Almost a decade ago (although sometimes it feels like yesterday), my grandfather was killed in a car accident. My sister is the one who called to tell me what had happened and I will always remember, in technicolor detail, the events of that day. Every phone call I made to family members, telling them the news. Every word spoken at dinner that night with my cousins. The smell of the jasmine hanging in the humidity that Texas afternoon when I ran outside into the street to hear my sister better. The intensity of the heat of my tears. It is so embedded in me, because I loved him so much, but not in the uncomplicated way that most grandchildren love their grandparents. No, Papa and I loved each other like two boulders wedged in canyon - intractable and uncomfortable, often grating up against each other, but also propping each other up with our strength so that we wouldn't fall.
My father was an only child and so my sister and I were the only grandchildren on that side of the family. My grandad, or Papa as we called him, adored us. And we adored him too, but, as I said, the relationship wasn't easy. My grandfather could be cranky and impatient. When he lost his temper, he was demanding and loud. He could be stubborn. And he adhered to archaic notions about many subjects, particularly women in the workplace, that women had no business being in charge. "Women shouldn't be CEO's" he would say, "they're too emotional." To which I would always reply "I'll tell that to the board when they offer me the job."
But he had a fabulous sense of humor. And he always wanted to know what was going on in our lives. And if we weren't with him, then he was planning the next time he could see us. He frequently sent us postcards from his travels and many page-long letters telling us about how proud he was of us, how much he loved us, and how he hoped we would be the best at everything we tried. His archaic notions about women in the workplace only applied to women who weren't his granddaughters -- to him, we could do or be anything we wanted.
Papa and I argued a lot, but we loved each other a lot too, and neither one of us ever doubted that.
As it turns out, what has been the greatest gift to me from him after his death, were those letters and postcards. Shortly after I was accepted into my Ph.D. program at Tulane in New Orleans, I found a postcard he'd sent me from New Orleans where he was attending a medical conference many many years earlier. His postcard said that he knew I could do anything I wanted, all I had to do was try, and that he was proud of me. It was one of the few things I took with me when I made the temporary move there for my coursework.
Over a year ago I moved to London from Texas, and then last weekend I moved to a different house here in London. As I was unpacking my cookbooks, one of them fell off the shelf, and I caught a glimpse of the last page. This was a cookbook I rarely used, and in fact, had almost forgotten I had it since these days I find most of my recipes online. I noticed my grandfather's distinctive handwriting*; he had given me the cookbook for Christmas when I was 17 years old, and had written a letter to me on the back page about the generations of cooks in my family and my similarities to them. He pointed out details about how I was like each of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and great-great grandmothers. He noted how I was an early riser like one of the great-grandmothers - a trait which I have noticed over the years as being unusual in my family (everyone on that side of the family can sleep until noon).
I didn't even get halfway through the letter before the tears arrived. I had forgotten he had given me that cookbook and I hadn't read that letter since the Christmas he gave it to me (almost 18 years ago). I had just dutifully carted it around with me through the years and through many moves.
I've noticed that my grandfather's old letters to me show up in times of transition. They arrive (in the sense that I come across them) before or during a significant life change -- before my wedding, before beginning my Ph.D., before moving to London, and now during another move. It's as if he's telling me the transition will be ok, and that he loves me. It seems that the words he wrote are perfect now, decades after he wrote them.
I remember a lot of the arguments we had over the years. I remember rolling my eyes at his (in my opinion) annoying rules. I remember yelling at him in a hotel room in Paris for being rude to my grandmother. But I also remember the time that he sheepishly stood in a doorway and apologized for losing his temper. And I remember my 1st grade Christmas play, when I came on stage (I was in the chorus as an angel, NOT a major part) when he leaped out of his seat and waved wildly at me. No one else did that when their kid or grandkid was on stage, but my grandad did. At the time I was mortified, now I think it was amazing how proud he was of my tiny part in the chorus. On the weekends when I was younger, I remember dragging him around Six Flags while he dutifully took me on every ride -- no doubt exhausted after a long week of seeing patients and performing surgeries. He never complained about our time together, no matter how it was spent.
What I remember most of all, though, was that he loved me. And while we had a complicated relationship, there was always love. And he continues to remind me of that love when I need it the most.
When I originally conceived of the idea of doing a series on love, I anticipated that I would write about my husband, or some abstract thoughts about love as a construct, but when I read my grandfather's letter a few days ago, I realized that our relationship was the perfect example of love. Very complicated love. Love in spite of crankiness and stubbornness. In spite of generational gaps and out-dated ideas about gender roles. In spite of two strong-willed people with wildly different views on life. But we loved each other and we kept on loving each other until the day he died.
The last conversation I had with my grandfather was an argument. It was completely fitting, given our dynamic, but in spite of my hanging up the phone while rolling my eyes, I did tell him that I loved him. And he said the same. And it was completely the truth for both of us.
Love isn't always simple. It's often messy and spiderwebbed with complicated emotions needing constant maintenance. That's the love that Papa and I had, and that's ok. I learned from him about working on a relationship, even when the love is there, that the relationship requires showing up in the tough times, and apologies when you're wrong. Had our love been simple, I wouldn't have known that I could have a screaming argument with him about going out at night (when I was 26 years old!) and the next day he would tell me he was sorry and that he loved me. I wouldn't know about forgiveness, because we both had to forgive each other. A lot.
I had Papa for 27 years. And I loved every minute of it.
Today, with complicated love,
*Finding these letters over the years written in my grandfather's handwriting have been such an incredible gift. Because of email, we often don't receive handwritten notes from people anymore. When I looked down and saw Papa's handwriting, I was so grateful to have a tangible piece of him rather than an email with words but little else. Take a moment today to write someone a note in your handwriting. It's you, and they will be grateful to have that part of you someday.