Saturday, May 14, 2011

For My Grandfather, An Homage to Unconditional Love

I found this photograph going through my things to find the letter Phatiwe left me on the day she died. My best friend passed away six years ago today and left me a letter. I was going to make myself read it. And share it. And live by what she wished for me. It was aggressively loving and kind.

But what I found instead bears as much weight.

It's a photograph I took of my grandfather, with his favorite pie -- strawberrry chiffon. A strawberry-filled creamy delight with flaky doughy crust. Sublime. He is gleeful. I am as well, photographing it for my graduate school class. Photojournalism. Events. Making sure you capture "that thing". It's the thing I do best with the camera. In this he poses. But that smile is actually just for me.

We used to fight over how big a slice we each got, and I'm not sure it was always in jest.

Taking this photograph is among my top 3 memories of him.

First, when I was leaving for India and would miss Christmas for the first time, he came to me with an issue of National Geographic about a drought in India. If I went there would be no water! I'd die! I assured him that the family I was traveling with were doctors from NYU, and they would not let me die. I got some kind of parasite... But I came home safe and sound. He lived four more months. I will not write about our goodbye. I have that image seared in my brain. I hate it. I love it. I share with with some of you. I hope to never understand his quiet determination in those days. He did it out of love, I think. That impish glint in those eyes above. "My pie. But I'd give you the moon," they say.

Second best memory of my grandfather: sometime after I graduated from college... Oh. I guess there are more than those two. But this one first. Maybe they are the same memory...

The night before my Dartmouth graduation I sang my last set at the Lone Pine Tavern, the campus pub where I performed every other Friday. We packed the house. And sitting in the front was my family - grandmother, grandfather, parents, sisters. And the friends who had come dozens of times to support me because they loved me - and maybe liked what I was doing. Or they just loved me and knew how much it mattered to me. It was sweet and powerful and I was shy and shining at the same time.

I remember singing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and meeting Jamie's eye, and seeing how proud my family was, me singing before my friends.

I was the only one of his 19 grandchildren that my grandfather watched graduate from college. He never did. I think I did him proud. At least I hope I did. 

Later, when I was writing or in publishing or something, my grandfather said to me "after  your graduation, I thought you'd be going into music or something, but..." I can't remember the rest. I just remember thinking he though I'd be a musician, and was proud of me, and that made me realize my own ideas about being an artist and being a success were not at odds with one another. I could be an artist and still make my family proud. He was ready to love me whatever I chose. And to support whatever that was. The least-likely supporter, in some ways, of a singer, painter, actor, writer... but that is my own prejudice about what people like. What entrepreneurs who build businesses that build stadiums should value. I thought he would think my singing was silly.

I was wrong.

I will always cherish that. And try to remember it in those times I beat myself up for this or that. Whatever failing I imagine in myself. And I will try to remember... I sang a song once, and my grandfather thought it was good enough that everyone would want to hear me sing.

And staring down my 34th birthday, I wish I could embrace myself that fully. I watch my niece, "two in June", and I see her dance. And by dancing, I mean moving whatever part of her body she thinks should move to whatever part of any song she sees fit to move to. We clap. We spin. We wave. We bounce. I adore every single move she makes. In my eyes, she can do no wrong. I adore her, and cherish her smile, with a love I didn't know I was capable of feeling.

When I am with her, we exist in a realm without self-consciousness. We exist in a place of pure joy.

Which is what I see in my grandfather's face in this photograph. That place families live. When we all just say, "Yes, I love you."