My family has a long, proud tradition of game playing. Board games and cards were staples growing up, and our annual family vacations wouldn’t be complete without a round of cards. Over the years, even our scorecards have developed traditions. As an experienced game and card player, I can tell you that nothing is more frustrating than when a piece or card is missing. Monopoly just isn’t as fun when the Boardwalk property card is missing, especially if you have a little OCD, which is also an enjoyed family trait.
“Missing things” run in families, but they don’t get a lot of attention. Maybe that’s why they’re missing. Or, maybe, good things and bad things get all the attention, and missing things fade away into those forgotten places where socks, discount coupons, and extra keys gather.
My grandfathers were missing. My maternal grandfather died before I was born. My paternal grandfather died five years ago. I can’t say I really knew either of them. It’s not unusual, as accidents, distance, and frayed bonds affect every family. What’s interesting, though, is that, unlike those socks, missing family members still have a presence.
As a younger man, I resembled my maternal grandfather to a degree, and I took an unusual pride in that. I’m certain it was because my connection with him was so tenuous. I didn’t know and still don’t know too much about him, except how fondly my mother thought of him. Sometimes I thought about what it would be like to meet him, to share my life with him, and it’s one of life’s minor cruelties that, instead of knowing him, I only felt the silent power his memory wielded. In some ways, my grandmother’s life froze when he died, set in amber never to change. We pity that, but maybe those who have loved and lost find a strange comfort in that sort of living death.
My grandfather died before therapy and “closure” were in vogue. Maybe that would have helped my family to deal with the pain and move on. They all did in their own way, of course. But, even when we have all been together, one cannot escape the feeling that something that should be there is not.
My paternal grandfather died five years ago, but, in so many ways, he too was more apparition than presence. We never lived close, and his battles with personal demons exacted damage on his family that may have been too much to overcome. I don’t really know. He was always pleasant and kind to me during the once- or twice-a-year visits, but he never seemed particularly interested in being a grandparent. Maybe it was a generational thing. Maybe I just wasn’t as fascinating as I thought I was, but that shocks the conscience to consider. I’ll never know.
The last time I saw him, a strange thing happened. As I walked out the door of his home, he gave me a big hug and followed me out to the porch. As I stepped away to leave, he said, “Next time, bring your friend.” I was not out to him and had never discussed my partner with him, but his meaning was clear. It was an odd intimacy that caught me off guard, a palantir with a vision of a grandfather/grandson relationship that I could not recognize. I said “Okay,” got in my car, and never saw him again.
One doesn’t usually mourn what one never had, and I don’t mourn my grandfathers. But I do feel their presence or, rather, the absence of their presence. I’m left with questions and riddles that do not bother me terribly, but, rather, fascinate me with “What if?” Whenever I hear someone share a story of their grandfather, I immediately think that I cannot reciprocate, that that piece of the puzzle will always be missing in an abstract way for me.
At the end of the day, you can play the board game without the missing token, and you can accept the fact that something isn’t quite right, something isn’t whole. Every family does it in one way or another, it’s part of the human experience. Perhaps the lesson is to not be that missing piece for those that you love, if you can help it. I want to live my life that way, and I’ve made a real effort to be an intentional, loving uncle to my young nephews. I live far away, but they know they are loved. I know I’ll always put in the work to be a positive force in their lives. I have a feeling both of my grandfathers would be proud.