Sunday, February 5, 2012

Opa and Mema

Opa died when I was in kindergarten. It was an eerily quiet overcast morning. I awoke and looked down at my bedroom's sky blue carpet. I saw the shadow of my mom's feet outside the door.

She's not moving. Something is wrong.  

She knocked but didn't wait for an answer. Barreling in, she whispered, "Opa passed away last night. Get dressed." The door closed and I watched the shadows on the carpet recede behind my pale white door.

I tumbled over on to my back and looked up at the ceiling. This was my first time being introduced to death. I wondered how a five-year-old was supposed to react. I decided to take the traditional advice for kids: be seen but not heard.

We ate breakfast in silence. The TV was off and we had nothing to talk about. After my sister and I dressed, we went over to Mema's house. I gingerly stepped on the carpet, afraid to cause any noise on a very serious day. Adults seemed to be in a perpetual shadow, whispering and patting each other on the back and shoulder. Opa's bedroom door was cracked open. I peered through the hinges and saw the ruffled bedspread. His body was already gone.

Adults bent down and rubbed my head. They offered their condolences to me and I nodded with an equally somber face. My mind reached for words but couldn't find any. I felt numb. Death didn't feel tragic. It felt procedural and dry. I was disappointed in how flat and dull everything and everyone seemed.

The next day I returned to school, but I thought of Opa. He wore hats and smoked a pipe with sweet smelling tobacco. He would come home from work at the factory and sit in his leather recliner and read the paper. Mema would be finishing up dinner and he would give me a peppermint before patting me on the head. This was our communion. We didn't talk much and he didn't dispense tales of his yester-years. I would clean up my cars and trucks, hear his red Chevy sedan pull up, feign slight surprise at his entrance, get a pat on the head and a peppermint. The pat always felt like an ending instead of an invitation. It was an encouragement that niceties had been exchanged and now it was time for me to disappear. I  would scoot off into Mema's bedroom and watch "GI Joe" or "Dukes of Hazzard" while waiting for one of my parents to pick me up.

Opa and Mema slept in separate bedrooms. Mema's bedroom was warm and inviting with tassle'd pillows and purple curtains. There was fluffy carpet and dollhouse-like furniture. Opa's bedroom was dark and dank. The curtains, bedsheets, and lamp were all shades of coffee and chocolate. The floor was cold and creaked when you walked over it. His Stetson hat boxes were stacked on top of his dresser. Opa's door remained closed during the day and I dreaded when I had to go in there to fetch something for Mema. As soon as I grabbed the needed item, I would rush out and slam the door behind me.

But something didn't feel right. Opa and I played this role playing game that, even back then, felt kitsch. He seemed to be out of an old TV sitcom. I felt uncomfortable around him, like I was always waiting for something terrible to happen. Neighbors and kids respected him but didn't go out of their way to welcome him. A hush followed him around the house. We were all scared of Opa.

I never asked him what he did, where he came from, who this man was who was coming into my life and sitting down in a leather chair to read the newspaper. I was curious but my fear got the better of me. Some sort of internal security system flashed caution when I tried to speak in front of him. My voice would lower and I'd lose my words. Opa's eyes smiled and he had beatific look on his face whenever I would get quiet around him. On the few occasions that I could gather my words and courage, Opa's smile would fade. He would just stare at me blankly before snapping the paper open. 

His funeral was tasteful and clean. Black suits and plates of rich soul food filled Mema's house afterward. In my first funeral, I wept. Not uncontrollably or like a child. I cried and remember observing myself crying and judging the tone and tears to be 'just about right.' Adults nodded in solemn approval that I was so good at crying without it becoming whiny or distracting. As a reward, a buxom lady cut me an extra-large hunk of pound cake. I was informed repeatedly on what a good grandson I was with the usual head pat. By the end of the day this head patting thing would be very tiresome and I found a way to artfully dodge the heavy dark palms of adults. But for most of the day I nodded along with their appraisal of me. You're right. I am a good kid, I thought before digging into the mound of sugar and butter.

My sister, on the other hand, was chastised. She didn't cry at the funeral, her face was too indifferent. She wanted to go home and would often let a long sigh of impatience blow out of her flared nostrils. I was the good kid and she was the bad kid. The roles were very clear and comforting. As long as I didn't think of Opa I could maintain my calm. The only slight worry I had was that I wasn't sure if we were all playing these roles or if someone was actually having some genuine emotion at this funeral.

