By Jessica McCaughey
I was twelve when my grandfather told me not to date any Puerto Rican boys. We were sitting across from one another in the Brooklawn Diner in South Jersey, in a big green leather booth in the non-smoking section, which he loudly and distinctly requested each time we walked in.
This was in contrast to the smoking section, where he sat the other six days of the week, when I wasn’t with him. The owner would give him a pronounced nod, and say, “Right this way, sir,” but the waitresses would sometimes blow his cover and ask, “What are you doing over on this side, hun?” He hid his smoking from his family, which was something we had in common for a brief period later on. Fifteen years later, when I was twenty-seven and he was very close to the end of his life, I can remember sneaking out the back door of his house after giving him his medication and getting him to sleep. I sat crying and smoking on his patio, the moon reflecting off of the overgrown ivy leaves in glints like a disco ball. I thought about waking him to come outside with me, but I didn’t.
We almost certainly ordered pancakes and eggs that morning, with a coffee for him and a very large chocolate milk for me, dark and thick from too much syrup. Although it’s possible we were talking about the boy band Menudo, my best guess at how we got onto the subject is that I mentioned Marco, a boy at school who wore very cool black-and-white checkered shorts. Either way, it was 1990, and I was talking to my then-sixty-five-year-old grandfather about Puerto Ricans.
And out of nowhere, he said: “If you dated a Puerto Rican guy, I wouldn’t really come around anymore.”
I don’t recall how I responded outwardly, but I felt like I had been pushed, hard, in the back. My grandfather was, at that time, my best friend. And I wasn’t dating Marco (even in the adorable way that twelve-year-olds could hold hands or pass notes and call it dating), but I did occasionally crank call him with my friend Karla on Friday night sleepovers. Because I liked him.
I’m four months out from my wedding. My fiancé, who has been my partner for more than five years, is not Puerto Rican, but his Indian skin is, in fact, similarly dark and gorgeous and Marco-like. Our Hindu-American mash-up wedding has been the source of much family unrest. My partner and I find ourselves walking around in a state of near-constant upset, working all angles of negotiation, throwing emotional and logical appeals at our otherwise delightful parents weekly in an effort to show them what we see as the beauty of two families, two cultures, blending, evolving.
My grandfather’s wife, my grandmother, had passed away when I was nine, three years before we found ourselves sitting at that diner. When she was alive, I didn’t have a whole lot of access to my grandfather. I saw him often, but my grandparents were of the generation where the men rode up front and the ladies in the back on a double-date, and spending time with their grandchildren wasn’t too different. My brother, older than me by six years, spent time with Pop at the arcade, while my grandmother and I would go off on our own to the Ben Franklin to look for doll clothes. We’d reconvene for dinner somewhere in the mall food court, but ultimately, our time was mostly split along gender lines.
And so I didn’t know my grandfather very well until he was a widower in his mid-sixties, which was also around the time that he retired and sold his printing shop, and that my brother, at fifteen, aged out of spending Friday nights riding shotgun in my grandfather’s Baltic Blue Cadillac. At nine years old, though, there was nothing I’d have rather done at the end of a long week of fourth grade than to hit up the Olive Garden and then spend two hours at Waldenbooks in the Deptford Mall, and that happened to be my grandfather’s idea of a good time, too.
He said to my mother, “I never thought I’d find another lady to spend time with, but I have.” He was talking about me.
He evolved after my grandmother died, and in odd, delightful ways. He took up baking, and, to sustain the habit, we sometimes went blueberry picking over in Ocean County. He made fudge and went on trips. He dated. Before my grandmother died, I had what would have perhaps been the chapter headings of his biography—Childhood During the Depression and World War II Soldier and Sunday School Teacher and Active Lions’ Club Member—but after her death, when we began spending time alone together, I learned the more nuanced—and infinitely more interesting—stories.
During Prohibition, while his father made extra money running moonshine, my grandfather had sat on top of the blanket-covered barrels in the back of the car. I heard about his time in Okinawa and Oahu during the war, never stories about combat or death, but about the time he had his head shaved on the beach and his discomfort with the way the women in Japan had walked a few paces behind him. Although my grandparents didn’t have a great relationship, I learned that they had gone dancing every Saturday night of their married lives, even when they hadn’t said a word to each other in days.
I thought about what my grandfather had said in the diner all that afternoon while we walked up and back along the Ocean City boardwalk, stopping for ice cream and to stare at the circling sea gulls. I thought about it all night in my purple bedroom, and the next day at school. When I got home that afternoon, I called him.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said yesterday, that if I ever dated—“
“I was thinking about that, too,” he interrupted, “and I don’t know why I said that. That’s not true.”
“It wouldn’t matter?” I was stunned and pleased.
“Nothing would keep me from coming to see you. I’m sorry. Can we forget I said that?”
Relieved, I said we could. But, of course, I didn’t. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that even if we forgive, we seldom actually forget. Words, especially those that are strikingly out of character, stay with us long after reparations are made. The apology-command, “Forget I said that,” is fruitless. It’s something more like a metaphor. At best, “Forget I said that” means, “Let’s please act, please pretend, as if I never said that.”
I’m surprised by how often I wonder what he would make of this wedding. He would attend—our phone conversation twenty-four years ago assures me of that. But I can’t quite imagine his facial expression as I enter the hall wearing my ornate saree, heavy bangles lining my arms, a gold piece hanging from the part of my hair onto my forehead. I try to picture him dancing amid a sea of darker faces, my future husband’s family, in his stiff late-seventies suit. Would he try the samosas? What would he make of the Ganesh statue, or the fire we’ll circle during the ceremony?
He’d love my future husband; I am sure of that. They are both spiritual but notably private about it. A perfect night in both of their minds is a book and a fire and a Manhattan. They both laugh a lot and tell really good stories, in which they are never the hero, despite often being one in life. They both, I think, see or saw themselves as a character open to change.
The version of my grandfather who was a little boy swimming in South Jersey creeks and riding on the moonshine barrels had to evolve into a uncompromising soldier, eating eggs on the beach in Japan. And that man turned into a husband, and then the father of a little boy, and then the father of a man, and then a father-in-law. He became a grandfather who built elaborate dollhouses for his granddaughter and attempted to skateboard with her on the back patio. When she gave them to him, he read books like Breakfast of Champions and Love in the Time of Cholera.
From 1925 to 2007, he was many different people, and so it is with mostly honesty that I imagine him joyful at my wedding, open to the unfamiliar, thrilled by the love between my partner and I, and dancing in celebration of everything that can happen, everything that can change.
JESSICA MCCAUGHEY’s writing has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Best American Travel Essays, Gulf Coast, and a variety of other literary magazines. Jessica teaches academic and professional writing at George Washington University, and she lives in Virginia with her husband.