I assume my grandfather was sober when he was ten years old, and he and his brother left desperate circumstances in Denmark to find work as cabin boys aboard a square-rigger. But he was drunk several years later, when his brother drowned as they were swimming back to the anchored ship after a night of drinking and whoring onshore. He was drunk in the 1920s when his ship pulled into the Port of Los Angeles, and he swam ashore and stayed ashore, then and always an illegal alien. He was drunk when he found work in San Pedro as a longshoreman, a job that was a surprisingly good fit for many years. And he was drunk on payday, when he visited a neighborhood whorehouse and admired the madam’s young daughter, Inez. Eventually, he married Inez, and she gave birth to their three children. Then, she did the unthinkable: She turned her back, forever abandoning the confused and ill-equipped little family.
My grandfather was drunk during my father’s childhood, which was defined by neglect, fear, and loneliness. But my grandfather wasn’t a mean drunk, and my father was uncommonly resilient. My father made it to San Pedro High School, where he hit the jackpot when he met my mother: a dark-haired girl with a flashing smile and deep reservoirs of love, which she shared eagerly, spontaneously, and sometimes imprudently with this tall, handsome, and damaged man. They married young and had three children in four years (and—much later—another baby girl).
A couple of Sundays a month, we visited my grandfather, whom we were instructed to call Grandpa Chief. My first memories of doing so are in the early 1960s, when I was five or six. We piled in the car and took a 20-minute drive to San Pedro where Grandpa Chief lived with his grown daughter, Lillian, and her family. Lillian was bossy, shrill, and overweight, garnering my mom’s poorly hidden disdain.
I remember the house as windowless, and at the top of a steep and unfriendly driveway. We entered from a side door, and were immediately assailed by the odors of cigarette smoke and bottled beer. In the background, I discerned the odors of onions and garlic, of spices my mom didn’t own, of cheese that was not mild cheddar. There was occasional cursing, and the sound of a blaring TV in the middle of the day.
Week after week, I stood there in a Sunday dress…always an exact duplicate of my sister’s Sunday dress, and always sewn lovingly by our mom. I observed the differences between this house and the house of my other grandparents, who were Mormons, and had recently moved from California to rural Utah. Their house smelled of chocolate cake and lemonade and lilacs and hymnals. Sunlight streamed in, highlighting shelves jammed with books and family photos. My grandparents would beam at me, admiring how nice I was, how clean, how adept at memorization. I’d perch on the edge of a chair, smiling shyly, trying—because of a speech impediment—to avoid words that started with J or Ch. Someone would tousle my dutch-boy haircut; someone else would play “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” on the piano.
Back in San Pedro, I watched as my dad played cribbage with Grandpa Chief at the kitchen table, which was a vinyl-covered booth tucked into a corner. My dad seemed happy and relaxed. Maybe even more relaxed than usual, I observed, in that quiet and deadly accurate way in which children have always observed adults.
I don’t recall that Grandpa Chief fussed over me, or asked me about school, or noticed that I’d grown. He sometimes glanced my way as I slumped against the table, as I enjoyed the rhythm of the cards and the pegs, the murmur of male voices: “…fifteen-two, fifteen-four....” I never admitted this to my mom, but I even enjoyed the smell of Grandpa Chief’s beer and the smell of the burning match as he lit another cigarette. I sidled closer for the smell of the man himself…the smell of wool and fish and age. I don’t remember that he smiled at me, but he occasionally nodded in my direction, or narrowed his eyes in a way that might have indicated interest or concern.
Grandpa Chief was probably genetically destined to be a tall man (my dad is 6’4”), but a lack of food during childhood, a congenital hip deformity, or both resulted in an adult height of around five feet. Despite that, he was a force to be reckoned with on the waterfront. And despite that, he possessed a certain elfishness that endeared him to an easily intimidated granddaughter.
The highlight of the twice-monthly visits was a gift from Grandpa Chief, a gift rather specific to his lifestyle and his means. He handed us a carton that had once held ten packs of cigarettes, but now held dozens of empty boxes of matches. They fit into the carton perfectly, and were of many colors and designs, so the effect was one of books lined neatly on shelves. (Later, at home, the tiny boxes—with their slide-out inner boxes—would continue to bring enjoyment. Once, I glued four of them in a stack to make a bedside table for a Barbie doll.) Each week, we gasped at the wonder of this gift. Then—to my mom’s chagrin—my brother, sister, and I sprawled on the floor with our cigarette carton, opening each matchbox looking for the money that Grandpa Chief had hidden there. As I recall, he hid fifty cents for each of us, and we squealed as we found it. He didn’t watch us, but he was well aware of our noisy pleasure, and it—of course—fueled his quiet pleasure.
At that point, he reached into the pocket of his khaki work pants and gave us additional coins to spend at the liquor store nearby. We descended the steep driveway (my siblings more easily than my chubby self) and cheerfully walked two blocks to the Busy Bee. The store was dimly lit, and a ceiling fan at the entrance slowly stirred the air. I stood on my tiptoes and looked down into an ice cream freezer. I slid the freezer door open, extracting an orange-and-white creamcicle, otherwise known as a Fifty-Fifty (which I pronounced Wifty-Wifty, so apparently I couldn’t say my F’s, either). We skipped back to the house, giddy from sunshine and sugar and independence.
A few times, Grandpa Chief accompanied us to the Busy Bee (maybe because he’d run out of beer or cigarettes, but most likely because he adored us). When I imagine the three children and the old man on their errand, it’s from a remove, as if I’m observing the action from a neighbor’s roof. And the foursome is not in a group, but in a jaunty line, like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road.
Usually, though, we walked and shopped without adult supervision. Upon returning to the house, we found our dad and our grandpa still happily engaged in their card game, while our mom waited for the visit to end, or conversed briefly and uneasily with Aunt Lillian. There were offers of dinner (cioppino, tripe, oxtail soup), but they were usually declined. We said our good-byes and our thank-you’s, we grabbed our carton of matchboxes, and we left. I could tell—I swear, I could tell!—that Grandpa Chief wanted us to stay longer.
It wasn’t much later that he died. I was nine or ten, and didn’t attend the funeral. Weeks later, my family returned to San Pedro in the station wagon, with a flower arrangement for his grave. We drove through the large cemetery again and again, unable to locate the grave. “You know,” my dad said (his eyes straight ahead, his tone measured), “I think he’d be happy if we kept the flowers, and put them on the table at home. I think that would please him.” He tried to sound cheerful, like a responsible husband and father, but he was a broken-hearted son, and we all knew it. We watched from the backseat as the rows of graves passed by, and then we drove home.