Opa's bedroom became like a sealed vault to me. For the rest of my childhood and teenager years I never entered. One side of the house was shut down. It would be years before I actually found out any details about this mysterious man.

It turns out Opa was my Dad's stepfather. Mema and him made an arrangement as older adult days. He would work, she would keep house. This allowed her to work less frequently as a hotel maid, and offered Opa some semblance of a home life. That is why they slept in separate beds and often seemed more like roommates than spouses.

Long before I arrived, Opa was notorious for his terrible temper and drinking. Opa worked his whole life at the same factory and earned good money as a foreman. But whenever he was given vacation time, it was a nightmare for my grandmother. A vacation or even a long-weekend for Opa consisted of buying several bottles of liquor and proceeding to obliterate himself. Years later, my father told me stories of Opa driving Mema home from hotel work at night in a swerving, red car. She would hold on and pray to Jesus they he didn't crash. Opa would get so drunk that he would see bugs and ants on his skin. He would run down the block, ranting and raving.  And Opa would hit Mema. Not frequently, but enough to make everyone terrified of his outbursts. When my Dad was in college he came home one time to find Opa on another alcohol-fueled rampage. As he reached for Mema, my Dad stepped in and knocked him against a wall. He informed his stepfather that he would never touch his mother again. And Opa never did.

Opa and my father had history with each other. It wasn't hard to see that the respectful but curt greetings between them had a bitter edge. They were the first Black men in my life and I was saddened by their lack of camaraderie. They were both men of integrity who tolerated each other for the sake of the family. I was aware of something amiss at an early age but passed it off as paranoia. Opa never had a kind or mean word for my father and vice versa. They never raised their voices or even showed a sign of hostility toward each other. One time there was a disagreement about some minor protocol of gifts. Opa's got this mischievous smirk on his face and his eyes smoldered. They both rushed to apologize for stepping on each others' toes.

"It's your house, Dad!" with just a slight knifing of 'dad' in his voice.

"No, no, no," Opa countered as the smirk remained on his face.

It was the first time I ever saw Opa smile like that. It looked as if he was replaying a lewd joke in his head that no one else knew. Maybe this old man did have some edges and corners to him.  

Opa had no overt signs of trouble when he passed away. He died in his sleep. He is one of two people I've known who had such a privilege in my life. Mema said that on that fateful day, he came home from work and nothing was awry. He sat in his chair, smoked his pipe, and read the paper. They sat the dinner table and at their final meal together. Then they watched TV, he smoked some more, and went to bed. There were no screams or cries for help in the night. Mema awoke the next morning to prepare his coffee and fix his lunch when she found him in bed. A massive heart attack in his sleep. A respectful, clean, and appropriate end for a troubled but honorable man.

In his last years, Opa wasn't drinking any more. By the time I was born the factory was making use of his workaholic nature. This decision happened when Mema went in one day to tell the boss that it was the vacations that were killing her husband. She begged them to never let him have time off. The factory agreed. The vacations ended and the drinking dried up. Opa would work up to his last day. He seemed content when I last saw him. He had a well-paying job, benefits, a home, and a family.

Decades after Opa passed, I felt a curious enough to open his sealed bedroom. The door was stuck to frame and it took several knee jabs to get it open. When I walked inside I was hit with this deep, humid funk. The air was heavy and I felt dizzy. I knew I couldn't stay in the room that long. I gathered my senses and tried to take it all in in a quick gulp.

Stetson hat boxes, and clothes hung in the closet. The coffee-colored lamp and plain brown desk. His bed was still perfectly made and unchanged from the 1980s: caramel colored comforter, sharp tucking points, and two pillows positioned with hotel-like precision by Mema.  When I took another inhale I noticed that I wasn't coughing or sniffling. There was no dust. The detail and dedication which was taken to preserve the room in its original state stunned me. Not even a drawer was left open. His a-track cassettes were neatly organized in a box: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson.

I suddenly realized that they loved each other. There was still honor between them. Opa had served Mema by providing income and security. Mema was still serving him, keeping the room ready. This dark, cold strange annex was an altar in my grandmother's heart. Even after all these years she had been preserving this private room, wiping away the dust, and keeping it open to the light. Opa's death finally hit me and I grieved. Real unfiltered grief.  No one promised me an extra slice of cake or patted me on my head for my expression. I was ready and able to love him in the small private chamber my grandmother had preserved for her memories. It was a room of devotion.

To Opa and Mema: I am so sorry. I didn't knowing any better. But I was a child back then and just pretending. I'm a man now and I miss you so much.

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