My Grandfather’s Ghost

by Elise Hempel

ScreenHunter_2530 Jan. 23 10.54I remember my grandfather, sometime in the 1970s, sitting in his checkered wing-chair on the back porch of his Chicago house, his slippered feet propped as usual on the ottoman, complaining that there were too many Blacks appearing now on TV, as we all watched some sitcom or variety show after Sunday dinner. What was supposed to be progress he considered a setback.

He was a misogynist too, every once in a while, from behind his daily paper or The Wall Street Journal, telling my grandmother to “shut yer yap” if he felt she was talking too much, or talking about something he didn't want to hear. And once, I've recently learned, when my aunt was a teenager and my grandfather had ordered my grandmother to get the ketchup or mustard or whatever condiment it was he immediately needed, and my aunt spoke up from her place at the table and told him, on my grandmother's behalf, to get it himself, he hauled her to the bedroom and beat her with his belt. His beliefs about women being subordinate to men didn't end after my grandmother died and he was forced to spend his final days in a nursing home. After he died, at 85, with Parkinson's, there were reports from the home not only of his attempted escapes but also of his inappropriate touching of certain female residents. He was depressed and disoriented at the nursing home, but he didn't have dementia, and it's hard not to wonder about the possibility of some long prior history of sexual indiscretion.

We'd always imagined that my grandfather would die first, that my grandmother would finally have some happiness of her own, finally take that trip to Germany she'd always wanted, finally be free of servitude. But that's not what happened, of course. Soon after she was gone, before my grandfather went to the nursing home, the phone rang late in my little apartment. When I answered, my grandfather's trembling voice was asking me how to cook a frozen pizza – what temperature, how long? And what should he do with the other half? And – would I come and eat with him? There was my grandfather, alone in his own kitchen for the first time, without a clue as to how to fix a meal for himself, not even a frozen pizza. My grandmother had done everything for him during their 60-year marriage. I had to say no, as I was 40 miles away and needed to get up for work the next morning. But I also knew I couldn't have stood the sadness of it all. I told him to wrap the rest of the pizza, put it back in the freezer.

I had compassion for my grandfather at the end, bringing to the home, when he was without family at Christmas, a dinner of leftover crab legs and lobster, and, against the nurses' explicit orders, sneaking in a fifth of Crown Royal under my coat, unwrapping two plastic cups from the bathroom in his third-floor room, and joining him in his final taste of his favorite whiskey. I've written many poems about my grandfather over the years, and I still have a sadness for him, for that lonely, heart-wrenching time he was forced to continue without my grandmother. But I don't miss him, a man who barely spoke to me through my childhood and young adulthood, who preferred to stay lodged in his wing-chair when we'd visit, preferred, as we chatted and shared our lives with Grandma, to keep reading his stock pages, a stranger behind the spread curtain of his newspaper.

And now, with Donald Trump as our 45th president, having made it there on the backward-facing slogan “Make America Great Again,” my grandfather, who's been gone now for almost 30 years, is uncomfortably close, still complaining about an African-American on a detergent commercial, still calling from his wing-chair into the kitchen, waiting for his Braunschweiger and beer.

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