He was the only one who would dare take five frenzied girls to Playland Amusement Park alone — and we adored him for it.
Handsome in his fedora hat and arriving gracefully in his silver Caprice Classic — its massive exterior and red interior gleaming by his own hand — my grandfather commanded our full attention.
We ran into his arms eager to wrap ourselves around his waist, around his legs our laughter prompting the trademark giggle that rose over our enthusiastic chatter.
Papá, my mother called him.
We called him Grandpa, which was different from maternal grandfather Papá Lencho and the scores of elders who were addressed as Aubelito as a matter of respect.
He was different.
We could speak to him in English so nothing was lost in translation. We called his wife Mama Ruth rather than Abuelita or Doña. In their Bronx home, we stomached soft, bland vegetables instead of pork skin or chicken crackling in popping oil. He gifted us a small radio that we never thought to turn from the country music station it was tuned to. He gave me a ten speed bike that my feet dangled from at ten years old. I watched my older cousin Junie ride it all over the park, too short for it and having no sense of balance without training wheels.
We especially never tired of squeezing the remaining half of his index finger, listening to the story of how he sawed it off accidentally. This was my grandpa.
We thought it strange when he turned up at our old home off the Grand Concourse looking to visit.
We had been living in Far Rockaway, Queens for years by then, but we shrugged it off as strange, relieved that he had turned up after Mama Ruth spent most of the day trying to find him.
It would be much later that we would identify this day as the beginning. The beginning of losing Papá.
I was away at school so I only saw it twice.
Once. The rage of helplessness that drove him out of my father’s hold and up the street. We chased him and forced him to the confines of our yard, securing the front gate with laundry cord.
The second time a hospital room where he did not recognize anyone but my father. We gathered around him and watched as he called out languages chronicling moments of his life: Garifuna, English and Spanish.
Alzheimer’s claimed my grandfather in 1991.
The caprice classic sat in our driveway. Still. The luster long gone.
His ashes sat in a copper box on a make-shift altar awaiting the trip back to Trujillo, Honduras.
And I watched it catch afternoon sun, grief and questions swirling.
Questions I had not thought to ask:
What was it like living in Harlem, Grandpa?
Did you frequent jazz clubs or take Mama Ruth dancing at the Harlem ballroom of her choice?
Was my Tía Leda mad at you? We figured out with our cousins that they never came to your house. Never spent any time with you. Did you simply understand that she sided with her mother and held nothing against her?
Were you really a vegetarian or was this menu Mama Ruth‘s invention?
Did your own reflection surprise you each day after vitiligo took you from mocha brown to soft cream?
Did you think I looked like you?
Did you mean to be returned to Trujillo? Was there somewhere else you would have prefered to go?
The answers were erased with no regard for those of us who stood to inherit his story, our story
This spring marks 20 years since his departure
and so I commemorate his life, his grace and his story by participating in MEMORY WALK 2010.
The Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk® is the nation’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer care, support and research.
It is my first time undertaking this type of venture. It is a small, pertinent step in making certain that elders leave their families with dignity; leaving behind the gift of memory as their final legacy.
Please support my efforts!
Visit http://memorywalk2010.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=335311&lis=1&kntae335311=A5807027544047C197D3D06AA55314DA&supId=295586670 to help me honor my grandfather’s memory and put an end to Alzheimer’s!