How will Eva and Maya remember me? Maya probably won’t remember much more than my withdrawal, like her father’s, into adult privacy.
Of course, I am Grandee the fixer and assembler of toys and furniture. Grandee the grumbler. Grandee the recluse. Grandee the taxi, for errands. Grandee, the backup for Nana (and Nana the backup for Mom and Poppa). Grandee the battery supplier for toys and remotes. Grandee the band aid supplier. Grandee the go-to guy for electronics. Ball and bike-tire inflator; yardman, grass cutter, snow shoveler. Grandee the runner and gym addict. Grandee the one-time swimmer and golfer. Grandee the man of habit, who eats at 11am and 5pm, despite the schedules of others, and lives on hot pockets and processed, microwave dinners. Grandee who isn’t Jewish, but who stands quietly during Shabos prayers, then kisses foreheads in exchange. Grandee the cellar dweller, not to be disturbed, as he reads from stacks and shelves of grown up books, and as he types on his computer. Grandee, who clomps up his stairs periodically, when summoned, or for emergencies. Grandee, who kills flies, and refuses to let anyone else use his swatter.
Maya and I seek common ground in play. Putting on the rug, for instance. Reading childrens’ books. I draw cartoons for her, a dog, a giraffe, a duck, which she then imitates or colors in. At two or three she knew more Spanish than I did or do (Eva from an early age, as well, has translated for me and Diego when Ruth isn’t around) ; in English, I try to correct her r’s, which she pronounces as w’s.
I am amused by, but don’t relate to her love of princess play. Ruth and Connie dressed her in pink crepe and gauze gowns, which she refused to change for playgroup, playground, or shopping. We all indulged her fancy, just as we had Dave’s cowboy outfits as a boy. She wore her plastic tiara and plastic slippers with rhinestones. Now and again, she waved a flashing toy wand. She built only castles with blocks. Her crayon drawings were all princesses.
More than Eva ever had, she went into deep solitary play. She also hid under tables, and then built private enclosures from blankets or table cloths tied to frame chairs. When she had tantrums she screeched like the Duchess’s baby in Alice in Wonderland. We went through a phase of playing with jigsaw puzzles together. I admired her intentness and stubborn independence in choosing and fitting the fragments herself. She was only allowed into my workspace in the basement when Ruth or Connie came down to do laundry or bring it up. One of the ironies of my domestic life is that my study is between the cellar stairs and the laundry room, so there is always back and forth and creeping clutter. Both granddaughters are curious about my preoccupation here, similar to Diego’s working on his lamps, or working on his MC beats at the computer and turntables. But as their mother had as a child, crawling over barriers to join me in an earlier study: first Eva, then Maya tiptoe down the cellar stairs to invade my space and win me from myself.
Recently, as I sit on the sofa, Maya has taken to climbing from my shoulders to my head, where she no longer feels cute. I tell her no, to stop, I am serious. I ask her if her Dad likes her to climb on his head. Sure, she says.
“My”--she stammers, at a loss—“my grandee from Colombia lets me.”
“Grandee Omar?” Diego’s father had just visited for a week, his first time in America, and first contact other than on Skype in three years. “I don’t think so,” I said. “You’re a monkey. I’m afraid you’ll fall and get hurt.”
“Am I five and a half yet?”
“Yes, you turned on May 9, fifteen days ago. You’re five and a half and 15 days.”
DeWitt Henry’s books include The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel); a trilogy in memoir concluding with Endings and Beginnings: Family Essays (MadHat Press, 2021); and a collection of notes and essays Sweet Majoram (MadHat Press, 2018). Poems have appeared in Ibbetson Street, On the Seawall, Plume, and others. He was the founding editor of Ploughshares and is Professor Emeritus at Emerson College. Details at www.dewitthenry.com. DeWitt recommends contributing to Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.