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Grandpa's Ghost

April 15, 2016

A ghost sat at our kitchen table when I was a child, a ghost by the name of Grandpa Frank. He was my mother’s father, and he died eighty years ago in 1936. How he died always depended on who you asked. Stories range from scarlet fever to an accident brought about by falling from a church steeple he climbed on a dare. I don’t think I’ll ever know, but I have it on several counts that he was an invalid for the last two years of his life.


My mother has refused to let go of her father and carries his memory with her to this very day, speaking of him constantly. As a kid growing up it was as though Mom had fabricated him from a mental matrix, projecting his image at our kitchen table. Mom wasn’t a crackpot, didn’t actually believe he was present, but she’d speak of his exploits and achievements until I thought I could see him sitting in our kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand.


“Have I told you how much you look like your Grandpa Frank?” Mom would say. “You have his build and curly hair.”


I’d seen the old photographs and never saw much of a resemblance, but contradicting Mother was risky.


“Your grandfather was born in the Azores, but the islands proved too small for him. He came to America with only a handful of dollars in his pockets. (The number of dollars changes with each telling.) He made his living as a professional gambler working the Gold Coast. He had beautiful hands, played the guitar and sang like an angel.”


Mother’s vision of her father was a fantasy: He had an amazingly sharp mind, believed in properly educating women and stood up for the rights of the downtrodden. In spite of his lack of formal schooling he was an intellectual and a scholar, a gifted storyteller. He was gentle with his three children but a stern parent with high expectations.


Even as a kid I realized that Grandpa Frank couldn’t have been the Portuguese Superman my mother described, but I did sometimes envision him as a Portuguese Brett Maverick, wearing fancy shirts and slapping cards on baize-covered tables in San Francisco gambling houses. Eventually, I realized that Grandpa Frank was a figment of my mother’s imagination, a fly caught in the web of her thoughts and fantasies. In fact, she knew very little about the father who passed away when she was only nine years old.


But my mother never allowed herself to be confined by facts. She never questioned her contradictory beliefs about her father. He was whatever she needed him to be to illustrate whatever point she was pounding home.


When I was a kid, trapped in the snare of one of her lectures, her favorite expression was, “On my father’s grave this tyranny shall not stand!” She was only referring to the paperboy’s inability to land the newspaper on our doorstep or being overcharged a dime or two at the grocery store, but invoking the name of Grandpa Frank was her battle cry.


I’m not writing this with the intention of mocking my mother; being raised during the Depression without a father, the baby in an ethnic family and a girl to boot, couldn’t have been easy. Few took her seriously back then, and fewer do now. A few days ago I was visiting the retirement home where Mrs. C. and I moved her a few years ago after my father passed. She asked how my blog was going. I told her it was going well.


“That’s good,” she said. “I swear to you on my father’s grave that you got your ability to tell stories from me. I inherited the ability to fascinate people from your grandfather, a fabulous storyteller and a gifted writer with exquisite handwriting.” Strange that none of this writing has ever surfaced, but she continued to tout the Portuguese Charles Dickens who fathered her for the next forty minutes.


As often happens during these visits, I wonder what Grandpa Frank would think if he could see his little girl, now a withered woman of ninety, working hard to keep his memory alive all these years. Would he recognize himself in her stories?


I can almost see him in the corner of my eye, sitting at the tiny bistro table in Mom’s kitchenette. I imagine him smiling, but he does look tired by it all.


Do any ghosts linger in your house?



