I still remember his deliberate movements; his even-paced, leisurely walks around the block in the late afternoon sun; the slow grin into which he would break when I read to him in French. At 66, my grandfather was not the authoritarian he had been when raising my mother. With my sister and me, he was all warmth, his smiles and displays of affection a constant reminder of his approval of us. He visited during the summers, and the room in which he stayed was named “chambre de Pere-Pere” even after he returned to Haiti at the end of his visits. After he died, my mother summarily announced that the room was no longer “Grandfather’s room;” instead, it was just the TV room. She wore only black and white for one year to mourn his passing, despite the fact that their relationship had not been everything she wanted it to be. One of the first colored items of clothing she wore when her grieving period was complete was an embroidered short-sleeved linen shirt that had belonged to him. Even now, when I see men wearing Guayaberas in the streets of Miami, I am reminded of my Pere-Pere.
For reasons at once complex and simple, my daughter does not know her maternal grandfather; they have never met. My relationship with my father is strained; and the offenses that have passed between us are made heavier by our cultural differences. A West African man, he is comfortable neither acknowledging the pain he has caused his children, nor spontaneously reaching out to connect with his daughters; because he is an elder, we must contact him first, and keep contacting him even if he chooses not to respond. An American girl, I’m well versed in pop psychology; I know that toxic people, even parents, do not deserve space in my life. As a result, I’ve made peace with the distance between us, no longer needing his validation. We talk on occasion, but the conversations are often muddled by his insistence on settling the score, noting what I did or did not do that requires his reprimand.
It’s okay, necessary even, to give myself what my father has not been able to give me. But what of that which my father could give to my daughter? I would love to marvel at his ability to be tender and understanding with her in a way he cannot be with his first-born, much like my mother probably marveled at my grandfather’s soft touch with my sister and me. There must be something liberating about being a grandparent; freed from the burden of active parenting, grandparents are only expected to offer love, unfettered by the messy complications of disappointment in failure, or anxious hope for success. And just as easily, grandchildren offer only love in return, aware that a grandparent’s love is more truly unconditional than that of their parents.
I think about the possibilities of that unconditional love between grandfathers and granddaughters when I do call him; I am always hopeful that our conversation will finally be less about who wronged whom, and more about catching up. My daughter babbles cheerfully in the background, and instantly his voice softens. “Oh, I can hear her,” he says wistfully. “She must be so big, now.”