When I was age 2 or 3*, I was awakened one night by a hand softly held against my back. For reasons unknown to me, I believed it was my grandfather. I turned to look at him, but no one was there. If someone had been standing there, it wouldn't have been my grandfather because he died six years before I was born.
I was spooked, but also wanted to see him, so I left the bedroom I shared with my brother and embarked on a search.
I checked my parents' bedroom. No grandfather. From there, I crept through a short, darkened hallway to the living room that opened into our kitchen. Of course, no Grandpa was found. That covered the entire house, except for a finished attic where an aunt and uncle lived briefly.
Ending my search in the living room, I settled into a high-backed chair and waited, just in case my grandfather showed up. Next thing I recall is my mother rousing me from my sleep and, in a scolding voice, demanding to know why I was sleeping in the living room. I didn't offer an answer.
For many years thereafter, I learned little about my grandfather other than that he was a barber, I inherited his name, he had epilepsy, he raised canaries, and he died when my mom was in her teens. I never brought up the subject of my grandfather because I felt that talking about him would hurt my mom.
In fact, there was a conspicuous, fraught silence regarding her father. She might not remember it, but I felt it acutely. Once in a while, one of her siblings would say something about their father, and I was always jarred by how casually they mentioned him. My mom didn't do that.
As I learned later, my grandfather and my mother were very close. He was doting and extremely protective of her, but not in a harsh or overbearing way. According to stories I heard as an adult, my grandmother had a temper and could really rip into my mom's siblings, but not even she could look cross-eyed at my mother because my grandfather wouldn't allow it. This was, according to an aunt, a marked exception in my grandparents' relationship because my grandfather otherwise deferred to my grandmother.
In my late teens and into my adulthood, the painfully silent gaps that were the memory of my grandfather became less pained, and the facts of my grandfather's life gradually eroded the once palpable silence.
During my adulthood, my mother started listening to opera. When I expressed surprise at her interest in the genre, she told me that she listened to opera with her father. Sometimes, when I was a child, my mother listened to an Italian station on the car radio. I've wondered if Italian radio also reminded her of listening to the radio with her dad.
As my mother revealed more about her father, the impression that grew in me was one of a little sister and much older big-brother relationship. My mom was also the youngest child in the family--the baby sister. She is and was petite, which may have further contributed to her status as the extra-protected, little sister.
When I discovered recently that my grandfather had several younger sisters who died during his childhood, I wondered if phantoms of the those traumatic family losses inspired or contributed to his deep affection and protectiveness of my mother. And I wondered, as well, if there was worry or even a hint of grief conveyed in that affection and protectiveness. Manifestly, my mother knew nothing of her father's deceased sisters until my own recent discovery of their birth and death records.
Then there is me. Despite knowing next to nothing about my grandfather during my childhood, I sometimes felt that he and I had a special connection. A photo of him at my aunt's home showed that he had a prominent cleft chin, like mine. My aunt said I got my fossetta (dimple) from my grandfather. This came up recently in a discussion with my mother. She said she'd forgotten that her father had a cleft chin until a cousin reminded her recently.
And early in my childhood, I wanted pet birds. My mother readily got behind that wish when I was about age 8. As I mentioned earlier, my mom's father raised canaries. They had a house full of canaries, cages in every room, according to my mother. To me, the birds were a connection to the grandfather I never knew.
And without any clear basis, I've long felt that I also inherited some of his personal qualities, and wondered during my own analysis if I was drawn to clinical psychology because I wanted to fill in missing spaces and relieve what I imagined to be my mother's unspoken sorrow over the loss of her father.
So now I also wonder if a dream of being gently touched by my grandfather, and my search of the darkened house, was an early sign of my desire to know more about that sorrowful silence, and perhaps even a prelude to doing something about it. And I wonder if that silence contained more than my mother's grief alone. Might it also have held a residue of the grief of my grandfather and his parents?
*I know my age at the time because we lived in that home until one month before my fourth birthday.