Piecing Together a Past
When I was five years old, my grandpa told me the ancient origin story of the hot tub. There was something about a banyan tree, and a hot spring that erupted from its roots, and tribes of people who dug wells to fill with warm water. He was a wonderful storyteller, with the ability to weave words together effortlessly. I was mesmerized. The tribal people of his story soaked up the spring water, and I soaked up each and every word like the gifts they were. There we were, sitting in a hot tub in the middle of an apartment complex in California, a hot tub just like the one those people built thousands of years ago. I could feel myself as a link in a chain of history, with my grandpa serving as the main connection.
After I heard the story, it was all I could think about. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, filled with mystical details and an air of importance. The story was a precious family heirloom and I carried it with me everywhere I went.
The next time I saw my grandpa, months later, I ran up to him with open arms and ears. I begged him to tell me the story. “What story?” he questioned, smirking with the pride he got from a demanding audience. I helped him out a little, feeding him keywords, but his face was blank. He had no idea what I was talking about.
Because the whole story had been bullshit.
My grandpa wasn’t like other grandpas. He always seemed at least a decade younger than he was, a badge he wore with almost as much pride as he derived from a demanding audience. He lived in Los Angeles with his second wife and my aunt, who was born just a few years before me. He spent his days writing plays and watching movies, and thinking about plays and movies, and blending the lines between life and plays and movies.
He loved to play pretend. We’d be at a store together, and just as we got to the checkout line, he’d start acting like a wealthy stranger offering to foot the bill. One time we picked up kazoos at a toy store, and our family became a gypsy band, at least according to what he told passersby on the street corner. As an imaginative little kid, he was the most fun I could hope for. Visiting him was like visiting the pied piper.
But, it was always hard to discern which character he was playing, and I was constantly playing catch-up to keep up with his banter. I’d latch on to a story about, say, a hot tub, but he’d already moved on to the next story about turkeys or insurance salesmen, making up disposable details on the spot.
His stories flew in and out quickly. They layered on top of each other, making it hard for anyone to keep track of them or to know where there was true meaning. We’d be in California; his mind would be somewhere unknown.
When I was 11 years old, my grandpa told me I had webbed feet. I had peeled my socks off to run around the house barefoot, catapulting myself into the couch next to him. He grabbed my feet and examined them faux-carefully. His eyes twinkled. He told me my feet were webbed, that there was a long family history of webbed feet and the gene had been passed down to me. Just as I leaned down to examine my toes, my mom walked in the room. “Grandpa told me I have webbed feet!” Maybe she was prematurely squashing any medical fears in her anxiety-prone child, or maybe she was protecting her child from yet another winding road of her father’s tales. But, without missing a beat, she told me my feet were fine and tossed me my socks.
My grandpa shrugged and walked away, and I never heard the end of the story of the family webbed feet. As I put my socks on, though, I couldn’t help but notice that two of my toes looked a little stuck together.
We have a family history. It’s somewhere, buried deep under layers and layers of other stories. Sometimes with my grandpa, the real history would emerge at the edges; he would mention some fact about his childhood in passing, before rushing to analyze a character in the movie he just watched. Any meek attempts on my part to linger on the truth were rarely successful.
I heard from my mom how he had a tough childhood and how he had to grow up fast and how he traveled a lot. She would talk on the phone with him in seemingly never-ending conversations with openness, and openness to which I was never granted access. I tried to piece together details, but I never had enough information. And even more, how was I supposed to know what was real when everything was a game? What was the real history?
When I was 20 years old, my grandpa died.
He had been sick for a little while, but when he suddenly took a turn for the worse, my mom and I flew out to California to sit at his hospital bedside, along with his second wife and my aunt. He was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs, and so he was fading in and out of states of lucidity. It was so odd to see such a previously vibrant man reduced to a bed and tubes. We did our best to take care of him. We took turns fluffing pillows and feeding him through a straw, ultimately staying there for a week.
A few days into that week, there was a still moment when I was left alone with him and I sat just to his right as he slept. I held a book in my hands, but mostly I just watched him, his mouth hanging open, dry breath falling out instead of stories. The silence in the room was so raw. As a man whose life was filled with words, quiet hung about him awkwardly. He stirred and woke up, and I rushed to bring him water. He looked up at me, and for the first time since I’d arrived, he seemed to really understand that I was there.
My grandpa cracked out some small sounds, free of any accents or characterizations, and I was so happy to hear his true voice escape through. He asked me about my life, about college and my work. I didn’t think he knew about the film project I had just wrapped, but there he was, telling me he had watched it and loved it.
I wanted to seize the moment of real, unfettered connection with him. I wanted to ask him so many things. I wanted to know every detail of his life, and every feeling he had ever felt. But, of course, I couldn’t in that moment. He was in too much pain to delve into the past. In that moment, it hit me that there are simply some things I will never know and understand. It was enough to be there, to see his eyes and know some kind of truth just by looking into them. I didn’t need to know everything, and I never will.
The nurse came in to rub his feet. I noticed that they looked a little webbed.
A family’s history and pain and joy is passed down generation to generation, some of it knowable and some of it not. My mom carries my grandpa’s weight, and I carry hers. I don’t fully understand it, but I understand enough. The unspoken can still be subconsciously felt. It’s there, along with the ancient origin story of the hot tub.