MY MATERNAL grandfather, Prince AlbertKing, died of a heart attack three months ago. When I got back to his house from the hospital the chicken he had fried was still warm.
I ate a wing -- slowly sucking the bone dry, pulling from it everything I could, contemplating each drop of juice, trying to accept not only his death, but the way in which he had lived his 69 years.
From the time I was a child until his death, I had drawn on him many times. My father was in the Marine Corps and spent months away on cruises. My grandfather was my introduction to maleness. To Aqua Velva. To chewing tobacco. To white boxer shorts.
In life, our belonging to two very different generations separated us. In death, our worlds keep us apart. Still, this Father's Day I will visit his grave with an understanding and acceptance of him I never possessed while he was alive.
Although we were best friends, I was always aware of the differences between us. I accomplished things he could not imagine. I imagined him in exotic places he had no desire to visit. I dreamed him the president of a corporation. He was in reality a laborer, a member of the grounds crew at National Airport -- and very happy about that.
Too often, I used the values of my generation to measure the height of his success. But death demands attention and retrospect and if you're quiet long enough and give into both, you're able to see things more clearly. Now, after my grandfather's death, every time I look into a mirror I see in my eyes the lessons I have learned from him.
For instance: My grandmother has always been an overbearing woman. I used to plead with my grandfather to defy her.
"Grampy, why do you let her have her way?" I'd ask, figuring he needed to gain more control of his life.
But it was clear: For him there was no "her way" or "his way"; there was only one way. He was happy when she was happy. Theirs was a love from an era that did not question, but simply accepted. I could not imagine living with such a demanding love.
He proved to me it could be done with ease. Six years ago my grandmother suffered two strokes, which left her partially paralyzed, and now she spends her days in a wheelchair. Grandpa retired from his job early to care for her.
He spent his mornings bathing her. I can see him now: an old man bending low to wash his wife's feet. And as if that wasn't proof enough of how easy it was for him to match the demands of this love, he died wearing a frilly apron tied about his waist, cooking dinner for the wife he loved for 41 years.
Searching for a picture for the funeral program, I found one taken at his retirement party. Most of the men in the picture were younger than he, and as I stared at their faces, I imagined all kinds of ways they had taken advanage of him. How could they not? He was older, less educated and in a lower- paying job than most of them.
Then at the funeral one of these men came up to me with tears in his eyes. "When I came to work, your grandfather had more experience than me," he said. "He was older than me. But I became his supervisor. I never heard him complain. Whenever I needed him to show me how to do something, he did."
After the funeral this man, along with another man I recognized from the retirement photo, visited my grandmother's house and left the family an envelope of money collected from the National Airport maintenance crew. Although my grandfather had retired five years before his death, they had not forgotten him.
It was an illustration of the respect he commanded, but more important to me at that time, it was proof once again that I had succumbed to the paranoia that sometimes plagues my generation. I had looked at those men in the picture and followed a voice inside me that says, "Trust no one." It is a voice that he never heard and its silence inside him made the difference in the way in which he and I looked at the world.
We also were separated by education.
He had a fifth-grade education; I had attended college. On one hand, that forced us to be partners, but on the other hand it made our lives forever different.
With my education, I helped him fill out insurance papers, write business letters and decipher the letters he received. He rejoiced in my education more than I did, enjoying the sight of my name in print.
I didn't want him to enjoy education vicariously, though. I wished he could read Zora Neal Hurston or Henry James. But always I returned to the memory of the note he left me about five years ago: "I ben herar and gone, gamp." I could not believe it, and for a while the memory of that note sliced my heart to shreds. It was not shame that caused me pain, but just that I wanted better for him. Always better.
Now I have another memory to add to the note. It rings in my ears. At his funeral it was stated several times that each morning and each night he read what mattered to him most: the Bible. Suddenly, Hurston and James did not seem so important.
Full of this new understanding and acceptance, I will go to Grandpa's grave today and kneel at the cemetery plot that I paid for with money I had saved toward a down payment on a car.
A month after his death I managed to buy a car. I'll drive that car to the cemetery today. Before his death, I said, "If I had a car, I would come to see you more often."
Now when we pass the cemetery at night on the way home, my 8-year-old nephew always says, "Goodnight, Grandpa." My 4-year-old niece says, "See you in the morning, Grandpa." My mother always waves. I simply stare at the hill where the gravesite is, and although I know it is absurd, I must admit to myself that I am looking for him, his 6-foot frame, balding head and broad shoulders.
I pass the cemetery often -- on the way to the grocery store, on the way to work, on the way to visit my grandmother. Once in passing, I was reminded of the elderly Italian couple I befriended in Miami. I was taking the old man to the barber shop and his wife to the doctor one day when we passed a cemetery near our neighborhood.
"Well, Ginny, you're looking at our next home," he said to his wife, pointing to the cemetery. I nearly ran off the road.
"Mr. Grasso . . . ." I said, then stopped abruptly because I couldn't figure out what was wrong with what he had said. It was probably true. He was 83 and his wife was 80.
"Least we'll be in the neighborhood, Pat," he said.
Today, that makes sense to me. I like having my grandfather in the neighborhood, where his great-great-grandchildren can wave hellos and whisper "good-nights," so close that if while putting clothes in the washing machine I'm overwhelmed by the memory of him, I can hopin the car, visit that grassy hill and be back home before the wash cycle is over.
I once thought visiting graves was a useless human ritual. Why go there when the spirit dwells elswhere was my reasoning. But this grave is an altar where I leave gifts and prayers, an invisible house near a fir tree on a grassy hill. Soon we will place the bronze marker on his grave and I will think of it as putting a door on his house.
I will go there today with a clear picture of what Prince Albert King looked like, how he felt and how he sounded. Right after his death, I was engulfed by a paralyzing fear. Would I forget the smell of his tobacco? The sound of his laugh? The roughness of his cheeks against mine? In desperation, I longed for a way to pour memories into a mold, to make them concrete.
Immortality. It is part of the reason I write. I want to live forever, to make my life count for something. I dream that long after my ashes are gone people will read my words and their thoughts will give my life meaning again and again.
But after my grandfather's death, I sat, thought, disappeared inside myself before I heard the words: "You are the mold. You are the concrete." It was clear that my grandfather had stamped his life on mine, embedded in me his spirit and left me changed forever.
Now I look in the mirror at myself and see in my eyes two generations. I listen to myself speak to my child and hear in my words meanings older than the knowledge I possessed three months ago. Before I fall asleep at night, I am aware that each breath I take is stronger because it is the breath of two generations.
I went to college, studied and traveled around the country to return home and learn from the death of an old man with a fifth- grade education that there are ways to be immortal that have nothing to do with words.