I wrote an essay two years ago. I’m publishing it here today because Buttercup told me with sad eyes and pouty lips that she missed her Guelo that died when she was a baby and went to stay with Jesus in heaven with the angels. She asked me when I can take her to visit him because it’s probably really pretty up there. And I really wasn’t sure what to say.
I never referred to them as Grandma and Grandpa. I didn’t even remember them.
Using those words would have made me feel like I was faking affection for my mother’s parents when all I had was a few grainy photos and a grave site for reference.
I knew the story. They had been on the way home from a trip to visit family in Mexico when a trucker fell asleep at the wheel and ran into their vehicle, head on. My mother, who had just turned 20, lost her parents that day. She was supposed to have been on that trip, she tells me, but she just couldn’t bear to leave her 10-month-old daughter for that amount of time.
I know it’s a sad story. But because I have no memory of them I also never allowed myself to feel anything on our yearly treks to the cemetery for birthdays and holidays so my mother could pay her respects.
“Time to go to the cemetery for your parents again?” I’d ask when I’d hear my mom on the phone making arrangements for floral blankets and grave site tags and all that other business that fell into the category of Stuff I Couldn’t Relate To.
“Yep,” she’d reply. “Can you take me this weekend?”
So we’d get in the car and drive the 30-minutes to Detroit and I’d spend just the right amount of time standing beside my mother as she paid her respects before shuffling off to listen to the car radio or paint my nails and wait for them to dry while Mom lingered. She knew I wasn’t going to rush her. I may not have understood, but I wasn’t heartless, either. So I’d add a second coat of polish if she was taking longer than usual.
I might have wished I was somewhere else. I may have sighed. A lot. But I never rushed her. And I’d talk myself out of feeling guilty for not giving a damn by reminding myself that I couldn’t really be upset about strangers being dead. Because really, that’s what they were, right? Right.
End of discussion.
But now, almost three years after the untimely death of my own father, I wonder if my toddler will be rolling her eyes at me every time I want to make a special trip to the cemetery to pay my respects. We won’t be able to go very often, mind you. He’s buried in Detroit, in the plot right next to my mother’s parents, and a far cry from our home in Arizona.
But there’ll be trips to see family. There’s a moment, each year on his birthday and on the day he passed that we all get melancholy because he’s not here to make us laugh. Or piss us off just so he can make us laugh again.
I wonder if she’ll think I’m crazy for not being able to throw away the last two cans of Miller Lite I found in our recycle bin because I knew they were his. Or if she’ll ever ask me about him and what he was like.
I wonder if she’ll even care.
She won’t remember him, after all. She was only six months old when he died. I was 29.
She won’t know his face. She won’t know his voice. She won’t know the devilish twinkle in his eye or how his ears would turn red when he was trying to pull one over on someone. She won’t know that he didn’t say he loved you. Or that you knew he did, anyway.
I can tell her all of these stories, of course. And she’ll be a good daughter and try to understand. Maybe even empathize. But she won’t really know.
I know this because it wasn’t until the moment my father was pronounced dead, just six months into his 50th year and on my mother’s 49th birthday that I finally understood what my mother had been dealing with all those years that I was pretending to care.
And it wasn’t until that first trip to the cemetery to visit my father’s grave, right next to that of my grandparents, that I knew what it was to stand on the very earth that had swallowed my heart.
But then I have moments where I think maybe Mom was on to something. Maybe I’ll follow her lead and just let my daughter be. There’s no need to force memories upon her that aren’t really hers, after all.
I can’t expect her to feel something for someone she never knew. Or understand the constant ache that’s always there, just under the surface. Or the guilt that comes with living when you know that you just left flowers for someone who’s supposed to still be alive, too.
And because I have my own driver’s license, there’s really no need to force her to tag along when I’m in town and can make a stop at the cemetery with my mother, who’s smarter and stronger than I ever gave her credit for. Because she knew that I didn’t understand and was glad for it. And she was so very devastated when I finally did.
I don’t want my daughter to know what that feels like. So I won’t say anything when she refers to her grandfather as “your dad.”