I have one living biological grandparent.
That is all I have ever called him. I didn’t decide to call him that, my Mom, her Mom, and her siblings did. I don’t know when they decided to do that. I’m sure they must have called him Dad at one point. But for my entire lifetime, he has been Vince.
As a young child, I was completely unaware of his existence. I’m not sure when that changed. But when I was 16 years old I met Vince for the first time.
Meeting wasn’t his idea or mine. It wasn’t even my Mom’s idea. It was Uncle Dan & Aunt Barbara’s idea.
They tricked him.
His mother had been in a nursing home for many years. Dan & Barbara were daily visitors. But there came a point when they knew she didn’t have much time left. Dan insisted that Vince come and see his mother. It took some persistence, but finally, Vince and his wife Dena planned a trip to Spokane from California. Dan also insisted on taking Vince & Dena out to dinner one night while they were in Washington. What Vince did not know is that Dan & Barbara called my Mom and her siblings and told them that Vince wanted to see them all. They set up a family dinner at my Uncle’s home. The evening of the family dinner, all of us minus one cousin were gathered at my Uncle’s home. Dan & Barbara had Vince & Dena in the car and as they approached, Dan explained what was actually happening. Vince was shocked but had no graceful way out, and so for the first time in many, many years, Vince was with all of his children at the same time.
As a 16-year-old who had been shielded from basically all of the feelings of my Mom and her siblings towards Vince, I did not view this as an important moment. The only part of that evening I can recall in detail was the only moment I spoke with Vince. I had been playing the piano. As I finished and stood, there was Vince sitting in a chair near the piano. He said to me, “What is your name?” I answered and he asked, “And who is your parent?” I answered and felt more than a little bit of annoyance that he had no idea who I was. That was it. I answered and walked out of the room.
That was the entire extent of my experience with Vince, my grandfather, during my growing up years.
When I married my husband, my Mom insisted that we send Vince & Dena an announcement. I was ambivalent but complied. Vince & Dena sent me a gift. It was a precious moments figurine of a couple on their wedding day. I was not softened.
Almost ten years later I was copying VHS tapes of our family movies of that year for each of our grandparents. It was our Christmas gift. As I started the last tape I realized that I had another grandparent. It struck me that even though I viewed him as simply ‘Vince’, my mother’s biological father, I was 1/4th – him. And I didn’t know a thing about him. I made one more copy and sent that along with a handwritten letter explaining my a-ha moment and the fact that I knew nothing about him and I wanted to. I gave him my address, phone number, and email address along with the letter and 2 hour VHS of my children. That Christmas we were out of town visiting family. When we returned, there was a voicemail from Vince.
I bet I listened to that voicemail at least 20 times. I had reached out and asked for contact but I was nervous to call him back. Before I had worked up the courage to do so, he called again. I had caller id and knew it was him. I answered.
We talked. He shared that this has been hard for him – I never did clarify what was hard, my reaching out, or the separation from his children. He went on to share that the divorce had been hard. Seeing his children after the divorce had been hard – not the seeing them part, but the returning them part. Apparently, my Grandma made that moment very uncomfortable for everyone. There was a lot of strife. He slowly saw them less and less. His family was not happy about the divorce. But they were even more unhappy about his remarriage to Dena. They felt it was shameful that he married his sister’s divorced next door neighbor and worried what people would think. Vince was feeling pushed away by everyone. He got a job offer out of state and took it.
He ran away.
I can’t really blame the guy. He was young. Divorce was taboo. My Grandma was a fighter. His family was embarrassed. He ran away from his problems and created a new life.
He told me that he thought it would be better for his kids if he quietly stepped out of their life. What he said next was so sad. “I hoped that when they were old enough they would look me up. They never did.”
My letter and VHS opened old wounds. But it wasn’t all bad. We talked a few times on the phone. I learned a bit about him. He showed interest in me and my children.
And then my entire world imploded. I didn’t have the energy necessary to feed this newly formed relationship with Vince. I allowed it to wither away to a Christmas Card relationship. I didn’t know how to explain my sudden disappearance to him. So I didn’t. I sent Christmas Cards and other items of interest. He sent Christmas Cards as well. When my oldest graduated from High School, Vince sent a card and money order. My son thought I was crazy when I photographed his signature on the money order. But I had never seen his full signature before. And likely wouldn’t again.
