Stories my grandfather told me

September 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

I never met my maternal grandfather – he died before I was born. So I’ve really only got my father’s father in my memory, and he was an interesting person. Far more accomplished than I’ll ever be (he was a plastic surgeon) and somewhat detached, emotionally. His relationship with my father was what you could call rocky, in much the same way that England and France’s relationship was rocky during the reign of Henry V. And yes, that was the best I could do for a metaphor.

For whatever reason, he liked me. Perhaps because I was his only grandchild. Perhaps because it made my mother uncomfortable whenever he visited. Understand, my mother was practically fearless – she would, could and did often start huge disturbances in public over anything that bothered or concerned her. She would tell cops right to their faces to back off, and they would. So when I say he made her uncomfortable what I’m really saying is His complete emotional detachment to everyone in the world terrified her because it meant she couldn’t win an argument with him. He barely cared what his own son thought, much less the woman that he’d married, and it was only exacerbated by the fact that my grandfather was the one who’d repaired my mother’s hand after a fireworks accident nearly ruined it – you couldn’t even tell, years later, that she’d had something explode in her palm and blow the skin off of the fingers.

But as I said, he liked me. Even loved me, in a way – he would pick me up on his lap and give me this bristly kiss on the forehead and rub my head absently while he talked. Even as I reached the age to be too big for him to do this, he would anyway – by the time of his death, around my eighth year, he was so frail it was a significant effort on his part to lift me. His limbs would tremble with the exertion.

The stories he told weren’t pleasant ones. He would always smell vaguely of anisette, which to me smelled like licorice even though it’s not made with any. I started remembering the stories around age four, although even then they didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It would take me years to understand them, years after he died, but I remember the way he would tell them. I’d always be up on his lap, in an old chair in the basement of my house because we almost never went to his, he would always come visit me (I don’t think my dad knew about the visits or he’d have probably tried to stop them) and my mom would make herself scarce rather than have to deal with him. To this day I only have this vague, childish understanding of the tensions between the adults in life then, like a finger painting of a Strindberg play.

I can’t really replicate his speech pattern – he was born in Rhode Island, but his mother and father (and later his step mother) all came directly over from Italy and he was raised by people who spoke Italian with Italian accents – he didn’t even start to learn English until he was six years old, and spoke it with a faint accent and cadence that hinted of the Italy he only got to see in the war. And the war was what he talked to me about, mostly.

He was just graduated from medical school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he knew at that moment he’d end up in the army. So he volunteered. As a doctor, he was in demand – he was made an officer as soon as he got out of basic and when the Americans sent troops to North Africa, he was one of them. When we invaded Italy, he was doubly valuable, both as a doctor and as a person who spoke Italian (he also spoke German and Greek) and so he found himself in the land of his ancestors as an invader. He talked about seeing people’s bodies in ways you were never meant to see them (It’s all meant to stay inside, I saw) and then, he would get very quiet.

The Jews, he would say. I never liked Jews, Matthew. (He always called me Matthew, even though his own name was also Matthew.) But then I saw.

As a doctor, my grandfather ended up transferred to England in 1944. He thought it was going to be to serve in a hospital. It wasn’t. He ended up following the D-Day invasion. (My maternal grandfather, who I never met, was on the landing craft on D-Day. My paternal grandfather managed to miss the actual invasion, was only sent over after they broke out of Normandy.) He managed to get there in time to see the liberation of Paris, which he spoke briefly of and not in glowing terms. Rampant emotion, even then, disquieted him.

But the event of the war for him was Buchenwald. It was Buchenwald that killed him, he said to me once, while holding me and smelling my hair and crying in that way men of his generation did, with no sobs or sign aside from the tears themselves falling slowly down lined cheeks. “I was at Buchenwald when I died.” I didn’t understand, of course, because he was there and he was holding me, but I didn’t say that to him. You didn’t really contradict my grandfather, I knew that at the time.

He told me stories about trying to save men who were to die while in his care. He had never seen such misery, so much sickness, so many so emaciated, starved past death. He’d never killed someone by feeding them before – for some, even broth was too much.

For some people, emotions are a curse. I think, at some distant remove, my grandfather became a doctor to help people, because he cared about them. After the war, caring hurt too much, so he stopped. He had to stop. I think that’s what he meant when he said that Buchenwald killed him. So he married a woman he couldn’t love, and had children he couldn’t love, and switched to working on skin grafts and fixing rich people’s faces because it was easier, it cost him less, it demanded less of him. And then his son, who he barely knew and never treated well, had a son and well, he ended up old in a basement smelling a child’s hair and weeping without sound.

I know he loved me as best he could, after thirty years of being dead inside. I remember him, his voice with that faint undercurrent of a place he only saw in war, remember the distant look in his eyes turn to crystal, wavering, as his voice never altered. I remember stories about bodies in heaps, about a smell so terrible he stopped breathing through his nose, but the smell permeated everything, his hair, his clothes. Before he died he poured thirty years of his pain out while clutching me in a dark basement, surrounded by old furniture and books. He taught me that hating people for who they are is madness and leads to madness.

I used to think Jews were selfish, lazy people. He looked away from me when he said that, and I don’t know what he was seeing. But then there was Buchenwald. And I didn’t know anything anymore.


He told me other things, but mostly it went back to the war, over and over again, obsessively. He didn’t tell me about how he treated my father (from my mother I’ve gathered it was awful) or how he cheated compulsively on my grandmother. He didn’t tell me about his drug addiction. I knew him solely as that figure in the dim light who pulled me up onto his lap, who kissed my forehead with a scratchy upper lip, who only had one person in the world he felt safe to love.

I know he loved me. I wish he could have loved others. I wish he didn’t strangle himself slowly, over the course of decades, until all that was left of him was a finger painting of a Strindberg play.

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