grandad’s perpetual smile

my grandad died on august 11, 2006. nearly 3 years today. i don’t remember dates well. in fact, i forgot my mother’s 60th birthday, even with a two-day reminder from my dad. but i thought of him today. not because of any notion of time. i thought about something he wrote me, and something i ended up writing to him. i thought about how i don’t believe in fate, but i do believe in providence. providentia “foresight, prudence”, “ahead” + “to see”. i thought about sight and about vision. not of the unknown, but the known, in other phrases.

actually, first i thought of jenna’s little boy. how he held my hand at the wake as we walked up to the casket. catholics are always keeping their boxes open. i imagined then it was so that grandma and i could clutch each other and giggle at the absurdity of the coroners perpetual fixing of grandad’s hair. i used to cut grandad’s hair. he was always refusing to wash it, i think to make grandma smile her “frustrated” smile. their smiles always playfully meeting half-way, below surfaces.

i held kalen’s hand as i returned to grandad’s side for the third time that day. kalen was tall, brave and wide-eyed. i felt small, like i was reaching up to hold onto him instead of the other way around. we approached the lacquered finish, the colored lilies, the green vinyl kneeler, my grandad’s tie, his freshly washed hair, his ironically motionless smile.

“man…things sure do get fancy when ya die,” burst kalen.

i stretched taller by some involuntary string and suppressed a giggle. heard a snort. auntie may. high-heeled shoes, door slam, laugh in the hallway. cousin linda. a knowing glance with creased edges on grandma’s eyes. how i loved her. how we knew we loved him.


this was the first of the many times i would understand my father. or the unspoken structure that falls into our family, which on most days is in a joyfully age-irrelevant chaos. i was the first granddaughter. he was the first son. no one made choices, just fell into rhythm, filled holes without speaking. knew who to look at and when to walk. no one argued. no one spoke. on normal days we doubt ourselves. on any extraordinary one, we  know our strengths, their strengths. we succumb.

my dad and his 3 brothers. all boys. all helped me learn to love by tender, witty insult. there are many types of acceptence. many glows of pride. many unforgettable moments. four white-handed gloves on the side of the casket, mine the smallest, first in line. shaking. strong.

words carry in old catholic churches like the footprints of memories that echo in your chest. cousins lined up beside me. all of us sad and awkward for the vast emptiness and sound. when i lost my shaking voice, they each, in turn, took over and read. at least, that’s how  i remember it. it wasn’t the best poem i would ever write. but it will always be the strongest.

starting from the creases
of your wily grandpa eyes
a laugh on your cheeks
pulling upward;
sometimes you would wave
a calloused hand
in loving dismissal
or shake your head low.
Both of which seemed to say,
“You, my grandchild,
are a sight I am proud of.”

Searching through photos for you;
just seconds, really, strung out tight before us–
and so much between the lips
of my grandad’s perpetual smile.

Even when we finally realized
that actually…your own teeth were very few.
Or while we listened to you slurp your supper,
snore quietly in your favorite chair,
call to grandma from the doorway that,
“Dot!”, it was time to go,
or complain about washing your hair before I cut it;
we knew that your grandad smile lay waiting to bend.

I’ve been spending some time, you know,
in these past few days and hours,
trying to picture your laugh…
the less silent edge of that smile that can’t escape me.

For a moment, grandpa,
I thought it had gone.

But I heard it
just now
spilling from the depths of this crowd around you;
escaping from my own lips–
this Joy you have given us.

When I search for tangibles
of grandpa,
I find them in these faces.
My most favorite faces,
of which you are pinnacle;
a unit built from unique cuts,
upon the bedrock of your smile.


2 responses to “grandad’s perpetual smile

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