graves?” This man gave me all the information I needed and after phone calls, letters and red tape, I finally found Ma and Pa.
On Memorial Day, 2004, nearly twenty years after Ma and Pa passed, I finally laid flowers on their graves. I squatted in the grass, picking at errant leaves and talking to them. I told them what I had done and where I had been. But when I apologized for taking so long to find them, I broke down. With my husband’s arms around me, I cried like the twelve-year old girl I had been when Pa was the only one capable of comforting me.
Sometimes, adults don’t know what they’re doing. They cause pain where none needs to be. But, that’s okay: even if takes two decades, the universe always knows what it is doing. And with the help of Ma and Pa and a creepy yet kind neighbor, God brought me back to where I needed to be.
Balanced and ready, I finally got to say goodbye.