I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandpa lately. I’ve written about my grandma, mom, dad, aunts (including one I didn’t even like all that much), and my younger brother but have only ever mentioned my grandpa in passing.
To say he was a character would be an understatement. My grandpa was born in Puerto Rico two years before the Jones–Shafroth Act gave Puerto Ricans American citizenship. He grew up very poor and had to stop his education at the second grade becuase his mother couldn’t afford shoes for him.
He left Puerto Rico sometime between the 30-40’s to NYC. He worked in factories and eventually met my grandma. Coincidentally, they were both from the same town in Puerto Rico, except grandpa was a “jibaro” (a country person) and my grandma was from “el pueblo” (the city). He was trigueño, with what he called “gingy hair” (he meant kinky, but could never quite get it right), and a big nose. That nose! If you want to tell who’s related to him, you’d look at our noses. My mom, my brothers and I all have that nose. I hated it so much when I was little because I was bullied over it. When he went places, it’d take forever to leave because he’d strike up a conversation with anyone. He spoke English to us a lot and I regret not being able to mimic his accent. It was the best. He always wore a guayabera with either a trilby or bucket hat. His favorite cologne was Brut. Which is funny to me now, because a lot of people hate Brut but it always reminds me of grandpa. He was the reason I liked wrestling when I was little. He loved baseball. His favorite team was The New York Mets.
But anyway, I’ve written about my experiences with child abuse. My grandma was very old school in her thinking. Children were to be seen, never heard. And anything could be a punishable offense, worthy of a few smacks. Grandpa, however, never yelled or hit me. In the 16 years I knew him, I only ever got angry with him once. This isn’t to say he was perfect. The man was incredibly sexist and and had internalized a lot of anti Blackness. I’ve had to come to terms with these things while also remembering the good things about him. It’s been tough but doable.
So here now, I share some of my favorite grandpa stories
The Godparents who came to Dinner:
When my younger brother and I were little, we used to eat the chicken before the rice and beans. That would always upset grandma. After the billionth time of eating the chicken first, she yelled at us. Grandpa, who always defended me when grandma would get on me, told her to leave us alone. Grandma walked away angry and then grandpa told us:
When he was little, his family was very poor. One day while he and his brother were eating lunch, his godparents visited. His mom didn’t have anything to feed the guests so she took the chicken off the kids plates.
The moral: Always eat the chicken first because you never know when company will come and take it away.
Brothers are the Worst:
When he was about 7 years old, his brother traded him a nickel for his dime. His brother convinced him that the nickel was worth more because it’s bigger.
The moral: Brothers are assholes and it was OK to be mad at my brothers when they bothered me.
When I was about 7 or so, I asked my grandpa about his dad. I knew a lot about his mom but nothing about his dad.
Grandpa: I don’t know much about him. He died when I was a baby.
Me: I’m sorry. How did he die?
Grandpa: a cow killed him
Me: *imagines a cow holding a gun* uh how?
Grandpa: cow kicked him
Me: oh that’s a relief.
(I thought I had to worry about killers cows)
Damn, Ju Cheap:
Every day after school, I’d buy myself a malta and a bag of peanut M&M’s. Grandpa was on a strict diet and wasn’t allowed candy. But that never stopped him from asking me.
Grandpa: What you got dere?
Grandpa: Can I have one?
Me: Grandpa, sabes que no puedes. Tienes diabetes y te hace daño. Los doctores no te dejan.
Grandpa: Ah, eso cara’ de papa no saben na’. Give me one.
So I’d give him one or two and then, without missing a beat in his accented Enlgish, “damn, nena ju cheap”.
This is one of my favorite memories of grandpa. He always knew better than the doctors and he had the biggest sweet tooth. He always had candy and pudding stashed away and he always shared with me. You will understand then why coupled with his not yelling or hitting me, I liked him better than grandma.
Grandpa died in 2005, by that time I was already living in NYC. I hadn’t talked to him in about a year. He developed Alzheimer’s and talking to us would make him sad and then grandma would have to spend the rest of the day comforting and reminding him why we weren’t in the house.
We went back to Puerto Rico for his funeral. I tell people that it was like the Godfather had died. The whole town was there. People I had never met knew who I was because in Puerto Rico, people can tell who your people are by your “pinta”, basically what you look like. I didn’t go up to grandpa’s casket right away. I couldn’t. If I did, his death would become real and then who would tell me all those silly stories?
I wished I had asked him more about his childhood in Puerto Rico and his time in NYC before meeting grandma. He lived a long life; he was a few months shy of his 90th birthday when he died. I miss him every day. His stories live on in me and I’ve told a few of them to my daughter. We’ve looked at old pictures. She also has his nose.