No One Reads the Footnotes Anyway*
Neither of my parents intended to know my gender before I was born. They found out in order to let my father’s mother, Rose Pearl, know the sex of the first born of the next generation before she died of pancreatic cancer. We missed each other in this world by three months, an infinitesimally small, but impossibly wide, gap in time to bridge.
Of the thousands of days Rose Pearl lived, she only needed another ninety to meet the family’s first grandchild. Instead, we are both resigned to inhabit the imagination of the other; I being her un-witnessed miracle and Rose Pearl assigned the role of anecdotal hero.
Whether I have realized it or not, I have compartmentalized life changing events; My understanding of reality too delicate to account for mixed emotions. My psyche has attempted to reconcile each event in my life as happening in a vacuum, independent of anything else, like food on a divided plate.
Yes, the chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes are in close proximity to one another, but each food has no effect on any of the others. They exist in close spatial relation, but independently of everything around them. That is always how I pictured Rose Pearl’s death. An independent action that had no reverberating effects on how my father viewed or treated me. Naive to the point of absurdity, no?
When we are children, the idea of time, especially the time that existed before us, is a difficult concept to grasp. As I was growing up, I didn’t appreciate how close Rose Pearl and I were to interacting with one another and, consequently, the stress that timing must have put on Dad.
It didn’t matter how close we came to occupying the same timeline, all I knew, and cared about, was the fact she had died before I was born. To me, three months might as well have been three years, or thirty. This ignorance, or lack of temporal awareness, or lack of context, caused me to assume Dad didn’t suffer from intense feelings of loss and sadness when it came to Rose Pearl.
After all, there were a host of mitigating factors that would help assuage any feelings of sadness that might otherwise arise. He had time to prepare himself. Her death did not come as a shock to him or anybody else involved. Dad was old when his mom died, the ripe age of thirty-five. In my youth, thirty-five felt unfathomably old. Of course, his mom died when he was thirty-five, that’s what parents do at that age. Not to mention I was born shortly thereafter as a constant distraction that allowed him to throw the love he had for his mother onto another living being. How could anyone be sad when they had a screaming baby to take care of? I didn’t understand my birth and her death happened in the same breath.
As I write this, Dad died a little less than five months ago and I still find it extremely difficult to function efficiently on a day to day basis. I could scarcely imagine having to take care of a newborn and a postpartum wife several weeks after losing the parent to which I was the closest. As I look forward to having my first child, I can’t help but think back on what role Rose Pearl played in my life and what role Dad will play in our kids’ lives…and to be honest, it’s depressing as hell.
Through the course of my life, Dad impressed upon me how much he loved his mother. When Dad spoke of Rose Pearl, he did so with the adoration children are rarely able to maintain for their parents as they grow into adulthood. But, even with the affinity with which Dad told stories about Rose Pearl, I have a very limited sample size from which to draw in order to get a clear picture of who she was and what she meant to my father.
I know she was adept at throwing high heeled shoes at unruly children, her choice of discipline over a belt. When any of the boys would be doing something they shouldn’t and they saw Rose Pearl pick up her left foot, they would make a dash toward the closest doorway only for the back of their heads’ to be met with a deftly thrown stiletto. I also know she liked to go on Sunday “rides,” as they were deemed.
Since Rose Pearl played the archetypal housewife of the 50s and 60s, she had little occasion to leave the house. On Sundays, to cope with the cabin fever that had been building during the course of the week, the whole family would pile into the car and drive to no place in particular, looking at nothing in particular, having no final destination. Instead, they would meander past rows of corn, or through the main street of town, looking at whatever was on offer. After an hour or two, Rose Pearl would have seen enough and everyone would return home. The boys, of course, hated these drives to nowhere but they make for touching anecdotes when told to those who can laugh at their Beaver Cleaver-like innocence.
Those are the only stories I have about Rose Pearl that don’t center around her death. Despite Dad’s love for his mother, it was an impression, a deduced understanding gathered from incomplete data. My mental picture of Rose Pearl was anecdotally assembled. It was formed by the way Dad talked about her, the tone of his voice and the look in his eye, but I have no empirical evidence of my own.
I have had to define my late grandmother through secondary recounts of her. And because I never got to meet the woman who was Rose Pearl, my perceptions of her are necessarily one dimensional. I never got to formulate my own opinion of her, or cultivate stories of our own to which I can relate. Regardless of how much Dad loved his mother she will necessarily be an abstraction to me.
What’s more, Rose Pearl’s continued existence was not necessary to formulate Dad and my’s relationship. By the time she died, Rose Pearl had formed as much of Dad’s personality as she was ever going to. Her mark on his world, and therefore mine, had been made.
The same will hold true for my kids. No matter how much Dad wanted to be in their lives, and no matter how much I talk about him, Dad will simply be a footnote to my children. The cruelty of the scenario seems so unfair if only because Dad would have had such a special place in his grandkids’ lives if only he could be around.
My wife’s parents moved down from New Jersey specifically to babysit their only grandkids during the day, which is a blessing beyond counting. Everyday our kids will get to interact with and nurture a relationship with their Jersey grandparents. It will be a part of their collective understanding of the universe, not to be questioned: “My mom’s parents take care of me when my parents are away.”
And our kids will identify with her parents as their grandparents, and they will call them Nanny and Papa, or whatever nickname you give grandparents, and they will spend the night over at their house, and go the pool and soccer practice.
But all they will say of Dad is, “Oh, I didn’t know my grandfather on my Dad’s side. He died before I was born.” And that will be that. No matter how much I want him to meet our kids, no matter how good a grandparent he would have been, no matter how much our kids would have loved him, he will always be a passing thought.
It’s my wife’s parents who will fill the role Dad so longed to play. And my heart breaks for him because no one reads the footnotes anyway.