Friday, December 9, 2011
I was the designated household phone answerer in those days. My mother was quite popular, and the phone rang a lot. I was a call screener back before caller I.D. The ritual went like this: the phone would ring, and my mother would give me a set of conditions: if it was this person, Mom would take the call. But if it were that person, I was to say Mom was in the tub and would call her back sometime that decade. And if it were Granny, my dad's mom, I was to make polite small talk for long enough for Mom to light a cigarette and gird her loins for what would likely be an unpleasant conversation filled with veiled insults.
When the phone rang that December night and Santa was on the other end, my mom listened intently and had a strange look on her face when I mouthed "It's Santa!" It turns out she had not planned this particular bit of holiday joy, and until my cousin called her a few moments later to tell her it was my uncle's idea to surprise me, she couldn't figure out whether everything she thought she knew about Christmas legend was wrong and the magic was real, or if maybe I was being stalked and the next call should be to the police.
So a few weeks later when I took another call from a mysterious man I'd never met but had heard about, my parents didn't think too much about it. They thought it was just my uncle again, following up and making sure my behavior had improved. Imagine their surprise when they found out that I had just been formally introduced to my long-lost paternal grandfather.
My father covered the distance between the family room and the kitchen in two steps when I held out the phone and said, "He says his name is Martin and that he's your dad." Mom developed an unusual need throughout the duration of the phone call to keep checking on the cleanliness of the kitchen counters.
Martin left my grandmother, and the four children he had with her, when my father was very young. My father had not seen or talked to the man since he was about the age I was when I took that call. He had heard his father had relocated to the Cincinnati area, like us, and had heard he was living with a woman decidedly not our Granny. Beyond that, we didn't even have a picture of him, and he was the "He Who Shall Not Be Named" of our family. So to get that call was like something I had seen on one of my favorite soap operas. It was Guiding Light right there in our cigarette-smoke-filled kitchen. My young head filled to bursting with daydreams of a family reunion, and meeting a grandfather I didn't know I had, and a warm, fuzzy reconciliation.
But even at Christmas, broken families don't knit back together so tidily. My father never raised his voice, but he politely declined an invitation to meet him. He did, however, agree to have occasional phone conversations with Martin. I was sad that I wouldn't get to see the person who had been so nice to me over the phone, but as small children do, I forgot about it and went on with celebrating the toy-getting season.
The next time I heard anything about Martin, it was the following October. He had passed away from cancer. We did not attend the funeral. I didn't understand it then; why wouldn't Dad want to say goodbye to his own father? But as I grew older, I understood completely. My father had said goodbye many, many years before.
Several years ago, Dad's sister-in-law passed along a photo to me. One of her sons had become interested in learning more about the family, and had unearthed the only known photo of my enigmatic grandfather. It was an old black-and-white picture of a very tall, thin man and a very short, dark-haired woman standing together on a set of railroad tracks. The man is so tall that he has to stoop a bit to be in the same frame as his wife; the woman is so short she has to stand on one of the railroad ties to come up to her husband's shoulder. They look happy, but I know by the way their story ends that their height was not the only major difference they had.
The picture allows me to put a face with the voice I heard on the phone so long ago, a kind voice that seemed, to my naive ears, to want to make things right. But for my father, anyway, it was too little, too late. If my surprise phone call from Santa that year nearly turned my mom into a believer, the surprise phone call from Martin brought us all back down to earth. Not everything can be tidied up into a Hallmark-movie ending.
I may never have met my grandfather. But I got to speak to him, and the memory looms as large as the phone call I got from Santa at the North Pole (complete with reindeer "barking" in the background.) And if you're as big as Santa in a kindergartner's imagination...well, that's saying something.