VOICES: How We Began
“He wore a sapphire suit, the first time I ever saw him,” Bernie said about my Grandfather Bob, “it made his eyes dance.”
My own memories of him come from the stories others tell. I don’t recall his warm hands touching my toddler arms, his rounded lips meeting my forehead, his soft forefinger stroking my face. But I know it happened. In twenty-year-old family photographs he smiles and grips me as Bernie stands at his left shoulder beaming. In these photos my eyes are glassy as if I have drifted to a far away place, a place only a baby’s mind can reach, not realizing the importance of that moment.
“Where was it? When you met him?” I asked.
“I was working at a restaurant in an Indianapolis hotel and he was going to be the new hotel manager. Our old manager sat him down at a two-person table and your Grandpa took the seat against the wall so he could see everything that happened in the restaurant. Everyone crowded the kitchen door staring at him and whispering. He delicately crossed one leg over the other and placed his interlocked fingers on the table in front of him.” Bernie smiled and closed his eyes. “There was another man who at the restaurant who became instantly infatuated with him, and he was lucky enough to be Bob’s waiter. I was just the kitchen staff.”
“How did you know he was gay?” I rubbed my hands sweaty hands over my thighs.
Bernie snickered at my question like it was something so obvious I should have known as a toddler. “Honey, nobody straight wears suits like that.” I nodded my head as if I completely understood and would never be so blind again. “His hair was so blonde and thick, similar to yours, but I wasn’t stupid I knew he bleached it. God forbid anyone ever tell him that though, he thought he was fooling us all.”
I often touch my own hair as if it will connect me to my long dead Grandfather, as if stroking it will revitalize departed memories. I try to imagine what he would look like blonde, for in photographs he has stark white locks. Still thick like my own but the resemblance ends there. My father looks nothing like him, his features, his movements, are his mother’s. The only quality Grandfather passed on to my father is his stubbornness. My Grandfather’s worst trait, Bernie claims, and one I too inherited.
“I didn’t talk to Bob for a long time. He and the waiter started seeing each other after work. Bob would wait for him at the front desk and they would leave together pulling away from the hotel.”
“So when did you finally talk to him?” I didn’t want to wait any longer for the happy ending.
He reached a hand up and scratched his stubble like he had forgotten. “We were at a party, one of the staff members was throwing it. I finally got the courage to approach him and introduced myself. He told me he already knew who I was and he was wondering why it took me so long to talk to him. We went home together that night.”
“Wait. What about the other guy he was seeing?” I asked bewildered.
“That was just casual, everything was casual back then.”
“But you and Grandpa stayed together; that wasn’t casual.”
“You’re right, eventually it wasn’t anymore. We fell in love, and I helped take care of his children, and then you and your siblings, our grandchildren. Loving Bob came with much more than I could have ever hoped for.”
I cannot remember how my Grandfather would smile and brag about my sister, tease my brother, and cuddle me close to his body sharing his heat and love for an infant who would never know him. It’s only through others that he becomes real. But I feel closer to him because of Bernie. I know how Bernie’s chapped lips feel skimming my forehead when he kisses me goodbye, the way his bony arms crush me in an embrace, the way he winks and pulls his lips upwards to a sly smile whenever he has a mischievous thought. Bernie is not my flesh but he is my Grandfather, my family, this bond isn’t always formed through blood, sometimes you discover it through the love of two men twenty years ago.