* The photograph shows Grandpa Frank on his wedding day in 1917




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Hold on... your mother makes a valid point. You do have the gift of weaving a grand story. You mother is a grand storyteller too. Must be in the genes!
By: Daniel LaFrance on April 15, 2016
not for me but my sister sees ghosts. for real. she woke up one night to find her dead husband sitting up in bed next to her a few months after his death. where's all my stuff, he asked. well, Mike, she said, you died. I did, he asked? and then he blinked away.
By: Ellen Abbott on April 15, 2016
That's a great story, Stephen. Isn't is funny how as we get older we can't remember what we had for breakfast, but we can remember in vivid detail (?) events that happened in our childhood? I'm questioning my own recollections. ;)
By: scott park on April 15, 2016
I wonder, I really do, how I'll be recalled when I'm spoken of in the past tense. No one better be talking smack about me, I'll tell you that. Cuz if they did, I will so haunt their sorry butts.
By: Al Penwasser on April 15, 2016
At least some of what she says has to be true, you just can't be sure what parts.
By: messymimi on April 15, 2016
It sounds to me like your mother passed her story telling genes on down to you, and she very well may have gotten them from her dad. I can see her making up stories about him because she didn't have him in real life. I think I would too!
By: Terri @ Coloring Outside the Lines on April 15, 2016
Your mom was so young and it must have been tough for her so she has to make him out to be more than just a regular man with warts and all. My dad lost his mom in 1919 when he was only 6. She died from childbirth as often it happened back in those days. My dad always praised her as a beautiful mom and he recalled her making toffee. I do know that she had to work hard...she had to bring the water up from the lake....I think my granddad was very, very old school and they were very poor. There are some stories that show she was just a person..warts and all
By: Birgit on April 15, 2016
My friend John Elliott, rest his soul, always said you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story. I actually embrace this because I think it sometimes allows us to get at a greater truth.
By: Rick Watson on April 15, 2016
Even though your mothers tales seem a bit tall, at least she loved him enough to share memories of him with your family. My father and mother never reminisced about their parents or their siblings. Other than what impressions I got, I have no idea what they were like when my parents were young. And I apparently had rich great grandparents who had a construction business in Chicago. Other than seeing a picture or two, I know zip about them. So I think you're lucky to have "ghosts"!
By: Lexa Cain on April 15, 2016
My husband claims that some of my best memories never happened. So what, as long as they're GOOD memories!!
By: fishducky on April 15, 2016
I would stay with your mom's memory in this case. He must have been special in many ways.
By: cranky on April 15, 2016
I saw the resemblance even before reading the post. There is a special bond between father and daughter. Most of us daughters tend to paint our daddies with colorful brushes. We should all have someone remember us without flaw. I love the idea of his being a Portuguese Brett Maverick,
By: Arkansas Patti on April 15, 2016
Yikes. He looks pretty scared on his wedding day. No wonder he took to being a ghost.
By: Robyn Engel on April 15, 2016
Great metaphor...a fly caught in the cobweb of ideas and fantasies. I always thought my grandpa could speak english. When I was about 60 my uncle told me that grandpa never learned to speak English. I certainly had a warped view of grandpa as I remember talking to him all the time.
By: red Kline on April 15, 2016
Sometimes, when you don't have "real" memories you just make up "your" memories. Not that this is always all wrong...
By: Pixel Peeper on April 15, 2016
if nothing else, he'd be impressed with her fierce loyalty.
By: TexWisGirl on April 15, 2016
Well whoever you inherited the gift of storytelling from, they would be proud because you do it well. Another fine post, Stephen.
By: Mr. Shife on April 15, 2016
It must have been very hard on your mom to have lost her father at such an early age. I don't even HAVE many memories before the age of nine. And my father was such a huge part of my life, in a good way, until he passed away last summer. I agree with others who have said you got your story telling skills somewhere - and they'd be happy about that...
By: jenny_o on April 15, 2016
Sounds to me like she loved her father and she's proud of you.
By: Val on April 15, 2016
There is something nice in the fact your mother still draws emotional succor from her father.
By: Tom Cochrun on April 15, 2016
What a wonderful photo. He WAS a handsome man, so at least your mother's truthful on that score. My mother has similar ways of embellishing memories of her mother and father. It's amazing how flawed everyone else in the world is, however.
By: Mitchell Is Moving on April 16, 2016
Not in our house, but one of my childhood friends had an older brother who died at 12 years old. My friend was 4 at the time. Ten years after the death, it was like he was still in the house. The whole family talked about him all the time. I never knew him, but there is no way he was the insanely skilled (sports, music, academics) saint they always talked about.
By: Brett Minor (Transformed Nonconformist) on April 16, 2016
What a great story of your grandfather! I love the colorful way your mom remembers him. Bless her heart! You sound like a good son.... Michele at Angels Bark
By: Michele on April 16, 2016
Ah, but ti sounds to me like your mother is more your muse than any grandfather could be.
By: Tom Sightings on April 17, 2016
Great story and very endearing that your mother still keeps his memory alive....even if the stories are a "bit" padded. :)
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on April 17, 2016
Some could be the wanting it to be true, some could be memory, some, just 'cuz! I suspect she, like my Grandpa, wanted to have a tale to tell, and when someone listened, they were going to have a story, no matter if the details might be a little different from time to time... Cat
By: Cat on April 19, 2016
well i do love stories about your mum as you know. another good one. hope you are well Stephen
By: Fran on April 20, 2016

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