Then sometime last year I decided I really wanted Vince to take a DNA test for me. I printed a very large fanchart for him. He was in the center. His mother’s lines look pretty good, but his father’s line is completely blank. I also printed my fanchart so he could see a comparison. I once again handwrote a letter asking if he would take a DNA test for me. I told him I would purchase it and send it to him. I mailed my package and waited. My Grandma asked me over and over again if he had agreed. It seemed like she was going to call him and give him an earful if he hadn’t and that seemed like a bad idea. It was only a few months later that my Grandma passed away.
I started thinking more and more about Vince. He was my only living biological grandparent. (Biological is an important distinction here because my Grandpa is very much alive.) I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I had only met him once. I felt this strong sense of urgency that I needed to see him and talk to him as an adult.
I mentioned what I was thinking to my Auntie V. She said, “Well, if you want to do that you better do it soon. I hear his health isn’t very good.”
I decided I needed to do it. What I couldn’t decide was if I should show up at his door unannounced or call ahead. Finally, I decided to call Aunt Barbara and ask her opinion. She thought I better call first. She said, “He’s not mean, he’s just absent.” She told me he would not make an appointment and then not be there (like his sister once did).
So I called. No answer. I left a message. I explained that I would be passing through and wondered if I could stop in for a brief visit. I told him I would call him back the next day. I did just that. He didn’t answer. I proceeded to call him back and got a busy signal. I called 21 times that day and only heard that annoying busy signal. I decided to quit trying to call. Showing up seemed best.
So last week, during Spring Break, I loaded my family up and we drove to the middle of California and stayed in a hotel in Vince’s town. The next morning we got up, packed the car and drove toward his home. Until we encountered the locked gate around his community.
I can’t adequately express what I felt as we sat in our car staring at that gate. I was so close! I had two DNA tests in my purse. I had a million questions. His house was mere feet from where I sat and I could not get to it.
Several cars came and drove through. I toyed with the idea of just following the next car. But I wasn’t sure what would happen.
I called Vince, again. He didn’t answer. Again.
We sat there.
And then a nice woman turned the corner of the sidewalk and was about to enter the neighborhood on foot. My husband got out of the car and talked to her. He explained that my grandfather lived behind the gate and we were trying to get in. She asked his name. After my husband’s reply she said, “Oh Vince, I know Vince. He is such a great guy!” I was already weirded out by my husband calling him my grandfather, but her response was even more difficult to reconcile. She said that she probably shouldn’t tell us this but if we went around to the front and typed in a specific code we could enter the neighborhood. So we did.
As we pulled up to Vince & Dena’s home, Vince was outside getting the mail. I hopped right out of my car and walked up to him. With a million complicated feelings going on inside of me, I offered my hand and said, “I’m Amberly”. He was quietly shocked. His ignoring me hadn’t worked. But as Aunt Barbara said, “He’s not mean, he’s just absent.” And so he let me and my family in.
For the first time in my life, I had a face to face conversation with my grandfather. A real conversation. Not just the exchange of a few words. And for the first and second time in my life, I hugged my grandfather. We weren’t good at it. But we hugged, twice.
We also talked. I didn’t tell him, but I recorded our hour-long visit. He shared a few stories. Answered a few questions. Showed me a few family treasures. And he took a picture with me and my children.
He would not take a DNA test for me. He wouldn’t even talk about it really. I could sense that it wasn’t worth pushing and so I let my long-sought dream slip through my fingers and I focused on what he would give me – a bit of his time, bits of information.
It was a really nice visit. Vince is very quiet. Very gentle. Very organized and orderly and clearly likes things to be neat and calm and peaceful. As I sat there I had to really concentrate to see that man I knew from old photographs. But he was there. His dark eyes were intently focused on me as we spoke. I knew with absolute certainty that there was no way he and my Grandma could have made their marriage work. They could not be more different. I also felt a sense that he and Dena had very carefully constructed their world to protect them from past hurts. And here I was opening old wounds. But he let me.
It took a lot of courage for me to fight my way to his doorstep. But I feel a sense of peace now that was worth every bit of my effort.
I will likely never see Vince again.
And that is okay.
I will probably still call him Vince. But describing him as my grandfather as I type is becoming less and less uncomfortable each time. I may always think of him as Vince, but after last week, I think I will be okay with also thinking of him as my grandfather.
The moment that will stay with me until I leave this life is the moment he spread his arm wide, inviting my teenager into his embrace for a photo. Vince squeezed and jostled my son a bit, just like my Uncle does. My son smiled. And then we all stood together for a few pictures.
I can’t possibly heal the deep wounds of the past. But last Tuesday I accomplished something that I hope will open a way for Vince’s posterity to know just a little bit about him. To think of him as more than just the man who left.
I hope I built a bridge of sorts.